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Focus on the bigger picture

Meeting the time management challenges of your practice

As an attorney, you’re all too familiar with the pressure to do a thousand things – and to get them all done right away. You can divide them into two categories:

  1. To Do needs: I need this form. I need this document. I need a sample to build from. I need to draft this brief. I need to advise my client. I need to quickly answer my client’s question.
  2. To Know needs: I need to understand this process. I need to research this issue. I need to know about changes to the law. I need to interpret my research and apply it to my work. In short, I need to know I am right.

That’s more than a full plate. That’s several plates, filled to overflowing. And being a conscientious practitioner of your profession, you want to fulfill these needs to the best of your ability. You must know the law and how to apply it. There’s very little room for error.

It is certainly true that managing these types of issues becomes easier over the years as you gain experience. But at the same time, the things you must know, and the rules for doing them change quickly. You can begin work on a project – and then, once you’re deep into it, discover that you’ve lost time building a case based on rulings and legal interpretations that are no longer valid. Yours is a dynamic profession, which is a chief reason its practitioners find it continually engaging. But that dynamism includes drawbacks. You can spend a great deal of time staying current but never feel 100% confident you did everything right.

That constant challenge creates a nasty side effect. A relentless focus on these “to do” and “to know” needs can lead attorneys to fixate on the trees, not the forest. You might characterize it as thinking small. Make no mistake: These are essential tasks. You could spend most of your time striking them off your daily get-it-done lists. And that kind of focus can pay off – but only in small ways. It won’t always increase your billable hours or your caseload, and it certainly won’t make your life any easier. You can complete those tasks one day, then find them reappearing over and over, keeping you from getting ahead at a more strategic level. In short, focusing on the small details can take a big bite out of the broader success of your practice.

Reducing unbillable time, consistently doing your best work and delivering superior client value – and meeting all three of these objectives at the same time – constitutes one of the biggest challenges an attorney will face. That’s especially true if you run a smaller firm. But you won’t meet the challenge by working harder or faster. It’s a much deeper, more systemic problem.

In this paper, we will look at the challenge of time management. By understanding all the elements and issues connected with it, you can then develop ways to address its complexities. You can’t insulate yourself completely from these variables; the challenge will always exist. But you can mitigate its disruptive effects. Doing so will pay off in a more prosperous practice—and a less stressful one.

Chapter One

How bad is the problem, really?

Many of the time-management dilemmas law firms face come from the fact that these attorneys practice law and manage a business at the same time. In the Thomson Reuters Institute report that surveyed more than 400 law firms and analyzed the challenges they were facing, respondents listed their top eight challenges as follows:

  • Acquiring new clients
  • Spending too much time on administrative work
  • Getting paid by clients
  • Controlling costs
  • Increasing complexity of technology
  • Obtaining internal efficiencies
  • Managing rate pressure from clients
  • Keeping up with the competition

Attorneys in the survey reported they spent more than 40%, or more than three hours per day, on tasks other than practicing law. The firms surveyed identified the chief attributes of success as high client satisfaction ratings, repeat business, profitability, and work-life balance. The time spent on administrative tasks takes away from the time they could spend on building client satisfaction and other measures of success.

During the last two editions of the survey, the Thomson Reuters Institute report expanded the list of challenges. The results show moderate and significant challenges facing firms with fewer than 10 attorneys. The first percentage listed represents responses from firms of 2 to 6 attorneys; the second represents responses from firms of 7 to 10 attorneys:·        

  • Acquiring new clients: 74% / 79%
  • Spending too much time on administrative tasks: 68% / 74%
  • Getting paid by clients: 63% / 68%
  • Cost control: 68% / 73%
  • Increasing complexity of technology: 55% / 65%
  • Lack of internal efficiency: 60% / 56%
  • Clients demanding more for less or rate pressure: 50% / 64%
  • Keeping up with competitors: 59% / 64%

After the most important issue of client acquisition, the next three challenges require improving business management processes in order to boost efficiency and profitability—goals that are very much intertwined. On the business side of the practice, firms struggle with cost control and growth of expenses, along with the added complexities of managing staff and technology.

All this demonstrates that the business side of a practice can take up a great deal of time. Again, it’s essential work. If a firm isn’t financially well managed, a large caseload won’t make it profitable—or as profitable as it could be, especially when it’s a challenge to get bills paid by clients. We’ll discuss some strategies for evaluating the business side of your firm later in this paper.

But first, let’s turn back to the time-management challenges that more directly involve the practice of law.

A chief reason why the problem of time management is so troublesome is that it’s more than one problem.

There’s the problem of the unknown

It’s something of a cliché, but it’s usually true: you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s not necessarily an insurmountable hurdle, if you know where to look for accurate information. But not knowing the best tools for sourcing that crucial information makes the problem much more difficult.

