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How Lawyers Can Do More in Less Time
Many lawyers work far more than 40 hours a week and still lack the time to work on firm marketing, practice management, and spending time with friends and family. Furthermore, with increases in technology, it seems as though lawyers should be more efficient, but this isn’t always the case. What are we doing wrong and what strategies can lawyers and other professionals use to increase productivity and free up more time?
In this episode of The Digital Edge, Sharon Nelson and Jim Calloway interview Allison Shields, co-author of “How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Improving Your Productivity and Increasing Your Bottom Line.” Allison discusses why she wrote the book, productivity mistakes lawyers often make, and specific suggestions she has for increasing time efficiency.
- Pressure among other lawyers to overwork
- How technology has affected client expectations
- Setting goals for overall firm success
- The mistake of trying to multi-task
- Clear steps to overcome the fear of delegation
- Effective calendar use
- Using technology properly
- How lawyers and professionals should approach Allison’s book
Allison Shields is the president of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., which provides marketing, practice management, and productivity coaching and consulting services for lawyers and law firms nationwide. She is also the executive director of the Suffolk Academy of Law, the educational arm of the Suffolk County Bar Association. She is a frequent lecturer and writes for numerous legal publications including the regular Simple Steps column for Law Practice Magazine.
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The Digital Edge: How Lawyers Can Do More in Less Time – 7/26/2015
Advertiser: Welcome to The Digital Edge with Sharon Nelson and Jim Calloway. Your hosts, both legal technologists, authors and lecturers, invite industry professionals to discuss a new topic related to lawyers and technology. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Sharon D. Nelson: Welcome to the 89th edition of The Digital Edge, lawyers and technology. We’re glad to have you with us. I’m Sharon Nelson, president of Sensei Enterprises.
Jim Calloway: And I’m Jim Calloway, director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance program. Today our topic is How Lawyers Can Do More in Less Time. Probably a dream of every lawyer, so I’m sure we’ll have a lot of interest in this. We are happy to welcome our good friend, Allison Shields. Allison is the president of Legal Ease Consulting, which provides marketing, practice management, and productivity coaching and consulting services for lawyers and law firms nationwide. She is also the executive director of the Suffolk Academy of Law, the educational arm of the Suffolk County Bar Association. She is a frequent lecturer and writes for numerous legal publications including her regular Simple Steps column for Law Practice Magazine. She is also the co author of How to do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Improving your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line with Daniel J. Siegel. more information can be obtained through her website, LawyerMeltdown.com, or her blog linked from that site. Thanks for joining us today, Allison.
Allison Shields: Thanks for having me Sharon and Jim, I’m looking forward to it.
Sharon Nelson: Well, Allison, let’s start by asking you, what prompted you to write this particular book and what are the major challenges do you think lawyers have that this book addresses?
Allison Shields: Well, you know, when I was practicing law, I was often struck by how often lawyers talked about their packed schedules and their crazy lives and a lot of them all seemed to look down on people who made time for family or hobbies or outside interests. It almost seemed to be like a contest to see who could prove that they were the busiest or have the most work to do. And I started seeing a lot of people leaving the practice or just not enjoying practicing law because they were so stressed out. And those same reasons sort of prompted me to start my consulting business to begin with. And then once I started the consulting practice, it seemed like no matter what problem my clients – who are all lawyers – brought to me, it always led back to an issue of how they were managing their activities and what they were doing on a day to day basis. And then on top of all that, with the increase in technology, you’ve got clients who are demanding more and more from lawyers. They’re demanding immediate responses and everybody expects everybody to be available all of the time. So the challenge is how to be more productive and keep your clients happy and meeting their needs and still enjoying both the practice of law and frankly the rest of your life.
Jim Calloway: Allison, I know you’ve discussed setting goals before. Does setting goals really make a difference to a person’s productivity? Are there some people who think all of the setting goals actually hinders productivity?
