Attorney depression

One of the interesting things about blogging on WordPress (and, I presume, other platforms) is that my nifty stats area shows what search terms lead readers to my blog.  Sometimes it’s clear how someone followed the trail to get here, and sometimes I couldn’t be more puzzled.

I had not expected to have one of two search phrases show up on a daily basis: “attorney depression” or lawyer depression.  But these search phrases have been listed daily for well over a month now.  Unless there’s one exceedingly persistent, unhappy lawyer out there — and even if that is the case — this is a troubling discovery for me.

(As I’ve said in my previous post on depression in lawyers, I am not a mental health professional and I am not qualified to provide therapy.  If you need help, please contact your state’s lawyer assistance program.)

Out of curiosity, I ran these searches today and found mostly articles and blogs that I’ve previously cited or reviewed.  But I found a new-to-me 1999 Notre Dame Magazine article by now-U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz (no longer available), in which he examines the evidence that lawyers are unhappy and unhealthy.  He concludes, “Theres no mystery about why lawyers are so unhappy: They work too much.”  (Some readers may remember a previous post that discussed another Judge Schiltz article that postulated that lawyers in private practice are all too easily tempted by a firm’s money-driven culture to engage in unethical practices. Apparently, Judge Schiltz has authored a number of articles in this theme, judging from the number of responses published in 1999 to a previous article.)

Does the cause of lawyers’ depression really come back so neatly to working too much?  I doubt it.  (However, the connection between lifestyle and depression does add another facet to work/life balance discussions.)  Perhaps that’s one part of the equation, but another part is likely that law school and the practice attracts some people who are prone to depression, and another part is that some lawyers who consider leaving the practice anticipate and dread an economic hit, deeming it unacceptable. Ray Ward’s Minor Wisdom blog includes an interesting array of posts on lawyer/law student depression, some of which may cast additional light on the causes.

Particularly because I now know that people have visited this blog because they’re interested in depression among lawyers, I’d really like to present an answer to what explains the unusually high rate of depression in attorneys.  But I can’t.  What I have learned, and what I’d like to pass on, is that depression is not uncommon in lawyers and it is treatable.  Recognize the symptoms and be prepared to seek help for yourself or for a colleague.  Please.

More on work/life balance… Is it just a fad?

I’ve run across two interesting blog posts recently that cast work/life balance as a fad or misnomer rather than as something that’s important to lawyers.

First, a recent post (no longer available) on Bruce MacEwen’s Adam Smith, Esq. blog quotes a 10-year old McKinsey study that places “acceptable pace and stress” as an important contributor to job satisfaction for only 1% of executives.  Here are the full stats cited for important contributors:

* firm’s values and culture (58%)
* freedom and autonomy (56%)
* exciting challenges (51%)
* a well-managed firm (50%)
* career advancement and growth (39%)
* respect for lifestyle (14%)
* job security (8%)
* acceptable pace and stress (1%)

Relying on these statistics, MacEwen disputes the conclusion of a Legal Week article (no longer available) that calls for firms to “[e]xplor[e] more flexible career options, develop[] lawyers and their capabilities and help[] them find the best way to make a full contribution to the firm that is in line with their broader lifestyle aspirations,” arguing that “flexibility and lifestyle are almost below the horizon.”

And then I found a post on Tom Collins’ MorePartnerIncome.com blog that argues that, “The Work/Life Balance Issue Continues to Damage the Legal Profession.” (no longer available) Collins’ post appears to have been triggered largely by the discussion resulting from blogger Denise Howell’s firing by Reed Shaw (for more on that story, see Howell’s post, Carolyn Elefant’s post, or any of the host of others that covered the firing that echoed around the blawg world) and thus seems to center on the need for a viable approach to “new mother issues” as opposed to questioning work/life balance more generally.  Without challenging any of Collins’ thoughts on the issues surrounding new mothers (notably, I must add, new mothers and not new parents, despite a comment that a lawyer who returns to practice after an absence cannot assume the seniority they would have had without the absence, regardless of gender), the following paragraphs struck me:

As it is at present, the “in” thing to do in media and among consultants, conference faculty, etc., is to portray the life of the attorney as an abandonment of family, friends, fun, and civic and religious obligations.  At the same time, we note and report the importance that all those facets of life have played for the successful professional in relationship building and rainmaking. 

