Many lawyers work haphazardly without making a plan for themselves, and managing projects is a constant struggle. How can lawyers take back control of their time? In this episode of the State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast, hosts Tish Vincent and JoAnn Hathaway talk to Allison Shields about how lawyers can do more in less time. They discuss the importance of setting goals and avoiding the discouraging pitfall of creating never-ending to-do lists. Lawyers who learn to prioritize tasks and manage their activities can accomplish much more in a shorter amount of time. Allison also emphasizes the need for lawyers to stop overworking themselves and strategize ways to create a healthy work-life balance.
Allison Shields is president of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc. where she helps attorneys create highly effective law practices and get the clients they really want.
State Bar of Michigan_On Balance Podcast
Manage What You Do How Lawyers Can Accomplish More in Less Time
Intro: Welcome to State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management and lawyer wellness for a thriving law practice, with your hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent, here on Legal Talk Network.
Take it away, ladies.
Tish Vincent: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I am Tish Vincent.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I am JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Allison Shields, Attorney, Author and President of Legal Ease Consulting join us today as our podcast guest to talk about how to do more in less time. I would like to also let you know that Allison along with her co-author Dan Siegel have authored a book through the ABA Law Practice Division with the same title of this podcast “How to Do More in Less Time.” That can be found on the ABA Webstore and a link is also being shared via the show notes in this podcast.
So, Allison, would you share some information about yourself with our listeners?
Allison Shields: Sure. I am a lawyer by training. I no longer practice. I started legally as consulting to help lawyers with the business end of their practice. So that’s everything from how they market themselves, how they identify the right clients for them, how they attract those clients, and then how they serve those clients in terms of the running of their business. And one of the things that I do with my clients is what we are going to talk about today, which is trying to manage themselves and their activities better to get more done in less time.
Tish Vincent: What are the biggest mistakes you see lawyers making, when it comes to managing their time and activities effectively?
Allison Shields: Well, I think one of the problems is thinking that you can manage time. So we all have the same 24 hours in a day, and the same seven days in a week. And I think just one of the biggest mistakes is, is thinking that you are going to be able to manage your time as opposed to thinking about managing what you do with the amount of time that you are given?
So that being said I think some of the biggest mistakes I see lawyers making are, really working kind of haphazardly reacting to what’s in front of them instead of having a system or a strategy or a plan for themselves, and then getting stuck in the long never-ending ineffective to-do lists. And I find lawyers are not really good at managing themselves or managing new projects well. It’s just not a skill that we ever really learn and it’s certainly not something that’s taught in law school. So, we don’t manage our activities because we don’t know how to manage ourselves, and we don’t know how to manage our calendars effectively.
And then I think especially now, these days, lawyers don’t take enough advantage of opportunities that are out there to automate some of what they do, so that they can really focus on some of the softer skills and really serving clients, and doing the important things that they went to law school for.
JoAnn Hathaway: So, Allison, what would you say your best advice to help lawyers take that control of their day is instead of them just reacting or putting out fires?
Allison Shields: Well, I think one of the things I said before, it’s really about trying to set up a strategy or a system, and not letting yourself be hooked into reacting to what’s in front of you. So, I mean, it’s easy to get caught up in, oh, I have 500 emails in my Inbox and I am going to start reacting to or responding to emails, or I hear the phone ringing and so that means I automatically have to answer it regardless of what else I am doing, or somebody else in my office decides that it’s time for them to take a break so they are going to come in and interrupt me in my work, and what I am doing. And so just letting those outside priorities take precedents, I think is one of the biggest problems.
So the way to get around that is to take a step back and really set your own goals and priorities. And it amazes me when I work with lawyers or law firms when I sit down with them, and I talk about, okay, whether we are talking initially about a marketing initiative, or talking about getting more organized in their firm, or revamping their billing system, I will sit down and say, well, what are your goals for the year, for the firm, or for you individually as a lawyer, what are your three biggest priorities for this year? A lot of them don’t know the answer. They never sit down to set those goals to begin with; and so, if they are not doing that, it’s much easier to fall into the trap of reacting all the time.
So, I think that idea of setting priorities, defining what are those high value activities, what are the activities that only you as the lawyer or as the professional, as a person who is really servicing the client can do or that you have to do because you are the only one who can build for them, whom has the education, or the training to do them, and to focus on getting those things done, and then learning how to pass off the other work to whether it’s other people or to technology.
And really learning how to distinguish between and I am a big fan of Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ and his whole concept of importance versus urgency and figuring out what are the important tasks, and the urgent but not important tasks that we kind of fall into the trap of spending time on that we take a step back and understand that just because the phone is ringing or just because somebody sent me an email doesn’t necessarily mean that, that needs to become the first thing that I am doing. And I have already identified what my priorities are, and what’s most important, and I am going to focus on that before I let that “urgency” kind of take over.
