Practicing Law at the Speed of Light

By Jim Calloway

Pre-Internet: A lawyer would proofread a letter, sign it, have it stamped and placed in an envelope and mailed. Unless something urgent required a phone call, the lawyer could expect a reply letter in four to seven days.

Today: A lawyer gets to the office a little early, checks his or her email and can have three or four testy email exchanges with other early-bird lawyers before the rest of the staff even shows up and the office officially opens.

That lawyer also had to delete dozens of spam email messages, deal with a few emails from friends and relatives and read (and preserve) several other important emails from clients, co-counsel and opposing counsel. All of those accumulated since the lawyer left the office at 6 p.m. the day before.

But at least that lawyer did not check the office email from home that night and was spared from the stress caused by reading one of those emails from opposing counsel then.

Communication moves quickly today. Maybe only data on fiber optic cables technically approaches moving at the speed of light, but many days and many tasks feel like they move too fast. Expectations of clients and opposing counsel have changed too. Because you can read and respond to email in five minutes, why didn’t you? In the days of research in books and manual typewriters, no lawyer would have waited to begin a brief until the morning of the day it was due. That temptation is only there because of the availability of today’s technology tools.

The changes in the way business operates today are a particular challenge for lawyers.  We must use information technology tools because legal work is largely information management. But legal analysis also involves reflection and thoughtful contemplation. It seems more and more challenging to find sufficient quiet time for quiet contemplation. Using today’s information technology tools means that you can process and finalize a lot more work each day. But it also means that others can generate a lot more work for you to process and respond to each day.

The speed of light is a constant. It does not change. Likewise it appears very unlikely that client expectations and the speed of business operations will slow down in the future. We must deal with today’s challenges. Our society is certainly not going return to using only “snail mail” for communication or give up our cell phones.

But this environment generates a lot of stress. Most of us feel this, some more acutely than others. The statistics on lawyers having higher suicide rates and more stress than the general population are well-known. Stress impacts our health. Trying to process too much information and complete too many tasks too quickly invariably leads to mistakes. And, as we all know, the legal profession is very unforgiving of errors. We do important work, and it needs to be done correctly.

Technology allows us to process a lot more work more quickly than we could have in the past. It is the classic double-edged sword. You can get more work done more quickly, and therefore you feel the pressure to get even more work done even more quickly. It is easy to sometimes feel that things are a little out of control and, for a few unfortunate lawyers, things do spiral out of control.

Let’s discuss a few techniques for practicing law at the speed of light.

Rely on your memory as little as possible. The human brain is great for creatively solving problems. But that ability can be impaired when you try to keep track of too many facts and details.

There are two general aspects to this. One area involves the random facts that we all deal with every day. A judge orders you to do three things before the end of next week. You need to pick up your cleaning before the cleaners close. You can deal with this with technology tools that capture information so you will not lose it, putting deadlines on your calendar and writing down on a legal pad or digital device the three assignments from the judge. Moleskine produces a line of small notebooks that can be kept in a pocket or purse to retain information. Some find that Evernote is a great place to capture information that does not easily fit into your system. Your smartphone, whether it is iOS or Android, now has very good speech-to-text dictation tools for short dictation and some have purchased apps like Dictate + Connect (formerly known as Dictamus) that essentially give smartphones all of the features of a traditional handheld recorder for dictation.

The other aspect of not relying on your mem-ory involves sequential tasks that are frequently done within the law office. As I’ve written about in the Oklahoma Bar Journal many times previously, good management of these involves preparing internal checklists and office procedures manuals. Attorney process management and workflow are areas that can be improved in most law offices.

Schedule uninterrupted periods of time to work. If a lawyer is not careful, the need for meetings with clients and potential clients, attendance at deposition and court hearings, conference calls and other types of meetings will completely fill their weekly calendar. Be sure that you allow a few hours each day for a block of uninterrupted time to work on matters that require your attention and thought. If you allow an assistant to schedule matters for you, make sure they are cognizant of that need as well.

It is also important to schedule blocks of time at least monthly to work on internal law firm needs like long-term planning and technology training. We have learned that a daylong technology training class can be stupefying and unpleasant. The attendees will receive so much information in a day that is impossible to retain it all. Short training sessions are better. Sometimes technology training in the law office may be as simple as setting aside an hour to do a few searches online to determine how to do certain tasks. Generally if you ask Google “how do I do this?” you will receive links to several websites with step-by-step instructions.

Fight distractions and interruptions. Anytime you are interrupted it takes several minutes to get back to the same place you were in your work. Working in an office with other people necessitates some interruptions, but the successful lawyer will work hard to minimize these.