The success of any “service” business or profession is measured by its service to others.  Client interest comes before self-interest.  That is why we call it a “service”.  The legal profession recognizes the service aspect in spades, charging you with the professional obligation to honor, at your own expense if necessary, the paramount interest of the client.

Successful service professionals, business executives, doctors, and investment bankers all find a way to have family, friends, and fun while also participating in civic and religious affairs.  Lawyering is no different from any of the above—lawyers do not carry a greater burden. Let’s stop pretending that they do.

Let’s turn this conversation around. On the one hand, let’s deal with the child raising years of lawyer-mothers; and on the other hand, let’s start celebrating the benefits of lawyering, including the satisfaction of service to others—of upholding “truth, justice and the American Way!”

It seems to me that when work/life balance is discussed, the conversation is very often preceded by an internal eye-rolling, a deep sigh, and the thought, “here we go again, another lawyer who isn’t willing to work hard and who just wants a free and easy ride to the good life.”  I think that attitude sells everyone short — the lawyers, the firms, and the clients.

Work/life balance, to my mind, is all about finding the balance that will work for each lawyer, finding (or creating) the firm or practice structure that will support that balance, and serving clients well and fully within the context of that balance.  “Balance” doesn’t necessarily mean that work takes on less importance or less time; it simply means that whereas one lawyer may be willing to work 80 hours a week, another is willing to work 60, and another is willing to work 40, and it’s necessary for those lawyers to speak up and find the practice setting that will support their aims.  That doesn’t mean they will work in the same firm, necessarily, nor does it mean they’ll have the same practices or the same financial rewards.  What it does mean is that the lawyer who is willing to work 40 hours shouldn’t put himself in a position that requires 80 hours — and vice versa.  And it also means that each of those lawyers needs to find a practice home that supports the hours he is willing to work.

We all make compromises daily.  Work/life balance calls for knowing and voluntary compromise, whether it’s choosing to be the lawyer who works 10+ hours every day of the week, choosing to set working hours as 5 AM to 4 PM and then 9 to 11 PM so that the hours between 4 and 9 are free for family, or choosing to practice law “part-time” — 35 or 40 hours a week — because other interests take higher priority.  Good lawyers, regardless of the hours they work, will always focus on client service and thus will put client needs ahead of their own when necessary, so long as the overall structure of their professional lives are suitable.  Client service need not, and must not, suffer because of work/life balance.

Nor should we regard work/life balance as being the ultimate measure of practice.  Of course other factors will matter.  But for lawyers, it has been, and perhaps still is, much more “politically correct” to desire those other factors — interesting work, advancing responsibility, increasing client contact, etc. — than to desire balance in the form of reduced or time-shifted working hours. The current attention to work/life balance makes the topic permissible to raise.

Bottom line… I do not think work/life balance is just a fad, nor do I think it signals a decline in lawyer commitment to practice or to client service.  I think it’s a call for more transparency in practice expectations on the part of both lawyers and their law firms, and a call for lawyers to pay closer attention to what they want in their careers and in their lives.

This quote sums it up, in my view — albeit in a most un-lawyerlike way:  “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘WOW, what a ride!'”  The question, then, is what kind of ride will make your life satisfying?  Figure out the answer, and then figure out a way to get it.  That’s work/life balance in a nutshell.

Good use of time or double billing?

It’s probably no secret to those of you who read my blog on even a semi-regular basis that I enjoy the WSJ.com Law blog.  Interesting info, with generally good comments.  And that’s where I found the grist for today’s post.

Yesterday, the Law Blog posed the following hypothetical (subscription required):

You are taking a three-hour plane trip from Miami to New York to conduct a deposition in a matter involving client A. While on the plane, you spend the whole trip reviewing materials for a brief you will be filing for client B the following week. You normally bill clients for your time spent traveling on their behalf.

Can you bill each client for three hours?

Sixty-five comments later (which ranged from “Nope” to “We miss the days of the Concorde when you really could have a shot a billing more than 24 hours in a day”), the Law blog posted the answer, drawing on Formal Opinion 93-379 drafted by the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility:

The answer: No, say rulings from national and local bar committees. Formal Opinion 93-379 from the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility addresses the hypothetical:

. . . it is helpful to consider these questions, not from the perspective of what a client could be forced to pay, but rather from the perspective of what the lawyer actually earned. . . . A lawyer who flies for six hours for one client, while working for five hours on behalf of another, has not earned eleven billable hours. . . . Rather than looking to profit from . . . the desire to get work done rather than watch a movie . . . the lawyer who has agreed to bill solely on the basis of time spent is obliged to pass the benefits of these economies on to the client. The practice of billing several clients for the same time or work product, since it results in the earning of an unreasonable fee, therefore is contrary to the mandate of the Model Rules.