Tish Vincent: So many of us fall into a trap of never ending to-do list, are there better ways to manage all of the tasks and projects you need to get done?
Allison Shields: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, I think all of us kind of get stuck in that trap, like you want to really capture everything that you have to get done. So, I think that in some ways you really need that to-do list, somehow it needs to be captured whether that’s in your case management system, or just for individual people may be it’s a to-do list or a task list, whether it’s written in hard copy or it’s in some kind of a digital format on the computer, you may want to capture everything in one place but to work off of that never-ending to-do list just doesn’t work.
And one of the reasons is, because if you are looking at one big long list, there’s no way to distinguish what the priority is. So having one big long list isn’t very helpful, and it becomes very overwhelming, because what happens with that list, even if you cross three things off you probably added five to the list. So it just gets very discouraging and overwhelming, and when you are working off of a big long list, it’s very difficult not to become discouraged and overwhelmed and say no matter I am not getting ahead.
So I like the idea of having a master project list or using your case management system to make sure that you’re actually capturing everything because you don’t want to fall into the opposite trap which is having no to-do list, and you are trying to keep everything in your brain that you have to get done, that doesn’t work either.
One of my favorite things to work with clients on is when I call the don’t-do list; instead of the to-do list, what’s your don’t-do list? So what does that mean? It means may be there are things that I have been doing for such a long time but I haven’t then reevaluated whether I still should be doing them, or whether it’s appropriate for me to pass those things onto somebody else.
And that doesn’t mean that you have to sit down and physically write out a don’t-do list, but it’s just the idea of thinking not just about what you have to do but also what can be eliminated or what doesn’t make sense anymore, may be the marketplace has changed, may be the way we work has changed, and so we were doing these 10 steps but now we only really need to do five, because the other five are not important.
One of the great things I like about the don’t-do list is thinking about, which clients should be on the don’t do list because you think about the Pareto principle and the 80/20 rule and 20% of your clients are probably bringing you 80% of your work, and the other 80% of your clients are only bringing 20% of your work. So, may be if we got rid of some of the clients that are sucking up resources but aren’t really bringing benefit to the firm, that’s a nice thing to don’t-do list. Or may be thinking about what kinds of clients that we shouldn’t take anymore, whether I don’t like doing this practice area anymore or I have learned that clients that come in with either these questions, or this attitude, or this way of looking at their matter, are not clients that I am going to work the best with.
Tish Vincent: Makes sense.
Allison Shields: And then I really like what I call the Power of Three, so I have my clients try to ask themselves everyday what three things can I do today so that if I get nothing else done if the world goes haywire and I only get three things done I will be able to feel when I leave the office like I had a productive day and that I accomplished something, and then to take those three tasks and focus on getting those tasks done first.
JoAnn Hathaway: I had a question for you, Allison, for the goals when you were talking about goals, and to-do lists and the Power of Three, just backing up a little bit with goals, I am also wondering, say if you are not a solo practitioner, if you are working in a department with several other lawyers, do you find that the sharing of information of each other’s goal is important so you are not working in silos and may be against each other? Does that ever come into play?
Allison Shields: Yeah, absolutely, I love that question. So, look, I think if you are in a law firm, that the firm should have goals. I mean, there should be some sort of a meeting whether it’s just with the management team or just the partners or maybe it’s all the lawyers especially in a smaller firm. A lot of times it doesn’t make sense to exclude associates even though they are not partners from the whole process of talking about where you want the firm to go, and what the firm’s goals are.
And then once you have that conversation, when each lawyer sets their own goals, those goals can be set in a way that also advances the goals of the firm, and once you talk about that then people can help one another and if they have similar goals then there are ways to work together to make each person’s goals much more and not only effective but the chances of accomplishing them are much higher, I mean, none of us — even if you are solo, none of us does anything really completely on our own.
And if you already have a team in place, why not take advantage of that team by working together and setting goals together that makes sense, and learning how you can help one another. Especially, if you have got a younger lawyer and they say, I want to learn how to bring in more business or one of my goals is to try my first case this year. Well, then you have got other lawyers in the firm who may be looking out for a case that this person could try or hey, I know you want to learn to bring in business, you want to start developing your own book of business, why don’t you come with me to this meeting so that you can see what I do; those kinds of things.
JoAnn Hathaway: A lot of lawyers brag about how much work they have to do, say for instance how late they are at the office or how often they are working on weekends, almost as if they are proud of being overwhelmed. I notice on your website called Lawyer Meltdown, one of your goals is to reduce lawyer burnouts, so what are your tips for that?
