Law Office Management: Work Smarter, Not Harder

Vol. 1, No. 12

Holly M. Hohlbein is a collaborative family law attorney, mediator, and consultant in Kirkland, Washington, where she has been in solo practice for the past 16 years. Prior to law school, she was a production planner for Hewlett-Packard in Silicon Valley, where she was first introduced to the concept of working smarter, not harder. Visit her on the web at http://www.hhattorney.com.

 

  • Find out how to apply the 80/20 rule to streamline your practice.
  • Learn how to use your staff more creatively.

 

It can be a tedious to manage your law practice, particularly in the summer. The weather has finally improved, and everyone you know is going on vacation to some exotic location you can’t afford, even if you could take time away from the office. There’s no need to lose heart, however: Summer can be just the motivation you need to “do more with less” when it comes to your law office. In addition to allowing you to enjoy some summer fun, creating some free time for yourself will also help you manage your office more efficiently all year long. Here are some time-saving strategies to you to consider.

 

Apply the 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 rule in business (also called the Pareto principle) states that 80 percent of effects stem from 20 percent of causes. The father of the Pareto principle, Joseph Juran, named the phenomenon after Vilfredo Pareto, a 19th century Italian economist who discovered that 20 percent of the population held 80 percent of the wealth. Juran extrapolated this principle to explain how 80 percent of production errors were made by 20 percent of the workers. The implications for efficiency are compelling. Using this principle, if a business focused only on improving the accuracy of those 20 percent of the workers (rather than on all workers), they would spend far less resources in return for a much higher gain. Subsequent studies have proven again and again that this phenomenon holds true in a vast array of applications and circumstances. You can use the 80/20 rule to analyze your office for ways to improve your business efficiency. Are 80 percent of your client complaints coming from 20 percent of your case load? What do those 20 percent have in common, and how can you minimize taking them on as clients in the future? Is 80 percent of your revenue coming from 20 percent of your practice areas? Get rid of the other 80 percent of your practice areas and focus on what you do most profitably. Is 80 percent of your sense of satisfaction and achievement coming from 20 percent of your activities? Ditch the stuff you don’t like and expand the work you enjoy.

 

Think Creatively About Utilizing Staff

Managing a small law office means that you and your staff are probably already wearing multiple hats. For example, your legal assistant may also be the receptionist, or you may be your own bookkeeper in between practicing law. In order to do more with less, try thinking “outside the box” when it comes to staff and tasking. Look for the “hidden talents” of your employees and prospective new hires. Perhaps your paralegal is a whiz with computers; if so, then combining “webmaster” with his or her job description might offer a break from the tedium of interrogatories, while freeing you up to do more legal work. Sequencing tasks is another idea; rather than have a full-time legal assistant, you might consider an employee who acts as a legal assistant three days a week and billing clerk for the other two.

 

Plan Ahead

Lawyers are famous for operating mostly in crisis mode, running from one emergency to the next. Whether it’s court deadlines, unhappy clients who want their work yesterday, or those unavoidable-yet-unbillable admin tasks, lawyers are rarely ahead of their workloads. Despite the pressure of running a busy law practice, however, it is possible to do some advance planning that will help you accomplish more with less effort. One strategy is to prioritize before you dive in. Time management experts extol the benefits of thoughtfully planning your workload rather than reacting to it on a case-by-case basis. Taking a few minutes to prioritize before you begin will allow you to reap the benefits later by doing “first things first.” Another plan-ahead strategy is to set aside specific time blocks in your day that are appointment-free, maybe even phone and email-free. This builds in time for unanticipated emergencies without throwing you off schedule on the other projects you were in the middle of when the urgent matters arose.

 

Take Wise Advantage of Technology

Although new technology often involves some initial investment of time and money, huge productivity and time saving gains can be made with careful selection of your technology tools. However, it’s important to assess the individual needs of your office (perhaps even applying the 80/20 rule described above) before jumping in the deep end. Beware of investing heavily in fancy computer systems or software tools that will not be fully utilized by your staff, are too complex to be easily learned, or function poorly for your specific needs. Your best resource may be your existing computer tech, who probably reads the current software reviews and has memorized the various features and benefits of the programs and applications that you might need.

 

Multitasking Is for Losers

Just in case you haven’t heard, multitasking is out. The myth that it’s productive to do multiple tasks simultaneously effectively has been busted. It turns out that giving your undivided attention to one thing allows you to do that one thing much more efficiently. Prioritizing work will help you focus (see “Plan Ahead,” above). So will having a quiet space without interruptions for you and your employees: trade your open door policy for a closed door policy a few days a week and see your productivity skyrocket.

 

Make Time by Taking Time: For Yourself

Yes, you read that right. Studies show that those who rest well and take time for recreational pursuits are more productive than those who don’t. When we are chronically stressed out and overworked, our bodies and minds protest by shutting down. Our judgment is impaired and our thinking is clouded, not to mention our bad attitudes and the resulting effect on staff and interpersonal relationships. The good news is the effects of stress and overwork can easily be reversed. Laughter, fun, and exercise all produce endorphins that counteract stress hormones and allow your mind and body to function at peak efficiency. So treat yourself to that nap in the sun; read a fun book; go for a walk, run, or bike ride. Have a staff meeting outside with a picnic lunch. Learn to make balloon animals and give them to random strangers. Maybe even take a vacation. Believe it or not, you’ll be doing your law office a big favor. When you are back in the office, chances are you’ll accomplish more in a shorter time, and with a better attitude. You and your staff will be happier and more productive, leaving time to enjoy the full bounty of summer, and the rest of the seasons of the year.

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