State bar ethics committees have also issued similar rules. For instance, the Alaska Bar Association issued the following:

For example, a lawyer spends 3 hours traveling to attend a deposition in Seattle. If the lawyer decides to spend the time on the airplane drafting a motion for a different client, he or she may not charge both clients, each of whom agreed to hourly billing, for the time during which he was traveling on behalf of one client, but drafting a document on behalf of another. The lawyer has not earned 6 billable hours. . . . In summary, where the client has agreed to pay the lawyer on an hourly basis, the economies associated with a lawyer’s efficient use of time must benefit the client rather than giving the lawyer an opportunity to charge a client for phantom hours.

While the hypothetical is interesting (and a good example of the ethical issues that will confront lawyers almost as soon as they enter practice), what I find fascinating is the debate that the question raised.  Some of the comments are clearly tongue-in-cheek… And I’ll resist the strong temptation to remark on the wisdom of posting an intricate and, as far as I’m aware, utterly unfounded (though breathtaking) comment with one’s name, school, and class year attached.

Most firms do strive to acquaint both clients and lawyers with their policies about billing for travel.  That’s one of the fee provisions that clients frequently challenge, and this hypothethical illustrates the reason.  Clients would be horrified to learn that they paid for a lawyer’s time when the lawyer actually used that time to further another client’s business, just as I suspect most client would be horrified to pay in the hundreds of dollars an hour for a lawyer to sleep, watch a movie, or get drunk, even if those activities occur while the lawyer is on the way to the location for business on behalf of the client.  I suppose it’s possible to come up with a range of justifications for the hypothetical double billing — some of the comments attempted to do so — but looking from the perspective of the client, justification is not possible.  And I would be curious to see how a lawyer would explain to his or her two clients that the block of time billed to Client A was also billed to Client B.

When people ask what I do, I tell them that part of what I do is to coach law firm associates on building profitable practices based on client service and integrity.  Using client service and integrity as the measuring stick, isn’t the answer to this hypothetical clear?

Can associates engage in client development?

One of the most challenging parts of practice is figuring out the business end of being a lawyer.  In a midsized or larger firm, that usually boils down primarily to client development.  And associates frequently view client development as an activity for partners and senior associates.  It’s pretty common to hear more junior lawyers saying earnestly that they’re just there to do the work and that it’s up to the firm to land the clients.  It’s an understandable mistake… But it is a mistake.

From the firm’s perspective, worker bees are rather fungible.  Sure, it’s easier for firms to hang onto the associates who know the clients, know how the partners operate, have already hit the crest of the learning curve.  But for every worker associate in a firm, many others are available on the market.  Legal proficiency, reliability, client service skills, integrity, and a sufficiently pleasant personality are basic requirements for most firms (though perhaps we can argue about acceptance of personality quriks)… But what makes an associate truly valuable is the ability to contribute something above and beyond ordinary work.  An associate who adds substantially to client satisfaction by becoming the client’s go-to person is useful.  An associate who brings in new clients is worth her weight in gold.

This month’s ABA Journal features an article that’s subtitled, “Associates Can Contribute More to Client Development Than They May Think.”  (Regrettably, this article isn’t available online… So trot out and get yourself a copy of the July 2006 ABA Journal.  You’ll find the article on page 26.)

The article quotes Hughes & Luce chief marketing officer Rick Davis describing associates as the firm’s “secret weapon,” able to harness their flexible, energetic attitude and their contacts with lower-level corporate employees to get the inside track for presenting a business proposal. The traditional client pitch is made by partners who focus on themselves, their past successes, other lawyers in the firm, and their familiarity with the area of law at issue.  Using knowledge about the prospective client mined by associates prepared to make the most of their contact with the client’s employees allows the firm to target the pitch to the prospective client and to make the client’s needs the center of the pitch.  To prospective clients, legal proficiency, reliability, client service skills, and integrity are basic requirements (this should sound familiar….) and lawyers/firms who actually care enough to understand the client’s needs, who communicate effectively with the client, and who offer value are worth their weight in gold.  Nearly 70% of clients are dissatisfied with their lawyers.  That’s a tremendous opportunity.

