June 01, 2016 Feature

How New Solos Can Achieve Work-Life Balance (Without Support Staff)

Elizabeth Cuccinello

Being a solo attorney can be hard. Being a solo attorney with no support staff can be even harder. This is particularly true regarding your work-life balance. When you first start your practice, you are looking to limit costs and manage expenses. The decision to hire someone to assist you with administrative and other support is probably last on your list. So how do you carve out time for your personal life? There are some steps you can take to better manage your practice and still make sure you have time for yourself and your family. The important thing to keep in mind is to find what works best for you. Just because something works well for one attorney doesn’t mean it’s going to work for everyone.

When I first started my practice, I was faced with tasks I never had to think of when working for a company—tasks such as managing multiple clients, tracking hours, billing (and worse, collecting) fees, trying to find new clients, booking appointments, ordering supplies, and getting to the bank or post office. It seemed as if these tasks alone could fill a full week—and then I had to fit in actual legal work. At the same time, I wanted to spend time with my family and see my kids. I asked a lot of people how they did it, and everyone had a different answer. I tried many different things until I found a routine that worked for me. Don’t be afraid to try something new and don’t be afraid to admit that it doesn’t work. We all have different styles. Below, however, are some general rules to keep in mind.

Really Use Your Calendar

First, pay special attention to using your calendar and never book anything until after you’ve checked it. Sometimes you can be so focused on getting onto your client’s calendar that you forget you might already have something planned on your own. If you don’t have your calendar in front of you (which is always a good idea, by the way), then offer to e-mail some suggested times when you do have it handy. It never looks good when you have to reschedule.

Even when it comes to calendars, there are different preferences. Some people swear by their (paper) Franklin Planners, others live in Microsoft Outlook, and some use both a paper journal and Outlook. I prefer both: I use Outlook strictly for appointments, taking full advantage of the category options (explained further below), and I use a paper journal to track my time spent for billing purposes.

Calendar your personal time, too. Don’t forget to calendar your family commitments—and your “me” time—as well as your work commitments. Outlook has a handy feature that lets you color-code your appointments. You can have a different color for family, personal, or work appointments. There are other options as well, but those are the ones I use most often. Keep your one master calendar to see everything you have going on. Then you can see the different color categories to distinguish between work and family. Having your family time scheduled keeps your family commitments from getting “bumped” by work commitments because you forgot them.

And no matter how you mark it, you need to set aside time for yourself. Go ahead and add it to your calendar so you don’t book something into a slot where you wanted time for yourself—whether it’s time to do yoga, go golfing, work out at the gym, or volunteer. Your “me” time is just as important as your client time. Someone I know blocks off an hour of personal time every day, and when that reminder pops up, he makes sure to treat it like any other appointment. His personal activities have ranged from taking care of a household chore he wanted done to taking a nap.

Set a routine. Once you get a sense of your commitments, plan your day the way it works best for you. This varies from person to person and the focus of the practice. I know one transactional attorney who prefers to schedule all her meetings and phone calls in the morning and then sets the afternoon aside to work. She finds it distracting to have a call when she’s working on a contract. Another attorney prefers to communicate throughout the day but sets time aside each morning to focus on any document work that needs to be done. Another routine that I tried is to do my new client outreach in the morning. It was a nice way to kick off the day by reaching out to potential new business. Find what works best and map out your day accordingly. Of course, remain flexible because there’s always that emergency call or last-minute deadline to meet that will throw a wrench into your routine.

Your daily routine also can include your “me” time. If you like going to the gym in the morning, try to work it in as your routine. If you prefer to work out during lunchtime, then block that time off and set your other tasks around it. Keep in mind that if you have a conference to attend or a school/family event that breaks your usual routine, then you should modify the rest of your week around it. For example, if you have mornings set aside for phone calls but have an early conference one day, plan to add those calls to the next morning or two so you don’t feel that your schedule has been thrown off.

Get Organized!

Along with staying on top of your calendar, keeping organized is key to achieving your work-life balance. When you try to work in a cluttered space or with a jumbled case file, it’s easy to waste time you could be spending with your family.

Keep your space functional. Set up your desk to suit your needs and find what works best for you. Some ideas are to place a file ladder on your desk with your current projects or to set a nearby file drawer for current projects only. Don’t let your desk get cluttered with papers and files. At the end of the day, put everything where it belongs or stack active folders where they are handy. Make notes of what needs to get done and prioritize your next day in advance. Use sticky notes or a whiteboard so your important to-dos are front and center the next morning. Some lawyers prefer a separate notepad reserved just for listing important projects and to-dos.

Create a case management system. I like to create a new client file, both physical and digital, as soon as the representation starts. Inside the digital client file I keep a separate file containing the retainer agreement, and then I separate files by matter. If it’s a long-term client relationship, I’ll create a yearly folder within each client file and then separate by matter in each year. Some people prefer to file papers immediately and others will have a letter bin that they add to during the week and then catch up on filing on Friday or over the weekend. I prefer to do it right away in case I need to grab the file again during the week. The less time I spend shuffling through unfiled papers, the more time I have for myself.

