GPSolo Magazine - January/February 2004
Beat the Clock: A Solo’s Guide to Time Management
Does the idea of cloning yourself so that you can get more done sound appealing to you? Ever wonder whether time travel might be possible so that you could fit more than 24 hours in a day? If so, I encourage you to read on about how to get more done without resorting to methods found only in science fiction novels and movies.
Managing time can be particularly challenging for solo lawyers. Often there is no barrier of receptionist or secretary between you and the outside world, so you are subject to constant interruptions from phone calls, faxes, and e-mails. Your law practice also does not have the benefit of an established daily routine that the framework of a larger company would impose—you create your work structure every day, every hour, and every minute.
So is there any hope for you, a solo attorney, to make order out of chaos? If you are a regular reader of this column, you know by now that unlike that little man from Kansas who masqueraded as a wizard, I always have something in my bag for you.
The Interruption Deluge
Of all the aspects of your work environment that need attention, perhaps the most important is interruptions. If you answer every phone call and read every fax and e-mail as they come in, your workday will constantly be disrupted. Whatever you are working on will take longer to do and be more likely to contain errors.
To eliminate the interruptions, schedule times during the day when you will work without interruption and times when you will look at faxes and e-mails and return phone messages. To the extent that you can, schedule them at the same time each day so they become fixed in your day and you don’t have to spend lots of time on scheduling. For instance, if you arrive at your office at 9:00 a.m. and work uninterrupted until 11:00 a.m., it is perfectly reasonable to expect callers from last night or early that morning to wait until late morning to hear back from you.
Accomplishing all this without a secretary is not hard. Use an answering machine in your office or subscribe to your phone company’s voice mail. Change the phone message daily to let people know when you will be in the office and get back to them: “I will be returning calls between 11:00 a.m. and 12 noon.” Change the message again in the afternoon to let people know when you will return those calls. If you want to be available to a select few, you can take the next step up in service (for more money) by hiring one of the many outsource messaging companies that offer screening of calls and an increasingly sophisticated range of services, including voice mail via WAV-formatted e-mail attachments. It is still far less expensive than employing a full-time receptionist.
If you have a dial-up provider for e-mail, simply don’t log on or check e-mail until the scheduled time. If you have a broadband connection, it may help not to open your e-mail software until you plan to check it, so you’re not tempted to look when you hear the “new e-mail” alert. Faxes can be filed in a folder until you’re ready to look at them.
Establishing and sticking to such a schedule may be difficult. I recommend that you seek out a time management buddy in the form of a fellow solo attorney so that you can keep each other on track. Schedule a 30-day check-in to make sure that neither of you has slipped back into your old habits.
No Small Feat
Jan Jasper, productivity expert and author of Take Back Your Time: How to Regain Control of Work, Information, and Technology (1999), says, “You have to appreciate what a challenge it is to run your own business. You may think that it is stressful to work within the structure of a large company, but it’s a lot harder to structure your own day.”
Jasper recommends that you prepare a master list of what needs to be done, which allows you to see the big picture and prioritize your days, and then prepare daily lists. The importance of making lists goes beyond the obvious benefit of structuring your daily activities. As she says in her book, “My approach to time management begins with clarifying what matters most so you can decide what to stop doing.” Getting organized allows you to eliminate the unimportant clutter so that you can do more of what you really want to do, both in your business and your personal life.
Jasper also recommends making appointments with yourself to address organizational issues and treating those appointments with respect, breaking them only if the time is needed by something with a high priority that can be scheduled at no other time.
• Know when during the day you work best and schedule your work for those times. Schedule return phone calls for those times when you usually find it’s hard to concentrate on legal work.
• Use technology to help save time. Practice management software, for example, integrates many functions of your practice, letting you enter a lot of information only once but making it accessible in several areas.
• Don’t get caught in the pile-of-print trap. Be ruthlessly selective about what you require yourself to read for your law practice and how deeply you must absorb it. If reading just a few paragraphs relevant to your practice is enough, skim the rest of the article (don’t worry, the author will never know—well, maybe I will if you start skimming my column).
• One way to measure your productivity is to track all your time in your billing software, even non-billable time such as marketing or administrative duties. If you find you’re spending a lot of time on administrative duties, it may be time to hire an assistant at $10 per hour so you can bill more time at $200 or $300 per hour.
Changing your work habits is not something that can be done all at once. Consider scheduling a meeting with yourself or your time management buddy on a regular basis to assess where you are in this process and what next steps might be needed. If you stick with it, you may find your results far more satisfying than any science fiction novel.
David Leffler maintains a solo law practice in New York City, where he assists his clients in the formation, growth, and sale of their businesses. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.