So, what’s an associate to do?  Network.  When you meet someone who’s an employee of a potential client, develop that contact into a relationship.  (Be aware of what kind of companies are potential clients by knowing both the scope of your firm’s practice and who engages in various areas of practice.)  Business rarely, if ever, results from a single, shallow contact, so it’s important to follow up.  Send articles that would interest your contact, invite him to lunch or a ball game, look for ways to be helpful.  And be sure to put the focus on the potential client so you can learn important information such as how the company operates, what it needs, and the identity of key decision-makers.

Although an associate generally lacks the track record necessary to present the traditional lawyer/firm-focused client pitch, sheer likeability and common sense can carry the conversation a long way.  Do find lawyers who can mentor you in client development — at least one of whom should work at your firm so she can guide you on the firm’s policies for client development and so you’ll have someone to ask about ethical boundaries in business development.  And strategize how you’re going to identify and approach the potential clients you encounter.  As the saying goes, chance favors the prepared mind — but don’t leave your contacts to chance.

Remembering the bar exam and considering your own life at the bar.

For most of the people in the United States, today is just Monday, July 24.  But for thousands of would-be practitioners, today is something far more sinister: the day before the bar exam.

Assuming you’re a member of the group sitting on the other side of the bar, the Promised Land of Practice, the bar is just a distant bad memory.  (Not distant enough for some of us; though I took my first bar exam over 13 years ago, my most recent — dare I say last? — was just one year ago.  Not distant enough.)

And what of the Promised Land of Practice?  How’s that treating you?  This is a good time of year to get back in touch with what brought you to a legal practice.  Remember being that kid, with a head crammed full of black letter law, not to mention plenty of bar review lore?  Why did you put yourself through two (or, in some states, three) days of agony?  Did you want to be a big-time litigator?  Did you want to help victims of domestic violence?  Did you plan to set the world on fire with your legal scholarship, after serving a few years in a law firm?

And where are you now?  Are those dreams still alive?  Granted that you’ve learned a huge amount since you took the bar and perhaps changed your goals; are you expressing the values that made you willing to endure that grueling experience?

If not, you aren’t alone.  What one change can you make today that will bring you additional satisfaction?  Some ideas: improving your client development skills so you can move closer to your dream of making partner; committing to attending NITA training so your next trial may run more smoothly; working on time management; perhaps making a job or career change to build a work life that works for you.  Sometimes it takes only small changes to reap big results, something as simple as deciding to go to the gym before work so you build more stamina.  Sometimes it’s making a short-term sacrifice, like deciding to volunteer for the big case that no one else wants to work on so you can get two years of experience crammed into nine harried months.

While you’re at it…. Can you still quote the Rule in Shelley’s case?

The top 5 ways to manage stress in the office

You’re probably running all day, trying to handle conflicting requests from multiple clients, colleagues, and/or opposing counsel, managing staff, facing deadlines, and hoping to maintain your personal life, perhaps wanting to address family needs as well.  Law practice is a breeding ground for stress.  And we’ve all had days that just start off wrong — the alarm doesn’t go off, your coffee cup explodes in the microwave, you spill breakfast down your last clean shirt; you get to the office only to find that your secretary is in a vile mood and you have 25 new emails and 15 new voicemails, all wanting immediate activity.  As the day marches on, you begin to feel that you’re living the lawyer’s version of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

How do you handle that kind of stress?  Hint: you may feel stress, but you don’t have to marinate in it.

Many activities are helpful in minimizing stress — time management, strong organizational skills, adequate sleep, good nutrition, etc.  But these activities help only prospectively.  They aren’t rescue tools when stress kicks up.

When a stressful moment arises, whether it’s a deadline, discovery of a mistake, trial preparation, or simply having too much work and not enough day, many techniques are useful to reduce stress.  I’m going to focus on the top 5 tactics here.

1.  Breathe.  Stress is a by-product of the “fight or flight” response, which is a biologically-driven response to a perceived danger signal.  The “fight or flight” response causes the body to make certain physiological adjustments, including tightening muscles and increasing the rate of heartbeat and breathing, so that our bodies are ready to fight off the danger or to run away from it.  The stress we feel is a consequence of this response, which is well designed to help us survive if we spot a tiger but not so well designed to help us cope with a pressing deadline — there’s nothing in a deadline to fight or to run from.  Engaging in deep breathing can interrupt the “fight or flight” response by relaxing the body and releasing stress so we can do the necessary tasks to face the more “civilized” threats that we tend to face today.  The quickest way to release tension is to take deep breaths that fully inflate your lungs and provide your body with sufficient oxygen, alternating with slow exhalations.  Try breathing in and out to a count of 7.

