What’s the most important step you can take?

Only 34 days remain in 2007, including weekends and holidays.  Before we know it, the books will close and another year will have passed.  What’s the most important step you can take today to ensure that you’re well-positioned as you move into 2008?

  • Business development: Perhaps you could set aside a couple of hours to evaluate your business development plan for 2007 and to lay out your strategy for next year.  Or you could make some appointments to take important contacts to lunch, for coffee, or whatever is appropriate.  If you’ve noticed that there’s something in your way concerning client development, invest some time now determining what you need to do to be more productive.  At a minimum, set aside a few minutes every day to take some marketing action.
  • Time management: How are your hours?  If they’re low, what do you need to do to get appropriate work?  (Perhaps see the business development ideas!)  Are you billing for the time you’re actually working, and are you using that time well?  Do you need to update your methods for filing, time tracking, or scheduling?  Perhaps it’s time to check in with your assistant and see what ideas he or she has for using time more effectively.
  • Professional development:  This is often a great time of year to pick up CLE.  Or check out some of the new publications in your area of practice or on practice management.  But first, check your progress on the development plans you set for this year.  What can you do to close out this year with a success?
  • Career:  If you’ve been considering a move, this is a good time to put out feelers and position yourself.  You may not have an opportunity to interview until the new year, but putting yourself “on the market” now will be beneficial.  If you’re mid-search, you may find this a busy period as employers try to wrap up hiring decisions before the close of the year.If you’re planning to stay in your current position, what can you do to improve your performance?  How successful have you been this year, and what changes would be helpful as you move forward?  The holiday season is also an opportunity to show your gratitude to support staff and colleagues who have made your professional life work well and perhaps brightened your days: don’t miss your chance.
  • Work/life integration: Are you happy with the amount of time and energy you’re putting into your personal life?  Do you need to rearrange your schedule, get some help on the home front, or turn off your BlackBerry while you talk with your spouse/partner/child?  Are you putting in time on the activities that will increase your energy, such as exercise and getting sufficient sleep?
  • Other:  If there’s an area that needs attention, you know what it is.  Spend some time putting it right, whatever that may mean.

Taking these steps will help you to realize or exceed the goals you’ve set for 2007 and carry you forward into 2008 with momentum.  Choose the most important action in the most important area and do it this week.

Value billing

As you have no doubt noticed, there’s quite a bit of debate these days about traditional hourly billing vs. “value billing.”  I recently touched on the issue here.

I ran across a quotation today that put the controversy in a different light:

You don’t get paid for the hour. You get paid for the value you bring to the hour.

— Jim Rohn

So, how does that sit with you?  And a question for a bit of reflection: do you bring your full value to your billable hours?  If the answer is no, how can you do better?

Timesheet habits: don’t procrastinate.

Timesheets routinely come up as a bemoaned part of practice, something that no one likes to do.  Many lawyers develop the habit of doing timesheets in bulk, usually at the end of the week but sometimes at the end of the month.  That’s a terrible habit for a wide variety of reasons.

Unless your notes are truly spectacular (i.e., timesheet quality at least in substance), you will lose time because it simply isn’t possible to remember every single call made or received, every in-firm conversation, etc.  I’ve seen some studies showing that lawyers who do end-of-month timesheets can lose up to 30% of their time.  That’s bad for the firm and for the attorney.

Approaching billing with this habit of procrastination makes what could be a fairly simple and straightforward task into a Huge Effort.  Timesheets become the constant millstone.  Sure, you get to ignore them for a month at a time, but then you’ll have to devote at least a full morning and probably longer to reconstructing your time.  The longer one waits to prepare timesheets after actually doing the work, the harder it will be to recreate the time and the longer it’ll take to prepare the timesheet.  Bad for the firm, bad for the attorney.

Moreover, it appears that clients may move from accepting monthly bills to wanting the ability to monitor lawyers’ work in real time using e-bills.  Technology may enable clients to demand not only a budget but also real time updates on how the budget is being used, whether it’s being exceeded, etc.  While that system isn’t in effect in the US today, it’s apparently coming in the UK, and lawyers would be well-advised to adapt their habits to minimize the pain if, or perhaps when, e-billing crosses the pond.  See also Tom Collins’ posts discussing the reasons for the move to e-billing and describing the software support that will assist in meeting clients’ demands.

If creating timesheets contemporaneously with completing the work is helpful for capturing time, saving time, and preparing for what sounds a lot like the next step toward client awareness and management of the performance of legal services, where’s the downside to developing strong habits?  Explore your billing software to see whether it has a timer function — most do.  If not, at least use your calendar to mark down your time as you work, and transfer it to a timesheet at the end of the day.  This one habit will increase both your productivity and your apparent productivity significantly.

New lawyer skills focus: Are you losing time?

I don’t know a single lawyer who enjoys billing.

I do know a bunch of lawyers who leave completing their time sheets until the end of the month.

That means that I know a lot of lawyers who lose time.

It isn’t a sexy topic .  There’s no way that billing can be sexy, unless it’s at the heart of a criminal case that brings a lawyer down — but that isn’t the kind of sexy any of us wants to experience.  None of us wants to work without billing for it, though, so it is an important topic and one that’s simple in the abstract but challenging for many of us.

So, what works?  Plenty of legal management programs offer billing software that allows you to enter your client and a description of your work and then to monitor your time when you click start and stop.  It can be a pain, but if you get in the habit, it works beautifully.  I was able to track my time far more accurately by using this software and increased my billing (legitimately) by about 10%.  (Abacus is good, Amicus is good, or ask your IT folks — if you’re in a law firm, chances are you already have such software available.)

If you don’t like software, make your own time-tracking sheets.  You (or your assistant) can make up a table with each of your active cases and a space to track your time and a few notes about what you’re doing.  Just making brief notes throughout the day will help, especially if you then transfer that data to your “real” timesheets.

Or get a calendar that divides the day into 15-minute increments, mark what you worked on every 15 minutes, and use your calendar as your timesheet.  Of course, that really only works well if you bill in .25-hour increments; otherwise, it gets messy quickly and whoever transcribes your time (especially if that’s you) will not be happy.

I think the best tip of all, though, is to make it your habit never to go to bed without making sure you’re current on your timesheets.  Don’t go to bed angry with your spouse, and don’t go to bed with your time unrecorded.