Allison Shields: Yeah, that was one of the interesting things when Dan and I actually sat down to write the book that we came up with when we were doing some of the background research. We cited a lot of studies in the book and we bumped up against some people who really were arguing that setting goals is counterproductive for a number of reasons including if you don’t reach those goals, you’ll get discouraged and you won’t make any progress. Or a hyper focus on goals may lead to focusing on one area and neglecting other things or it might even lead to unethical behavior for a goal as to have a certain number of billable hours or to make a certain amount of money. But to me, that sort of is an often off-track way of thinking about it. I think it’s still important for you to set goals – in part so that you put your priorities and your firm’s priorities first instead of always reacting, which is what a lot of lawyers do. They’re reacting to other people’s priorities and not necessarily to their own priorities. So I think goal setting is still important, as long as it’s done in context. So what’s the culture of your law firm, what are your values and keeping those things in mind. But it’s important to know really where you want to go so you can determine how you’re going to get there. If you don’t, then a lot of times you’re just going willy nilly here and there, you’re not accomplishing the things that you want to accomplish. And I think it’s also important to realize that failure is part of the process. You set goals, sometimes in part to see if they are actually realistic, or to see if you’re engaging your potential market correctly. And the failure may be as much a part of the learning process and the productivity process as actually reaching goals. You need to work some flexibility in there, but I think it’s important to have something to shoot for and to develop that plan for how you’re going to get there instead of just reacting all the time to what comes at you. And we’ve got all this stuff coming at us all the time between email, mail, and phone calls and things that other people want us to do. So I think setting that goal for where do I want to take my firm, what do I want to accomplish for my clients, those things are important ways to be more productive.
Sharon Nelson: I agree with you, Allison, and I think it’s important to even structure day by day so that you know where you’re supposed to be going and you’re not just willy nilly responding and a lot of lawyers don’t do that. So what kinds of strategies can they use to reduce the distraction and not be willy nilly everywhere?
Allison Shields: Well, we talk about a whole bunch of different strategies in the book, and distractions are a huge time waste. I mentioned a couple of them, but a big distraction is interruptions. You’re in the office and you’ve got a colleague who wants to ask you a question or you’ve got staff people who are lining up outside your door. So I think one of the ways to reduce distractions is to think about establishing times when it’s okay to interrupt you and when it isn’t okay to interrupt you. So to be realistic, you’re never going to get through an entire day without interruption, unless you go completely off the grid – which most of us can’t do on a regular basis. So it’s important sometimes to say okay, I need a focused block of time in order to get this particular task done or this piece of this task. So in those times, what things might you do? Maybe you put your phone on do not disturb or you close your office door. Maybe even have to leave your office entirely for a period of time. But to do that you’ll want to enlist the help of your staff and maybe sometimes even your clients. If you establish specific times when you know you also will be available. So not just blocking out the time when you’re not available, but letting people know when they can expect to reach you and when it’s okay to reach out to you. So letting clients know, this is generally when I return phone calls during day or at the end of the day, whatever time it might be. And you let your staff people know, these are the times when is the best time to reach me if you’ve got a question. If you’ve got staff members that you work with on a regular basis, a lot of times what I’ll recommend is a specific time every day – and maybe it’s twice a day, maybe it’s three times a day, where you check in. So they know they’ll have a time to ask you questions so they’re not interrupting you constantly. I find with a lot of lawyers, what happens is they’re so busy, they’re running around, they’re in court, they’ve got meetings or client appointments. So when the staff sees them and it doesn’t look like they’ve got anything else to do, they jump on you. Even if they don’t have a particular question at that point in time, they come in because they don’t know when they might see you again. And so when you establish with them a comfort level that I know that at 4 o’clock today, I have a meeting and I can ask whatever questions I need to ask or we can establish what priorities are or things like that. Email is a big distraction. So establishing when you’ll respond to email or even when you’ll check email throughout the day I think is a big one. We all tend to either constantly check or you’ll have those little email notifications that pop up. Those can be a huge distraction, and oftentimes you’ll get sucked in and end up wasting a lot of time with those distractions instead of focusing on your priorities and what you actually want to get done. There’s also shorter ways to strategize those time blocks. We talk in the book about the fifteen minute timer. So maybe you can’t block off an hour, but you can say for fifteen minutes, I’m going to start working on this task and make sure that I’m not interrupted for those fifteen minutes. Another huge distraction is just bad clients. If a lot of our lawyers were able to get rid of our bad clients, that would be one huge distraction that I think would be a welcome loss.
