7 lawyer time management issues and how to avoid them

I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of excellent lawyers throughout the past four decades. (I spent two as a lawyer, and then spent the next two coaching lawyers.) What I have observed is that lawyers genuinely care about those they serve. This is proven by the fact that too many were stressed and overwhelmed because they wanted to do everything possible to help their clients.

Chances are you know the feeling.

While giving clients your best will make you an exceptional lawyer, it also will make you easy prey for the following time management issues that will leave even the most seasoned attorneys stressed out.

Issue #1: Taking On Too Much

When you want to help, it’s too easy to say “yes” and that’s when time management troubles typically begin. You may say to yourself that it’s no problem to put in a few extra hours, on top of the extra you’re already working. But we are not machines. At some point, your adrenaline will drop, and your body and brain won’t keep up. The return on the time you invest diminishes with each minute you overwork yourself. That’s not good for you or for your clients. 

Saying no doesn’t mean you won’t ever do it, it simply means you can’t take on a new client, for instance, for another six weeks. Or, it may mean delegating a task. Practice how you’re going to say no so that when that partner walks in to drop another project on a plate that is already overflowing, you’re set to respond, “I’ve got three assignments from three other attorneys already. Would you be willing to speak with them to see which ones come first?”

This ability to say “no” is absolutely critical if you’re on your way to becoming a star lawyer because everyone will want your time.

Issue #2: Allowing Constant Interruptions

Create a rule that for one or two hours at a set time daily, you will not allow any interruptions – whether that’s a phone call or a knock on the office door. Stand firm on this rule. Practice what you will say to people who show up unannounced so that gentle “no” rolls effortlessly off your tongue. Consider something like: “I don’t have time to talk right now, but if you come back in an hour, I would be happy to chat with you.”

To counter your no-interruption period, you will also want to make sure your schedule isn’t back-to-back activity each day. Leave wiggle room so that you can respond to the unexpected outside of your no-interruption hours.

Issue #3: Estimating and Capturing Time Inaccurately

If you consistently work until the wee hours to complete projects at the last minute or find yourself writing off hours, it’s critical that you start adding hours to your estimates. Before deciding how much time a project will require, look at everything that’s on your plate and analyze how much time similar projects have taken.

While you may be eager to present the best value or impress clients or other attorneys in your firm, be realistic. It’s not impressive to submit work later than promised because you overextended yourself or guessed wrong. Furthermore, it’s far more expensive than you may realize to write off time. Consider this: When a lawyer, who charges $250 an hour, decides not to charge for even one hour a week, they lose $12,000 a year. By capturing that hour they gain $12,000.

Issue #4: Procrastinating

Optimizing time begins by not putting work off.  If you find yourself procrastinating, think deeply about why. There’s a reason behind it and it’s often:

  • Not knowing what to do next. If that’s your situation, turn to colleagues or do some research – take even a small step to propel yourself forward.
  • Not liking the client. Perhaps the client is difficult to work with or doesn’t pay. Then maybe it’s time to vet clients more thoroughly or be more selective about who you represent.

Issue #5: Doing Everything Yourself

Delegate when you have the opportunity. I find many lawyers, especially new partners, are unwilling to delegate or don’t delegate well. Make sure you find the person with the skill set to do the work well, but don’t abandon them. Oversee their work without micromanaging.

Issue #6: Being a Perfectionist

Not everything requires 100% of your attention. Consider the Pareto Principle: You get 80% of your outcome from 20% of your effort.  Learn what needs to be perfect and what doesn’t. Evaluate and prioritize your to do list. A brief for a corporate client, for instance, will require 100% of your effort. A simple court order, however, may not require you to tweak the language to perfection.

Issue #7: Dismissing Technology

You now have the ability to save yourself and your practice hours every day with law practice management software. You can be more efficient and therefore create more time by simplifying your matter management and automating your calendaringbilling and document-building activities, while gaining the flexibility to work from anywhere. And the best solutions do so with far more security than even the biggest law firms. 

Unfortunately, the one thing too many lawyers say is “no” to technology. This could leave you in breach of legal ethics and at a competitive disadvantage:

  • Consider recent ABA mandates, adopted by 28 states to date, that require lawyers be technologically competent.
  • Consider firms that do adopt technology. A 2014 Blue Hill Research study found that attorneys save up to 8 hours a month when using practice management software and the majority were able to turn that time into billable hours.  Firms will technology are more efficient and have more time to focus on the things that really matter.  That gives them a competitive advantage over firms that dismiss technology.

Time well-invested in taking advantage of technology always has a huge return.

These time management issues will consume you and your practice if you let them. Start new habits to address them and you’ll quickly free up the hours you need to be more successful personally, professionally and financially.

About the author 
Irene Leonard was a lawyer for 20 years before establishing her coaching practice, Coaching for Change. As a master certified coach, her mission is to help lawyers manage and grow their practices so they enjoy their work more and make more money. She offers an abundance of free tools on her website to help lawyers more easily navigate change.