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RŌNIN REPORTS: Work Smarter, Not Harder

By Benjamin K. Sanchez

In this day and age, the world always seems to be on the move. Many attorneys are forced to work long hours either to get ahead in their place of employment or to make ends meet in solo and small firms. Owing to our constant work, we associate being busy with being productive. I have come to learn that we need to rid ourselves of the mantra of working hard and instead learn to work smart.

What Is Working Smart

The idea of working smarter, not harder, has been around for a while. Timothy Ferriss became famous with his 2007 book entitled The 4-Hour Workweek. There he describes how to maximize your output in smarter ways in order to lessen the amount of time needed to complete your work. Forbes magazine published an article in December 2016 entitled “6 Tips on Working Smarter, Not Harder This Year” (tinyurl.com/y9cyleac). In the article, Rachel Ritlop recognizes that “working smart” means different things to different people, but she asserts “working smart essentially means figuring out what your strengths are and building a network around you to build upon those in order to reach goals in the quickest and most efficient way possible.”

Personally, as a career-long solo and small firm attorney, I have come to understand that working smarter means building a work world that leverages your strengths, focuses on your priorities, maximizes your zone time, and delegates and outsources your weaknesses to those who are stronger, more efficient, and better prepared to handle your weaknesses for you.

Determining Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Based on my own definition and those of experts and gurus who have written on the subject, you must do a focused self-analysis to determine your strengths and weaknesses. Remember, you want to keep your focus on your strengths and assign others to focus on your weaknesses as much as possible. So, how do you begin figuring yourself out?

My first suggestion is not to immediately start taking personality tests and surveys to box yourself into a certain type or character. Instead, I encourage you to truly get away from it all for some peace and quiet by yourself. Given how busy we all tend to make ourselves, I understand I’m asking a lot from you. Trust me, though, if you can find a day or even an entire weekend to escape, relax, decompress, think, and focus on who you really are, including your strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes, you will be amazed at what you discover about yourself. This first step is not about “mindfulness” as that term is used in law practice management circles these days, but rather a deep dive into your head, heart, and life.

Every session of Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyer’s College held at Thunderhead Ranch in Dubois, Wyoming, includes time for the lawyer students to wander out into the wilderness to take personal time for themselves, something many of them have not done in quite a while. The students aren’t magically transformed by a day’s outing by themselves in the middle of Wyoming, but certainly they are prepared to engage in the next three weeks of personal development and growth as attorneys. In a similar vein, I encourage each of you to truly plan some alone time, whether it be on a mountain, at a beach, in a forest, or on a lake. This type of self-exploration is nothing new to man. Henry David Thoreau gave readers a glimpse into his self-imposed isolation in Walden; or, Life in the Woods.

After your own thoughtful consideration of yourself without any influence of the outside world, then you may take tests and read on personality types to better understand how you normally function. I caution against relying on them too much because no human can be put neatly into a box, but certainly these guides can help you understand your tendencies better.

Creating Missions and Goals

When you have taken some time to understand yourself and how you think and function, then you should create your missions and goals. The two are not the same. I think of missions as your life’s themes. Who do you want to be? How do you want to be known and remembered? How do you translate your guiding principles into your work and lifestyle? Goals, on the other hand, are specific and measurable achievements you want to accomplish.

Let’s say you want to be a traveler and see the world. This might be a theme of your life. Where and when you travel would be goals you set for yourself to accomplish this theme. Let’s say you want to be a book author. Long-form writing may be a theme in your life, while achieving certain publications on a defined timetable could be your goals within the theme.

Remember, you are not limited to one mission in your life, but you must make sure that your missions really matter to you. If they don’t, you won’t have the stamina to plan and achieve your goals. The best achievers are focused and devoted; they spend little time on things unimportant to them so that they can maximize their time on things that matter most.

Developing Your Life and Work Styles and Environments

While it’s great to know yourself, create missions, and set goals, you won’t achieve much if you don’t organize your life and work styles and environments. This is the part of the “work smarter, not harder” process with which most people are familiar. This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.

Let’s take myself for example. I love thinking, analyzing, writing, and speaking. I do these four things well. What I don’t like doing is accounting, organizing, and administrative tasks. Back when I was a true solo for a while, I was doing all the above. I was constantly busy and “working hard.” However, now I have a senior paralegal who focuses on her strengths (pleadings and discovery) and a junior paralegal who focuses on the administrative tasks within my firm. I have a part-time associate who can help with the more mundane court appearances when needed. By delegating various roles and tasks to others, I am freed up to concentrate on what I do best and am not constantly stuck at the office day in and day out. While I haven’t managed a regular four-hour work week quite yet (not that I would want to work so little), I have increased the time I have free to do the things I love and help achieve my missions and goals.

For example, my parents taught me to be kind and giving. My lawyer mentors taught me to give back to my profession. Because I work smarter, I now have time to take on more pro bono cases through a local nonprofit legal aid organization, speak at CLE events, mentor young attorneys, and write for my favorite publication, GPSolo! In addition, I plan time with my family without worrying constantly about what’s not done at the office. Although my workload is not perfect, it’s a lot better than it used to be.

I don’t know what you want your life to be, but I know you can accomplish whatever you want. A colleague and law school classmate of mine is very well known and wealthy. He made his money and built his firm the old-fashioned way—he earned it. In 2016 he announced that he wanted to take the year off and enjoy himself. Although he couldn’t achieve this goal 100 percent, he certainly spent most of his time enjoying his time off while still being there for his firm and clients in emergencies and important matters. He liked it so much that he changed his work schedule this year to accommodate more time off and less focus on working all the time. He was able to do this by surrounding himself with people who help him achieve what needs to be done so that he can maximize his strengths where needed as opposed to focusing on the details of his firm. Another colleague of mine loves to travel around the world. She has her own law practice but has developed it in such a way that she has no regular staff and schedules her trips into her life. Unlike my other friend noted above, she has no large staff or office and cannot afford to take a lot of time off, but she is very focused about her time off and what she does with it. She has built her life around her missions and goals and designed her work and life styles and environments to suit her.

Whatever you decide are your missions and your goals to achieve within those missions, you can develop your environment and style to accommodate them.

Go Forth and Conquer

I hope you will find time this fall and winter to go through these steps and write to me about what you learned and how you changed your life accordingly. I wish you all much success!

Benjamin K. Sanchez has a general litigation practice based in Houston, Texas. In addition to his law practice, he has a leadership training, speaking, and personal/business coaching company (Kirk & Hazel Company) and is certified by John C. Maxwell and licensed by Les Brown to train and speak on their respective material. Benjamin Sanchez has been a licensed Texas attorney for 19 years and owned a solo or small firm practice for 14 of those years.