Sharon Nelson: That is true, I think we all agree with that.
Jim Calloway: But Allison, those people have more legal problems, that’s just natural.
Allison Shields: But they don’t have to be your legal problems too.
Sharon Nelson: Yeah, that’s why I have a little ceramic urn that says, “Ashes of Problem Clients.”
Jim Calloway: You keep that handy on your desk, I know. A lot of lawyers get involved in multitasking. I know sometimes I used to have correspondence handy to sign while I was waiting for the phone to ring or something. And a lot of lawyers do that but you recommend against that. Why do you say that, Allison?
Allison Shields: Yeah, well I think it’s a huge mistake to try to multitask. Unless you’re talking about the type of multitasking where you’re listening to music while you’re running on the treadmill or watching TV while you’re running on the treadmill. But anything that’s a task that requires the focus of your brain – which includes, in my mind at least, speaking to another human being. You can’t do two of those tasks at one time. And you know, that’s why you’re seeing more and more studies now even with driving, with distracting driving. Even if you’re on a bluetooth device and you’re not holding the phone, you can become distracted. You’re just not driving as well when you’re talking to somebody else as you would be if you were focused with your driving. And the same thing happens to us in our day to day work as lawyers. It’s very hard to resist the temptation to just do a quick email response while you’re on the phone with this other client. But the reality is that one of two things happens. Either you’re really focused on doing the email, and so you’re not listening to the client on the phone. And then the client realizes and then says something like, “Hey Jim, are you listening to me? Did you get that?” And then you have to pretend that you heard what they said or try to get them to repeat it. Or that’s the time when if you’re listening to the client and you’re trying to type the email but you sent the email to the wrong person and now you’ve got a big problem because you sent it to the adversary instead of who you were supposed to send it to. So this idea of multitasking is really just a myth. You’re not performing either one of the tasks that you’re doing to your best abilities, so it’s not an effective process and it’s not efficient either and we cite a bunch of these studies in the book. Studies have shown that you end up wasting more time when you’re trying to multitask, because now what happens, you’ve got to backpedal with the client on that phone call, convince them that you really were paying attention, or you’ve got to fix the email because you sent it with a whole bunch of spelling errors in it or you sent it to the wrong person. So its not efficient either, it’s not a way of getting things done faster, it’s actually taking you longer time. But I think the piece of multitasking that a lot of people miss is the damage that it does to relationships; that clients’ not happy when they don’t think that you’re paying attention to them on the phone. And the person that receive the email in error thinks that you’re really not paying attention. What kind of a lawyer could this be? He’s sending me this information in error, or look at all these spelling mistakes. It’s just not good for relationships. The same thing happens when somebody’s sitting in your office and you take a phone call. What does that do to the person who’s sitting in front of you and how does that make them feel? And we’ve all been on the receiving end of that too and you know how you feel when you can tell the person on the other end of the phone isn’t really paying attention to you. And so what’s the message that that sends to that person or to that client? Is it the message that you want to send about how attentive an attorney you are or how proficient you are? Probably not.
Sharon Nelson: Probably not indeed. But I agree with you, people do tend to think they can multitask but science tells us, like you said, it’s a myth. The other thing that they don’t do that I don’t understand because I do so much of it, is delegate. And yet, lawyers seem to be hesitant to do that. Why do you think that they are that hesitant and how can they overcome that tendency?