Allison Shields: So, to me it always bothers me when lawyers talk about how busy and overwhelmed they are as if it’s almost like a badge of honor, and it makes me sad and frustrated because I think that they are just harming themselves, and sometimes I think it’s masking some real big problems and it’s almost like they feel like they have to be overly busy or overworked, and really that’s not serving anybody, it’s not serving their clients well.
It’s kind of like that old adage about putting your own oxygen mask on first before you help anybody else. If you are not taking care of yourself and nurturing yourself and making sure that you are healthy and that you have healthy relationships outside of the office and all of those things which requires you to have down time and have some opportunity to relax and refresh and all of those good things, you are certainly not helping your friends, your family and you are obviously not helping your clients.
So this comes down to what I mentioned in the beginning about learning how to manage yourself, and how to manage projects, and again, a lot of these things, they are not things that we learn in law school. So I think a lot of times overwhelm and overwork is the result of bad habits that are developed because we don’t know any better and we didn’t learn some of these skills, and I work with a lot of my clients on this.
As a matter of fact I was working with a client on Thursday last week, and he said, I have no idea what like I never learned even how to work with a to-do list or how to prioritize these different projects, and now I am supposed to be managing other people in my firm because I have been recently elevated to partner and now I have got associates that I have to work with and I just don’t know how to do it.
So, I think one of the biggest tips that I have is to give up multi-tasking, so anybody that thinks that they are way overwhelmed, they talk about how great it is that they can do six things at once. And the truth is that if you are talking about anything that takes any kind of brain power, which is pretty much everything that you do in a law office, you’re just hurting yourself.
You can’t do two things at once. You can’t try to talk to the client on the phone and also be sending somebody else an email because somewhere that’s where something gets messed up. You are not really listening to what the client is telling you on the phone or you are not paying enough attention and that’s when the email gets sent to the wrong person, to the adversary instead of your client or whatever.
And there’s a great book on this called “The Myth of Multitasking” and I recommend to people all the time and it’s by a man by the name of David Crenshaw, and he says multitasking, there’s really no such thing. What you really doing is what he calls switch tasking, and this was the best explanation I ever heard for this. So basically you are just trying to rapidly switch back and forth between two different things. You are not actually doing two different things at once.
And there’s all kinds of studies and we talk about this in How to Do More in Less Time about how much longer it takes you to do something when you are multitasking and how much more prone to error you are when you are trying to multitask. And I think it really hurts relationships too because if you are the client on the other end of the phone, you know when that person on the other end of the phone isn’t paying attention, you can just tell, and then you have either try to fake it or you have to admit that you got distracted and you weren’t paying attention and none of that is really good for client relationships, and it’s certainly not good when you have to explain why the email went to your adversary with the trial strategy that was supposed to go the client or the witness or whatever.
And I think lawyers really need to learn better how to delegate, so I mean, we have like a whole chapter in the book on delegation and I think a lot of that comes down to not really giving great instructions to the person that you are delegating to or expecting way too much of the person that you are delegating to the first time that you give them anything to do. You hand it off and then it comes back and it’s not perfect and so you say, forget it, I am never giving them, I just have to do it myself.
Instead of really using it as a teaching opportunity and trying to find out why it went wrong and how to fix it, and how to teach the other person, how to do it the way that you want it done.
So a lot of that is not giving the right instructions or not making sure that the other person understood your instructions. I think there’s a lot of that when we try to delegate is that you forget what the other person doesn’t know. You don’t really necessarily know what they don’t know, and a lot of times when you are delegating, the person you are delegating to doesn’t want to admit that they don’t know what you are talking about or they don’t feel like it’s safe to ask a question and so they go off and try to figure it out themselves which oftentimes they can’t remind so they are not going to figure it out.
And I think sometimes we make mistakes in delegating in that, we think we are just going to pass it off, and it’s going to come back perfect instead of saying let’s set some milestones or some check-ins so that I can see if you are off-track the day before the project is due or the motion is supposed to be filed in court, and now I am staying up at night and I am really frustrated because I am doing it myself. I need to give you a little time to make corrections by having that check-in or those milestones.
And then I think a lot of times we don’t do a good job of evaluating and sharing what happened with the person that we’re delegating to. So we never go back and say you did this well, you didn’t do this well, or here’s how this contributed to the case that we’re handling instead of just giving them a project and then never coming back to them and say, hey, look what happened, we won the motion or the client was really happy, or this argument was very successful in court and this one may be not so much. And so, then we don’t understand why when we give them a project the second time, it’s not any better than the first time.
Tish Vincent: Interesting.
Allison Shields: Yeah. So, I think learning to delegate and learning to really prioritize and focus on one thing at a time and managing interruptions, which I could talk another half-hour about.