Plan time for administrative needs. Plan a time each week for billing, filing, invoicing, and other administrative work. Every Friday afternoon I have invoice time set on my calendar. Others prefer to have an open invoice for each client, which they add to as billable time is completed. What about office supplies? Do you go through them fairly quickly, and do you have a place to store extras if ordered in bulk? Figure out a plan and mark on your calendar when you should order more supplies. Keep a running list of things you’re running low on so you don’t forget anything, but don’t let your office get cluttered with office supplies.

Track your time in real time. Keeping track of time can be very difficult. I have found that a daily journal is a great tool for this need. As I complete a project, I note it in my journal by client, matter, and time spent. Then when it comes time for invoicing, I just refer to my journal to complete invoices. This makes it easier to keep track of everything; I have a written log of work done and can prevent any work from slipping through the cracks and going unbilled.

Incur Expenses When You’re Ready

As you start experimenting with what works for your routine and balance, think of the areas where you most need assistance. Don’t overwhelm yourself with a lot of overhead when you’re not ready for it. The added stress impacts every part of your life.

Use technology—if and when it suits you. There are a lot of helpful tech resources for most administrative and billing needs. Start investigating different software or service options and collect comparative data on features and costs. Test out free trials and take your time seeing what works best for you before committing. You may find discounts from bar associations and other organizations of which you are already a member, so be sure to check before you make any purchases. If you’re not ready for the expense of a dedicated billing or practice management solution, use the software you already have. Excel can track your billing and create time lines. Your Outlook calendar is indispensable for tracking your time and keeping your contacts handy. Outlook’s note feature is also a great tool for tracking important to-dos (if you don’t like sticky notes and have no whiteboard) and keeping your office supply list.

In terms of hardware, don’t run out and get an iPad, iPhone, and every gadget the salesperson convinces you that you absolutely need. If old-fashioned paper works for you, stick to it. If you want to explore technology options, visit an Apple store if you’re going that route. Take a class or spend time with their sales team. Make sure your purchase would truly be helpful before you commit to anything.

Get assistance with non-work tasks. You might find that you could use some help with child care rather than with office administration. Put together a budget for what you really need. Usually some part-time assistance is perfect. Remember, just because you have a solo practice doesn’t mean you can get your kids to every practice, playdate, or after-school event. And the fact that you’re working out of a home office doesn’t mean you can keep the house clean, prepare dinners, and keep up with chores. Running a practice is a full-time job, and so is managing a household. Keeping a work-life balance with all that on your plate can be challenging, to say the least. You can’t do everything, so figure out how to save time, what can be delegated, and what really works into your schedule. Block off chunks of time to get work done and avoid calls and e-mails, and make sure your family and downtime are worked in as well.

Remember Why You Went Solo

When I ask attorneys why they started their own practice, one of the most common answers I hear is “because I wanted to spend more time with my family” or “I wanted to control my schedule more.” Ironically, the opposite can happen to new solos who are overwhelmed with managing their time and practice. A lot of time can get wasted searching a disorganized office for a missing file or looking for a note where you were tracking a project; and you might end up missing a school game or other function because you accidentally booked a client meeting at the same time and then cannot move it. Organization and planning are key.

Juggling work time, family time, and personal time can be very hectic but also very rewarding. One week my calendar was a mix of different category colors as I was volunteering at my kids’ school three mornings, then taking client calls midday, and then driving my kids to their afternoon activities. Of course, my schedule is not always that hectic, and it would be very challenging to keep up that pace on a weekly basis. Still, I enjoy having control of my time and being able to maintain a presence during my kids’ day-to-day activities.

If you’re trying a certain routine or process and it’s frustrating you regularly, don’t quit on the whole idea of having your own practice. If you feel that you’re not getting any work done but you’re still not spending more time at your kids’ school, don’t start applying for corporate positions again. Instead, reevaluate what is not working, and figure out what you can do instead. Maybe cut back on your daily out-of-office commitments, or try a different tracking arrangement or filing setup. Reorganize your office or whatever else you decide needs changing.

I remember spending a few weeks keeping a separate pad for each client. Then I was going crazy trying to grab a client pad and not write on the wrong client pad when I got on a call or wanted to note something. I realized this just didn’t work; instead, I made sure I wrote the client’s name and date on the top of each page and started a new page if I was working on a new client matter. Then at the end of the day, I would add the pages to the applicable client file. Don’t stick with what doesn’t work.

Most importantly, never lose sight of why you started your own practice to begin with. Your hours might not be traditional, your schedule might be completely abnormal, but you control your time. It is possible to have work-life balance—if you plan for it.

Elizabeth Cuccinello

Elizabeth Cuccinello is a solo in Garnerville, New York, with ten years’ experience working with technology and other business start-ups. Her background has focused on issues such as licensing agreements, privacy issues, and terms of use.