Allison Shields: Well I think it’s really a combination of two things. I think lawyers tend to be perfectionists and I also think impatience, so perfectionism and impatience I think combined. What happens is a lot of times lawyers will delegate and they expect it to come back perfect the first time because they want it to be done either the way they do it and they think they do everything perfectly or they’re just not realizing what the other person that they’re delegating to doesn’t know. And then the impatience falls into it because they’re not necessarily willing to invest the time to train that person to do things the way they want the to do it or to show them where their mistakes were and what needs to be corrected. But also impatience because a lot of times, lawyers don’t make delegation a habit and so when they do finally delegate, it’s when they’re completely buried and the work needs to be done right away. So when it comes back and it’s not perfect, instead of having a conversation with a person that it was delegated to and showing them what needs to be done to do it better the next time or a letting them fix it this time, they just say, “Oh, forget it. See? I can’t delegate, this person doesn’t know what they’re doing. I’m just going to do it myself.” They’re not necessarily investing in the long term benefit because the work needs to get done so fast. And so I think that’s where the reluctance to delegate comes in. And you know, there may be also a piece of it that if I give this away and I’m not so busy, maybe I’m not as valuable. But I don’t think that’s the biggest piece. And I think that if lawyers delegate strategically and do it more often, you’ll eliminate or at least reduce those two issues. And so in the book in terms of overcoming it, we talk about 5 keys to delegation. The first one is clear comprehensive instructions. So maybe it doesn’t come back the way you wanted it to because you really didn’t explain exactly what you needed and you didn’t realize what the person you were delegating to doesn’t know that you know. The second one is to ensure that you’re understood. Let the other person tell you in their own words what the assignment is instead of just giving them the assignment and saying, “Okay, do you get it?” Then the other person is almost always going to say, “Oh, yeah. I get it.” Because they don’t want you to think they’re stupid and that you didn’t understand them. So that’s making sure that you’re actually understood. And then the third key is setting a deadline and establishing a priority. Let the person know how important is this compared to other things you’ve given them to do, or maybe other things other people have given them to do, and when do you expect it to come back to you. In this next step, number four, is something that maybe you don’t have to do all the time and maybe you don’t have to do it with everybody you delegate to, but if it’s somebody new or if it’s a new type of project, you might want to check in. A lot of times, that piece comes back to us because we didn’t check in. We could have halted it earlier on in the process. So either establish a time or a place in the task where you want the other person to check back in with you to make sure that they’re on track or you do it yourself. So that before it gets way out of hand, you can pull them back and you can figure out where all the miscommunication was or what’s changed that might get it back on track.
Sharon Nelson: Well that sounds like good advice. I think we’re at the point now where we have to take a commercial break and then we’ll be right back with you.
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Sharon D. Nelson: Welcome back to The Digital Edge on The Legal Talk Network. Today, our subject is How Lawyers Can do More in Less Time, and our guest is Allison Shields, the president of Legal Ease Consulting, which provides marketing, practice management, and productivity coaching and consulting services for lawyers and law firms nationwide.
Jim Calloway: Allison, lawyers live by their calendars. How can they use their calendars more effectively?
Allison Shields: Well, I agree with you, they live by their calendars and I think they should. Your calendar’s really one of the most useful productivity tools that you have. But oftentimes, lawyers use it just for deadlines and appointments, and I think to use it more effectively, you also want to use it for blocking out time to actually get the work done. So it’s great to say that this brief is due next Tuesday or I have a client meeting tomorrow. But there are certain tasks that need to be done in order for the brief to get filed or for you to have an effective meeting with the client. So if you also use your calendar to block out the time on a daily, weekly, potentially a monthly basis, to say, “Okay, I need to spend two hours with the Jones file before Mr. Jones comes in tomorrow. When can I do that?” I think that really brings the use of your calendar to the next level.
Sharon Nelson: How about technology? It has changed so rapidly in the practice of law. How does that play a role in improving productivity?