Tish Vincent: Let me interrupt you with one more question though. The law is so often a deadline-driven profession which puts a lot of pressure on lawyers. At the same time the work that doesn’t have a deadline often gets pushed to the back burner especially if that work is not billable, how do you recommend lawyers balance deadline-driven work with non-deadline-driven work or billable hours with non-billable hours work?
Allison Shields: Yeah, I mean, it’s tough to decide when you have two things that need to get done, or that you would like to get done. One of them you are going to get paid for and the other one you are not. It’s very easy to focus on the one that you are going to get paid for, but what happens sometimes is that you are sacrificing your long-term success for the short-term gain.
And so sometimes what happens when you — and sometimes it’s not even that. Sometimes there are both things that you are going to get paid but one of them has a hard-stop. You have to have this done because you are going to appear in court next Tuesday it’s going to get done before next Tuesday, whereas if it’s not such a deadline-driven task and you said you were going to get back to the client on something but it’s not tied to a specific date, that becomes difficult.
And so, what I try to help my clients with is what I call setting external deadline, so anything that doesn’t have a built-in deadline, you create a deadline for it and then you want to make it what I call external. So, what I mean by that is I could decide arbitrarily that I am going to have this project done by next Friday, but I am the only one who knows that and I am really good at cheating myself as opposed to cheating other people.
So if I make it an external deadline, so for example, if I tell the client I am going to have it to them by Friday, I am much more likely to meet that deadline because I don’t want to disappoint them. I am okay with disappointing myself but I don’t want to disappoint them. And if it’s something that’s really internal or it’s personal to you, then maybe you get a colleague or JoAnn was asking about setting goals; when you set goals together with other people on your team or in your firm then you can also help to hold each other accountable.
So you want to go one step further then just setting the goal and say, okay, well, how are we going to get there, what are we going to do, and what’s the deadline? So you said you wanted to start building more business so what are the things that need to be done? So by next week I want you to call x number of people or to set a coffee date with a potential client or to send a bunch of invitations on LinkedIn to expand your network, whatever it might be, but talking to somebody else about it and making the deadline external makes it much more likely that you are going to get it done.
I always say learn how to use your calendar effectively so we are good at putting the deadline on the calendar but we are not necessarily good at putting the work on the calendar like it has to be done by next Friday but when am I going to sit down — when do I have time in my schedule to sit down and actually work on it? And I think blocking that time and putting the actual work and not just the deadline on the calendar has been hugely helpful for a lot of my clients.
Tish Vincent: Interesting. It’s a good idea. Very good idea.
JoAnn Hathaway: Allison you had mentioned when talking about multitasking or as you indicated, Mr. Crenshaw calls Switch Tasking, which I found very interesting, but I know that the trend has been, not just recently but for a long time, that support staff is not necessarily a component of a law practice anymore. I mean, a lot of lawyers are expected to do their own typing and take on a lot of the administrative tasks that in the past they had support staff to do. Do you find that particularly for the older lawyers, or should I say, the seasoned lawyers that, that causes frustration and inability to get things done promptly and in good turnaround time?
Allison Shields: Yeah, absolutely because we don’t get that training in law school either. So the second-half of ‘How to Do More in Less Time’, the book, we have got — and I have to give Dan Siegel a ton of credit here because he did a lot of the work on the second-half of the book. We need to learn how to use our technology as effectively and efficiently as we possibly can and so with the reduction in support staff or clients who used to pay a paralegal rate for certain work to get done, refused to pay that, so that means the lawyer gets stuck doing it because I can’t afford to pay the paralegal, if I can’t bill for the paralegal. So there’s a lot of shortcuts and ways to do things more efficiently using that technology and it does get very frustrating for the practitioners.
As a matter of fact one of the projects I am working on right now is working with one of our local law schools here on Long Island to put together a technology training certificate program for practicing lawyers so that they can learn how to use the technology that’s out there and learn how to use it to automate some of these processes.
So, the great thing about the technology now is that some things that a support staff person used to do, now you can set things up using templates and using software, that almost with all this Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning that’s coming out now that it can do these — a lot of these processes for you, you just have to know how to use the technology.
JoAnn Hathaway: Excellent. Well, Allison, it looks like we have come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank you for a wonderful program.
Tish Vincent: Allison, if our guests would like to follow up with you, how can they reach you?
Allison Shields: Well, my email address is [email protected] You can also find, there’s a ton of resources and information on my website, which is lawyermeltdown.com and on my blog which is legaleaseconsulting.com.
Tish Vincent: Thank you Allison.
Allison Shields: Thank you.
Tish Vincent: This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I am JoAnn Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I am Tish Vincent. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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