2.  Move.  It’s important to get up and walk around when you’re feeling stressed.  Two reasons for this: first, it allows you an opportunity to release some of the tension in your muscles, and second, moving allows you to shift your perspective in a tangible way.  Make sure you get up and walk around at least every other hour.

3.  Relaxation exercise.  Find an audio guided visualization or develop a meditation practice.  It only takes 5 or 10 minutes to feel relaxed once you’ve become accustomed to the relaxation process.  You can close your office door, pop in a CD or turn on your iPod, sit comfortably in your chair, and relax.  A good resource for short meditations is Meditative Moments, which offers a free daily meditation that takes less than 3 minutes or so to play.

4.  Anger release plus frame shift.  This is my favorite way to move through stress based on anger and frustration.  Go somewhere private (a parked car is a good place) and allow yourself 2 minutes to rant about whatever is making you angry.  Begin with a cadence:  “I am angry, I am angry, I am angry because…” and just let loose for 2 minutes.  The idea here is to release the anger in a safe place (i.e., somewhere that won’t create negative repercussions).  DO NOT do this in your office.  Following your anger release, shift your perspective by moving to gratitude instead, beginning again with the cadence, “I am grateful, I am grateful, I am grateful because…”

5.  Laugh.  Yes, it’s hard to do when you’re in the moment of stress.  But make time to watch a funny movie, read a funny book, or listen to a comedy performance that makes you laugh.  You might even want to keep a list of things that make you laugh (such as a TV series, a great website, a friend who always makes you laugh, etc.) so you don’t have to think it through when you need to laugh.  You might even try to take a humorous look at what’s causing you stress and see whether you can reframe the situation in a way that allows you to find the comedy.  Getting a guffaw going can take as little as 5 or 10 minutes, and you’ll feel like a new person.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to avoid stress.  These tactics will allow you to perform emergency stress reduction, but you must also be aware when you’re beginning to feel stressed.  Do a self-check periodically (when you get up and move, for instance) so you can notice stress build-up so you can take these stress reduction steps before the stress level becomes unmanageable.

New lawyer skill focus: How to deliver bad news.

This is one of the most challenging communications issues that new lawyers face — really, that any of us face.  Something has gone wrong, there’s an adverse ruling, or someone made a mistake.  How do you deliver that news?

Whether you need to inform the client or a more senior lawyer, the process is largely the same.  (Why?  Because every other lawyer in your firm is your internal client.  More on this another day.)  For ease of reference, I’ll write about this process as an attorney-client communication.

  1. Let your client know you have something to discuss and ask for the amount of time you expect the conversation to require.  In other words, don’t call and let the news dribble out while your client is checking her watch and needing to get to another meeting.  Elementary, but critical: “Is this a good time to talk?  I’ll need about 10 minutes of your attention.”
  2. Provide any necessary background.  For instance, “Stan, you probably remember that we filed a motion to compel a few weeks ago so we can get documents about XYZ Corp.’s finances.”  If there’s any confusion about the background, explain.
  3. Spit out the news you need to convey.  “Stan, the judge has ruled against us.”
  4. Explain what the news means.  This is, of course, the crux of the conversation.  Two things may happen after you spill the news, depending on the magnitude of the news: either the client will be silent and wait for you to explain, or she may be angry.  (Frankly, the former may be more difficult to handle.)  Unless you (or the firm) made a mistake, do not apologize.  Do empathize.
  5. If there’s a solution needed, or if logical next steps exist, explain what they are.  Can you move to reconsider?  Knowing your judge as you do (and you do, if only by reputation, don’t you?) would you recommend such a motion?  How can you accomplish damage control?  This is the most important skill in transmitting bad news, in my opinion, because it’s most often overlooked.  Things do go wrong, but when they do, you want to be the person who has options to suggest.  Be sure you’ve thought through what you’re proposing, because you’ll lose credit for any “solution” you put forward that may create additional problems, unless you’ve thought them through and have a credible risk/reward explanation.