Turning off any notification sounds when there are incoming emails is a critical step considering all of the emails that we receive on a daily basis now. Having an “open door” policy where staff can approach you at any time with their problems sounds like a positive and benevolent concept. But realistically that policy must be limited. You cannot have a policy that says “interrupt me anytime you feel like it.” So your open-door policy must be tailored. You can set, for example, Wednesday afternoons as the time you will be available to staff to deal with their issues.

You can also reduce the need to be interrupted during normal business days by periodically checking in with your staff when you finish a project and are about to start a new one. But be aware that your staff will be more effective in completing their assignments if they are not frequently interrupted by you.

Watch the arbitrary deadlines that you give yourself and your staff. We all want to give good prompt client service. This is greatly appreciated by our clients and leads to client referrals and clients returning with new legal work. But, if you’re not careful, you can find yourself stressed by trying to complete a client project by Wednesday when the client would have been just as happy to receive the work on Friday. Before you tell a client an anticipated completion date, ask the client about their needs and their schedule.

It generates unnecessary stress to work under pressure or late one night to complete an assignment by the time you told the client you would only to find out that the client is out of town for a couple of days anyway.

Your marketing plan should not only be about getting the legal work you need to survive, but also the legal work you enjoy. You will not love every client, and a lot of legal work is necessary drudgery. In today’s economic environment, law firm marketing is necessary for success. But if you really enjoy a particular aspect of your work, by all means focus your marketing plan on obtaining more of that enjoyable work. Both you and your clients will benefit.

Know thyself. The ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” is wise counsel to lawyers today even though Plato may not have meant it exactly this way.

If you know you are not a morning person or that you have a brief afternoon lull after lunch, try to schedule your day where the most challenging work is done during your peak periods. Personally I found that the time right after lunch was a good time for meeting with new potential clients. Maybe setting a specific time each day to return as many phone calls as possible is the right plan for you. You know what works for you, so try to have your schedule in daily work reflect that.

Most lawyers have a powerful internal motivation to accomplish things and succeed. But do not beat yourself up over the fact that you are human.

Take breaks. Even a five-minute walk outside can revitalize you for the afternoon’s tasks. The point of this article is that human beings are not wired to constantly operate at the speed of light. Recognizing that is a key to your long-term success.
Complete projects before moving on. It is sometimes easy to get a project mostly done and then to move on, leaving a small part left over to do later. This was not as big a problem, perhaps, when the pace of law office operations was not so demanding. But, whether it is failing to fill out the billing information or failing to finalize a document, leaving small parts of projects undone is a recipe to create a greater problem that will take you more time to resolve and could have even more dire consequences.

Every lawyer who bills by the hour is aware of the result when at the end of a very busy day you realize you haven’t filled out your timesheets. It is very challenging to accurately re-create your time at the end of the day and simply impossible to re-create and accurately document how you spent your week at the end of the week. You don’t need left over bits of projects clouding your focus on accomplishing your tasks each day.

Embrace technology. It is true that our technology tools and the speed at which they operate can create challenges for human beings coping sometimes. But technology can also be your friend and the bottom line is that because of the nature of our work lawyers will be using technology for their entire careers whether it is word processing or electronic data discovery.
Take the time to explore what technology tools will work for you. For me personally, it was recognizing that I was simply never going to achieve the output by manually typing that I would by using speech-recognition tools. Most of this article was dictated using Dragon NaturallySpeaking. It took a while before I could use speech recognition for writing original content just like it took a while before I could compose at the keyboard rather than using a pen and legal pad. But today speech recognition is an essential part of my workflow.

Many who said “I only want a cell phone to make phone calls” now use their phones for texting, Internet research, finding directions and a variety of other applications.

Take time to figure out what technology works for you and makes your professional life better.

Take time to “unplug.” This advice has been given so many times that almost feels like a cliché. But most clichés come into being because they are generally true.

Time off from work is essential. Time away from technology is even more essential. Smartphones are incredibly useful and powerful devices. But checking the office email periodically when you’re supposed to be off work can be a negative. I’m still “old school” enough that it makes me sad when I see a group of teenagers sitting together all buried in their mobile devices. I used to learn a lot and build relationships spending a few relaxing moments at courthouse coffee shops. Now it seems most everyone has a smartphone in their hand or pressed against their head every spare moment.

To use another cliché- no lawyer on his or her deathbed ever regretted that they had not filled out more timesheets and billed more hours. Too many lawyers spend too much time away from their family serving their clients. A lawyer serving his or her clients is the highest calling, but that is not all there is to life.

It is all about balance.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jim Calloway is the director of the OBA Management Assistance Program and manages the OBA Solo & Small Firm Conference. He served as the chair of the 2005 ABA TECHSHOW board. His Law Practice Tips blog and Digital Edge podcast cover technology and management issues. He speaks frequently on law office management, legal technology, ethics and business operations.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal, OBJ 85 2269 (Nov. 1, 2014)

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