Best Ways to Spend Your Non-Billable Time

Vol. 31 No. 1

By

In the first days of your new solo practice or small firm, you may well find yourself with a little more unbillable time on your hands than you had hoped. The economy is still shaky, and clients may prove elusive in the early going. So, while you still have some free time, how should you spend it? Which professional activities will be the most helpful for your new practice? And which activities are so important that you should continue making time for them, even as your legal work heats up and your non-billable hours become scarce? We’ve invited three experienced solos and small firm lawyers to pass along some tips about which professional activities give you the greatest return on that most precious of all investments: your time.

Sorry, I Can’t Write This Article

By Patrick W. Begos
Begos Brown & Green LLP
Southport, Connecticut
pbegos@bbgllp.com

It’s an honor to be asked to write an article for GPSolo magazine, and I wish I could accept it. I would love to share what I’ve learned about managing non-billable professional activities. But this is a non-billable activity for me, and I’ve got to take my own advice. I’ve discovered over the years that, for the sake of profits, sanity, and progress, I have to limit my article writing (and my other non-billable professional work) to activities that help achieve a specific goal that I have set for my practice or my firm.

Now, I could tell myself that it’s only a short article, one that shouldn’t take that much time. But the amount of time a project will take is not the important issue. What is important is that the time and effort I put into this article are time and effort taken away from something that will more directly enhance my practice. You see, I have only so much time to devote to non-billable professional activities. These need to include networking, marketing, attending and presenting CLE programs, serving on bar association committees, doing pro bono work, and anything else. These activities have to share my hours with my billable activities, family duties, recreation, and sleeping. It boils down to this painful reality: Every hour I spend doing one thing is an hour I can’t spend doing something else. Therefore, I have realized that I can’t accept every opportunity that crosses my desk, even if it includes the ego boost that comes from seeing my name in print. Instead, I developed a plan to help me decide what I should and should not try to do.

First, I define my goals. For example, if building my practice is a goal (when isn’t it?!), then I have to ask myself, “What’s my desired audience for those efforts—this month, quarter, or year? With whom do I need to network? Is there a particular bar association or committee that focuses on the particular niche I’m looking to occupy? Is there an organization that brings together the types of in-house counsel I want to meet?” Another goal might be community service. Is there a nonprofit organization that I am particularly interested in helping? Does it also expand my network of potential clients or referral sources?

Next, I try to prioritize my goals and decide which deserve my time. If an activity is not related to one of my selected goals, then I avoid doing it, even if it seems interesting. If it is too interesting to say no, I have to add that new activity to my list of priorities and decide whether something else on the list has to get eliminated or demoted. It is remarkable how much more effective and focused I have become by eliminating non-billable professional activities that do not help me achieve the goals I set for myself.

Of course, sometimes saying no to something worthwhile is very hard to do, even if it makes sense based on a cold, hard list of priorities. I guess that’s why I felt like I needed to explain myself. And hopefully you will ask me again to write for you sometime in the future, and I will be able to say yes. And now, it’s back to work.

Keep Evolving

By Vicki Levy Eskin
Levy & Associates of Central Florida, P.A.
Longwood, Florida
vicki@levylawyers.com

Like most attorneys, I want to make the most productive financial use of my working hours. I find that there are a plethora of worthwhile professional activities that add to my enjoyment of the practice of law as well as expanding my legal knowledge.

As my husband and I travel quite a bit, mostly via motor home—a topic for another article down the road (pun intended)—I use time on the road to catch up on reading legal journals and treatises (whenever possible, via electronic reader). I also use travel time to peruse the ABA e-mail list SoloSez (solosez.org), where I have collected both great friends and great legal information on a wealth of topics.

Through SoloSez and other groups, I’ve also become a mentor to several new attorneys and to several established attorneys who are new to either private practice or small firm life. Mentoring helps me to perfect my own expertise, as being able to relay information to others solidifies my own understanding of why I chose to do something in a particular manner and helps at times to brainstorm ways of streamlining law office management with one new to the process.

For several years, I was very active with the National Solo and Small Firm Conference sponsored by ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. Chairing and serving on committees, helping plan curriculums, sitting in, and teaching CLEs was incredibly informative for me. More recently, I was appointed to serve as an ABA advisor to the Uniform Law Commission Committee, drafting a model code to provide fiduciary access to digital assets. I also serve on the parallel Florida committee contemplating the same issue. These committees have introduced me to other practitioners in my field who are enthusiastic, very smart, and very witty. I cannot sufficiently relay how much I’ve learned from these colleagues and advisors. Serving also gave me an introduction to attorneys for industry leaders in electronic communication and banking, which has certainly helped when I need to contact them with legal questions to assist my clients.

Working as a pro bono advocate for children in the dependency system and children aging out of the foster care system helps me to stay in tune with young people and the challenges they regularly face. And, of course, mentoring these young adults has been close to my heart for many years. If I’m not chatting with other lawyers waiting for hearings, I open my laptop to run regular audits of my own office digital files and reports on cash flow and client productivity. Both processes yield fascinating and critical information that helps me decide what types of matters to take on in the future.

In making choices about how to spend my non-billable time, I find that doing things I enjoy and that help me hone my craft and clarify how I want to proceed professionally have made me a better-rounded attorney and have kept my views about my practice fresh and ever changing. Keeping the activities fun, interesting, and evolving makes me, I hope, a better lawyer and a better person.

The Benefits of Bar Associations

By Walter D. James III
James PLLC
Colleyville, Texas
walter.james@jamespllc.com

March 1, 2004. That was the day I cut my ties to the large law format and started my own firm. I had been practicing law for about 17 years at that point. I had my own clients. I had always had the security of the support of a firm. It was a little bit scary going out on my own.

One of the things that made it less scary was continuing all the activities and practices that I had developed while working within a law firm. These included an active participation in the American Bar Association. I was already active in the Section of Energy, Environment, and Resources (SEER), but SEER was not really geared to the sole practitioner, or so I thought. I decided that perhaps it was incumbent upon me to make SEER more relevant for solos. I continued my involvement as the chair of the Environmental Enforcement and Crimes Committee, planning and executing education programs intended to reach industry sectors and provide information relevant to that industry’s enforcement issues. Apparently I impressed someone enough to be invited to participate in the SEER Council on a three-year term as an at-large member. It was there that I got a real taste of bar governance. I then was asked to act as the secretary for SEER, which I gladly did.

The unfortunate side effect of bar activity is that it does take a commitment of time and monetary resources. As true solos, we know if we are not working and billing, we are not making any money. It does take dedication.

But even with this unfortunate side effect, there are true benefits to bar activity, benefits that may take months or years to manifest themselves. I have made friends with many people across the United States and Canada as a result of my active bar participation. I also have been recognized as a leader in my area of practice by those with whom I worked on the SEER Council. It is not uncommon for one of these colleagues to contact me about a matter that they know from our work together to be within my area of expertise. And it works the other way, too—I am better able to serve my clients as I now have a stable of experts available to me in all areas of environmental law.

It is true that bar activities are non-billable; however, they are far from revenue draining. On the contrary, these non-billable activities are essentially an investment in yourself. And, I have found, investing in yourself always pays off.

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