Be sure to deliver the news as soon as possible, because bad news does not improve with age — and you’ll likely just get more and more nervous.  And finally, tempting though it may be, don’t try to cover up bad news.  Unless you can solve it (and almost without exception, even if you can) your client deserves to know what’s happened.  This is an integrity issue; it also guards your reputation.  Fail to share the news you should, and it will destroy trust.

Most of all, remember to keep breathing.  You’ll probably have some really bad news to deliver in your time, and keeping it in perspective is useful.  Learning from your mistakes is imperative.  Depending on the magnitude, almost everyone will forgive one mistake.

But in law, two strikes likely means you’re out.�

Fun Monday

Is “Fun Monday” an oxymoron?  Thought I’d share some humor today… Most of us can use it on Mondays:

Legal Humour is just what it says — good legal humor, no lawyer jokes.

Law Ha-Ha is Andrew McClurg’s brainchild.  Love it.

And then there’s Law Laughs, which is more of the same.

For dark non-legal humor, visit the Darwin Awards website, which proclaims an honorable mission: “We salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who remove themselves from it. Of necessity, this honor is generally bestowed posthumously.”

Enjoy.  Perhaps for at least a few minutes, today can indeed be Fun Monday.

Increase your efficiency by cutting the time you spend in the office.

We all go through periods when we just aren’t that efficient at work.  Maybe there’s something personal going on that’s distracting you, maybe it’s been a beautiful summer week and you want to be out in the sun, maybe you have a cold and just don’t feel good but also don’t feel bad enough to stay home.  (And a sidenote: please, don’t be one of those superheros who goes to work sick as a dog, hacking and sneezing and wheezing all around the office, succeeding only in making yourself even sicker and infecting everyone in a 20-yard radius.  Please.)

How to recapture your usual efficiency and focus?  Spend less time in the office.

Not dramatically less, but an hour or two.  (Note that this isn’t a long-term strategy to increase efficiency — that’s another topic altogether — but rather one designed to help you get over the hump of whatever has got you off your regular game.)

Why does this work?  This tactic will:

Remove the PLM mindset.  (PLM, of course, stands for Poor Little Me.)  Over the years, I’ve known lots of people who essentially fritter away Friday lunchtime or afternoon because they know they need to work over the weekend and they’re having a serious pity party.  Don’t believe me?  Repeat the following using your best Eeyore voice: “I may as well take a 2-hour lunch, since I have to be here all day Saturday anyway.”  Sound familiar?  I thought so.  Instead of taking a long lunch or surfing away a couple of hours, decide to leave at a set time that’s a little earlier than you might otherwise, and stick to it.  No pity party needed, because you’re leaving early today.  That’ll make you more effective throughout the day.  Why?  That leads to the second benefit.

Plug into getting-ready-for-vacation mentality.  Have you ever noticed how much you can accomplish on Friday when you know you’ll be away from the office for the next week?  You have something to look forward to, and you have a set time when you’ll catch your plane, meet family or friends, or whatever.  Deciding to leave the office an hour or two earlier than usual can help you shift into this mindset.  Suppose you normally leave at 7, but instead you decide to leave at 5.  How will you shift your day so you can leave early?  Will you bring lunch to your desk?  Eliminate those little breaks that add up to wasted time?  Ask your secretary to hold non-critical calls?  And what will you do with your “found time”?  Maybe go to a movie, slide into the restaurant that’s too crowded by the time you can usually get there, or just go home, put on sweats, order in Chinese, and relax.  That’s worth a manufactured in-office crunch on occasion.

Keep you from sitting in the office when you’re being inefficient so you can recover.  If you’re too tired or you have a hideous headache or whatever, perhaps trying to focus isn’t what you need or what will help you get your energy back.  Of course, if you’re on a deadline, you can’t afford this luxury.  But, for those ordinary times, cutting one day short may allow you to return to the office and do what you need to do the next day.

I assume it’s obvious why I advocate this technique only for rare occasions, but let me belabor the point.  You don’t want to be the person who never goes to lunch and never has time to chat.  You don’t want to be the person who’s always leaving early.  And you probably don’t want to have to cram everything possible into every day — if you do want to do that, you probably don’t have an efficiency problem anyway.

But on occasion, cutting your time in the office can lead to a much-needed burst of efficiency.  Use it wisely.

Time management skills: is a task urgent or important?

One of the top concerns for most lawyers is time management.  We all have so much to accomplish in so little time, and it often seems that we’re always trying to cram more activities (whether professional or personal) into the non-negotiable 168 hours we have each week.  Most of my coaching clients bring time management issues to the table at some point, and the high levels of stress that many lawyers face derive largely from time pressures.  One distinction, “urgent” versus “important,” can form the basis for effective time management.  Let’s dig in.

