July 31, 2011

Being Solo

David Leffler


The workday of many solo attorneys consists of rushing from one task to another, being buffeted from matter to matter, interrupted by phone calls, e-mails, and messenger deliveries. Then, come sundown, these solos survey the landscape of their desk to see what got done and what got shoved to the side by the unplanned-for exigencies of the day. As they leave their office, they make a mental note of what didn’t get done and what they need to do tomorrow, when the whole process will start again.

There is another way—and you don’t have to take a $200 course to figure it out. Instead, for no extra charge, read on.

Though I hadn’t originally planned it, this column is a continuation of my June 2011 column, “How to Simplify Your Life with Outlook Notes,” which describes a system of keeping tabs on your work by making lists with Microsoft Outlook’s Notes feature, including a daily to do list, an open matters to do list, and other lists. Once you have mastered that, you are ready for the next step described here.


The Secret to Regaining Your Sanity

What is it that makes your day so stressful? Is it the amount of work that you have to do? The unexpected crises that arise on an almost daily basis?

I say “none of the above.” Instead, I believe that it is the manner of processing your day that can make it either stressful or manageable.

First, you have to acknowledge that your workday is out of control. When you do that, you immediately know what is the solution. Regain control of your workday!

The big question then is, how do you regain control of your workday?

My experience has taught me that the best way of regaining control of my workday is by scheduling my day. If I plan to be in my office by 9:00 am and leave by 6:00 pm, how will I fill those hours? That’s nine hours to schedule. For those who say, “A schedule doesn’t work for me because I have too much to do,” ask yourself how it is that you create more time by not having a schedule. You don’t, so you are not sacrificing anything by trying this.

Let’s say that I’ve decided that during those nine hours I have to work on drafting a contract, finish an operating agreement for a new limited liability company, and make phone calls to two clients to review business deals that each are contemplating. Here’s a sample of how I might schedule this day:

  • 9:00 am – 9:15 am: Clean desk
  • 9:15 am – 11:30 am: Begin drafting contract
  • 11:30 am – 12:00 pm: Return morning phone calls
  • 12:00 pm – 12:45 pm: Lunch
  • 12:45 pm – 1:00 pm: Clean desk
  • 1:00 pm – 2:15 pm: Finish drafting operating agreement
  • 2:15 pm – 3:00 pm: Return phone calls
  • 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm: Make calls to two clients to review business deals
  • 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm: Continue drafting contract from the morning
  • 5:30 pm – 6:00 pm: Return phone calls, clean desk, etc.

Notice that I’ve left time for unexpected events. The time for cleaning the desk and returning phone calls received that day could be reallocated for unexpected demands. I’ve made a time to return phone calls because I will have messages taken for me when calls come in rather than having calls constantly interrupting the work that I’m doing, which leaves me after the phone call trying to figure out where I left off before the interruption.

I suggest that you adopt a policy of not taking calls as they come in; instead, schedule a time to return them. You can make an exception or two for certain critical matters, but be careful that the exception doesn’t morph into the rule.


The Benefits of Scheduling Your Day

When you get yourself trained to schedule your day on a regular basis, you will feel more relaxed. Why? Let’s look at the period from 9:15 am to 11:30 am that I have scheduled for drafting a contract. During that time I don’t have to worry if I should be working on something else. I’ve already made the decision that the contract drafting had to be done that day and that this was the time to do it. So I can take my attentions away from that concern and just focus on the task at hand. Telephone calls? Ignore them. You’ll be answering them at 11:30 am.

Another benefit is that at the end of the day you can see if you achieved your results or not. You will get a sense of how your day went, instead of feeling like you’ve been locked into a roller coaster ride all day long and only released at closing time.

And think, if a client calls to ask if you can get something done that day, you can give them an intelligent answer. You look at your scheduled day, decide if anything can be rescheduled for your client, and then give a yes or a no.

Scheduling your day is very empowering. You get a feeling of control when deciding what to do that day and when to do it, rather than feeling like these decisions are being made for you.

If you find that the system isn’t working, figure out why it isn’t working. If you aren’t getting everything you want done, you might be over-scheduling your day, so you should schedule less. But the problem might be that you respond to too many interruptions rather than putting off responses to another time.

I know that the moment I sit down to do something my brain starts generating all sorts of distractions to keep me from doing the work that I have scheduled. “This will only take a minute; better do it now than trying to remember it later,” is what I tell myself. An hour later I notice my schedule half-buried under my papers. Keep a pad on your desk to write down all of these self-generated interruptions, so that you don’t have to worry about remembering them later.

What if an interruption arrives that cannot be ignored? It’s like pieces of a puzzle. Decide which piece will have to go because of the interruption and put that in the next day’s schedule. Although your schedule has been disrupted, this way you still have some control. Things aren’t flying around the room; you are moving the pieces to accommodate a new item.


Stop Being a Lawyer

Don’t let your concern that the day won’t play out exactly as outlined in your schedule stop you from making a schedule in the first place. Many times it won’t work out the way you have planned it. That is just the nature of things—the tendency toward chaos. No scientific proof needed here. Just ask any parent of young kids to describe trying to get out of the house on a typical weekday morning.

As lawyers we have a strong aversion toward planning something linear—like a daily schedule—that very often will not work out as planned. When the plan is disrupted, we feel as if we have failed. But in reality we have succeeded no matter how much or how little we have been forced to rearrange our schedules; by scheduling every day, we have changed our thought processes about planning our work from something blurry and half-formed to a clear picture of what needs to get done and when. Also, as we get better at daily scheduling, we will find that there are many days when the schedule is not disrupted to any significant degree.


Go Forth and Schedule!

That’s it! Bravely seize pen and paper and with great courage write out your schedule for your next workday. Hopefully, your day will go smoother than the nausea-inducing ride of a roller coaster.


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