Allison Shields: Well, I think it plays a role in improving productivity, but it also can be a stress on productivity because there are so many tools available that everybody expects the lawyer to be available all of the time. And so to make technology be a help instead of a hinderance in improving productivity, I think the key is learning how to use your technology properly. A lot of us get these gadgets or we have software programs but we never get trained how to use them. And so if your law firm isn’t training you or somebody else isn’t providing the training, I think a key thing for you to do is get training yourself. And the whole second half of our book has a lot of productivity tips in it, specifically related to the technology lawyers use every single day and how they can maximize those software programs that we’re using day in and day out but not necessarily using effectively because we all kind of taught ourselves how to use them.
Jim Calloway: What is your favorite productivity tip in the book?
Allison Shields: That is a really tough question and I think every time somebody asks me, it changes. But today, I think my favorite tip is what I call the power of three. Oftentimes we get overwhelmed and we’re not productive because we have a to do list that is not only the length of our arm, but goes out the door and down the street, it’s so long. And so I think by focusing on three things at a time, three is a manageable number, and it makes us feel more productive and we can actually get more done by saying what are the three most important things that I need to do today. And if I get these three things done and everything else explodes or your hard drive crashes, you’ll still feel like you had a successful, productive day.
Sharon Nelson: We should tell the audience that your hard drive did just crash before we started the podcast, so Allison’s a champ to be here with us. Allison, how would you recommend that somebody read the book to get the most out of it? Would you read it cover to cover or some other fashion?
Allison Shields: I don’t think this is really a cover to cover type book. What I like to tell people is to really look at the table of contents, which I know some people never do. But each chapter is kind of its own strategy and so I like for people to look at the table of contents and say, “Where am I having a huge problem? Is meetings a big issue for me and my law firm and am I running meetings that I feel like they’re supposed to be half an hour and they’re three hours long?” Or, “Hey, I really want to learn how to get control of my email.” Or, “I want to look at how to use Microsoft Word better, let me just jump into the Microsoft Word tips.” So that’s how I would do it, I would take a little chunk at a time. There may be a couple of chapters that follow one after another, but for the most part, I say pick something where you feel like either you can make the most progress or you’re having the biggest challenge and jump into that chapter.
Jim Calloway: And where can our listeners get your book?
Allison Shields: Well, it’s available on ShopABA.org and you can just search, “How to do More in Less Time.”
Sharon Nelson: Well, that’s a very quick answer to that question. And I must say that you and Dan are also doing a number of CLEs. So can people find out about the CLEs you’re doing with relation to this book? Where would they find that?
Allison Shields: Yes, as a matter of fact, I’m glad that you mentioned that Sharon because we do have a program coming up on the 14th of July and when I did the Shop ABA test to search to make sure that the book would come up. When you do that, search on ShopABA.org, not only does the book come up but the CLEs come up as well.
Sharon Nelson: So the people want to make sure that they have an opportunity to see that CLE, attend that webinar. And if you don’t catch it on the 14th, it will be available on demand. So make sure you catch Allison and Dan, because they’re fantastic on this subject. Allison, we want to thank you so much for being such a trooper after a hard drive crash. You sounded perfectly rational and happy during the podcast. That’s no small feat when your hard drive has crashed, and thank you for your expertise, because I think your book is really helpful to a lot of people who find that this new world of technology and the continuing increase in distractions, they don’t really know how to handle it and I think your book is very valuable to them. Thanks for joining us today.
Allison Shields: Thanks so much, Jim and Sharon.
Sharon D. Nelson: And that does it for this edition of The Digital Edge, lawyers and technology; and remember, you can subscribe to all the editions of this podcast at LegalTalkNetwork.com, or on iTunes. And if you enjoyed our podcast, please rate us on iTunes.
Jim Calloway: Thanks for joining us. Goodbye Ms. Sharon.
Sharon D. Nelson: Happy trails, cowboy.
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