Urgent vs. important is a simple distinction that applies equally to the substance of a lawyer’s work as well as to practice or career management.  Stephen Covey has written about time use and devised a four-quadrant chart to help us judge where we spend most of our time:

QUADRANT I: Urgent and ImportantCrises, problems, deadline-driven projects.

QUADRANT II: Not Urgent, but ImportantPreparation, problem prevention, planning, relationship building, values clarification, true recreation (“re-creation”).

QUADRANT III: Urgent, but Not Important: Interruptions, some phone calls, some meetings, some email.

QUANDRANT IV: Not Urgent, Not Important: Junk mail, spam, busywork, trivia, “escape” activities, mindless web surfing, etc.

Where do you spend most of your time?  While it’s undeniable that Quadrant I requires attention and Quadrant III calls for attention (though the call may be illusory), Quadrant II is the critical zone.  That’s where the real work that truly moves us forward gets done.

For instance, suppose you’ve decide to leave your current job.  Quadrant I may demand you update your resume, call a recruiter, and set up a job agent on a job search website.  Quadrant III is returning a call from a recruiter who has the perfect position — except that it’s in Salt Lake City and you have no desire to live there — and it’s most interviews.  (Note that in this example, it’s hard to evaluate in advance whether something is important or not!)  Quandrant IV is browsing all the legal jobs in the U.S. on a website — things that may look like they’re related to your job search but really do nothing for you except waste time.  And Quadrant II is where you spend time when you stop to think about what exactly you want in your new job: firm or in-house?  Small, medium, or large firm?  Should you work with a recruiter?  What geographic location suits you best?

Quadrant II yields the strongest results.  That’s where the real work happens, where we’re able to engage in analysis that will help move us forward.  It may be helpful or even critical to spend time in Quadrant I; we all spend some time in Quadrant III, but we can be aware of that time and choose to limit it; Quadrant IV is best avoided because it’s neither productive nor refreshing time.

Question for reflection: both in practice and in your career/practice management, where are you spending your time?  Are you visiting Quadrant II enough?

According to a 2001 article published in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly:  “Lawyers are good subjects for coaching because they are results-oriented professionals. But like most busy professionals, it is hard for lawyers to consistently focus on things that are important, but not urgent. In addition, while attorneys may get good training in “lawyering” in the early years of practice, they are less likely to get any consistent and focused training on how to develop their professional and personal lives. A law degree can still open up a lot of doors for you, but real career satisfaction takes both hard work and planning. Having the degree, and working in a good law firm, are not enough.  Many of us do not take the time to reflect on what we really want. Some of us do not know what steps to follow to get what we want. Still others know the steps, but cannot figure out how to rearrange their professional and personal lives to make room for these important, but not urgent, activities. A coach can be the key ingredient in making things happen.”  Do you need a coach?

I’ll close with an example.  I worked with a client I’ll call Sheri, who was having a great deal of trouble getting everything done that she needed to in the office.  She found herself staying later and later, then going in earlier and earlier, and before long she was exhausted and angry that her personal life had disappeared.  We started with the urgent/important distinction and looked at the kinds of tasks on her “to do” list through that lens.

Sheri decided to cut Quadrant IV activities completely and to get better at identifying Quadrant III activities so she could eliminate as many of those as possible.  And then she looked at the Quadrant I tasks she’d listed to see whether any could be delegrated or otherwise handled.  And then our focus shifted to Quadant II.  Sheri developed a schedule that guaranteed her planning and strategizing time (pure Quadrant II activities) and found that by spending time on those tasks, she was able to prevent problems and facilitate the orderly accomplishment of important aims.  Her stress level decreased, as did the number of hours she had to spend putting out fires.

Sheri was delighted to discover that working out qualified as a Quadrant II activity, and she planned a half-hour walk or visit to the gym five days a week.  As a result, she began to feel better physically, which also decreased her stress level and increased her energy so she could get more work done in the hours she had available.  By further focusing on categorizing tasks in the quadrants, minimizing time spent in Quadrants III and IV, and maximizing the time she spent in Quadrant II, Sheri developed work habits and a daily schedule that allowed her to get her work done, to feel good about it, and to have some time and energy for her personal pursuits as well.