For example, some attorneys start with Google or other low-cost search methods that aren’t geared specifically to the subtleties and complexities of legal issues. These attorneys might have access to more useful research tools such as Westlaw, but for one reason or another, choose not to use them. For example, they might not have a clear sense of the search terms they need to use. Even something as simple as “dischargeable debt in bankruptcy” will require knowing and including specific details and nuances to inform a successful search.

Or let’s say you’re looking for information on something a little more specific, such as, “starting an LLC in California.” Perform a standard online search, and you’ll find plenty of content, and maybe even some context. But that information might well not be up to date, or even particularly relevant to what you’re seeking. 

In addition, there are obvious as well as unexpected adjacent issues that can affect even a basic legal matter. Since acquiring that knowledge is time intensive, getting yourself up to speed on all those other issues isn’t practical to achieve on your own.

You can attempt to handle the problem of the currently unknown by tapping into institutional knowledge, research tools, and experience you have derived from prior cases. But even when your work had a successful outcome, there might have been hidden risks—unknown to you—that didn’t affect your case or brief, at least not that time. With subsequent court rulings altering how laws can or might be interpreted and depending upon your specialty, new case law often requires something new to learn in order to keep your clients well served.

Say, for example, that your specialty is providing legal work for manufacturers in your region. Even if those clients run small businesses, they often have big issues—issues that go beyond relatively simple contract law. For instance, do they maintain an online database of clients that includes potentially sensitive information? Then you may need to brush up on data privacy laws, as well as cybersecurity requirements. You might even require a working knowledge of the kinds of technology and best practices needed to keep computer systems safe from hackers, and customer data safe from cyber thieves. Hardly the sort of thing taught in law school, but it is the type of knowledge that can quickly become outdated.

Then there’s the problem of unprofitable time

Paying staff for work you can’t bill reduces profits. And this unprofitable time is often closely intertwined with the problem of the unknown. Clients don’t care to pay you to keep your legal knowledge current. They expect you to maintain your legal expertise on your own. Need to spend time keeping abreast of these changes? That’s not their problem, it’s yours.

Partners in a firm frequently prefer to pay associates for research and related tasks. Associates, in turn, don’t want to look uninformed, so they put in an abundance of hours to keep current with the law. This also applies to corporate counsel and even to veteran attorneys, on occasion. Nevertheless, what is acceptable practice and process for their current case might be invalid the next time a similar matter comes across their desks.

Chapter Three

So what’s the solution?

There is no single, one-size-fits-all approach to solving this complex challenge. In fact, it takes big thinking to reduce the time you spend on smaller tasks. Consider pursuing these strategies to make more efficient use of your time and spend fewer hours on non-billable work.

Streamline and simplify your legal research process

Streamlining starts by using reliable online tools specifically designed for the legal profession. Google is a remarkable search engine, but it’s best to use it as a general encyclopedia and not a law library. It hasn’t been designed to keep track of all the numerous ongoing changes in the law. It has major gaps when compared with services like Westlaw, which are purposefully built to keep pace with evolution in the law.

That noted, even the most sophisticated software can’t turn a layperson into a lawyer. Even experienced attorneys need to know how to effectively research a legal issue. The best online legal research tools also offer access to human expertise. Typically, these experts include reference attorneys, attorney editors, or law librarians—people who can provide guidance on finding the most up-to-date and most useful information. Digital algorithms, although extremely efficient, aren’t attuned to all the subtleties of legal knowledge.

Stop reinventing the wheel

Look for existing services or resources that can help you get started down the path. Think about how you can develop a case or brief without having to build your knowledge from the ground up. Seek out expert-created content that’s germane to your task and ideally written in clear, straightforward language. That way, once you begin to put together the project, you will already understand the law and what you need to do next.

Increase your awareness of changes in the law

Veteran attorneys know from experience they must consider and verify new rulings and interpretations in any case or brief. Even so, keeping abreast of all the changes in statutes, regulations and interpretations will always be one of the most crucial and most challenging aspects of the profession. That’s especially true for solo practitioners.

Increase your confidence in your work product

Use technology to check your work and plan your strategy. This can provide peace of mind about how the results of all your hard work will play out in court. Again, you need the proper tools for the job.

Look for technology to help identify behavior patterns among your peers, competition, or judges. This information can define your case strategy and even help manage your clients’ expectations of how their case could play out. Giving yourself and the others in your firm access to accurate, up-to-date legal resources can also allow you flexibility in running your practice. Over time, your current practice may need to change to reflect the waxing and waning of societal trends, interpretations of the law, or even new opportunities and litigation spurred by the evolution of technology.

Flexibility and access to the latest information is key to law firms forced to change with the times.

Get a second set of eyes

Pick up any reputable work of nonfiction, and you’ll find a long list of acknowledgements from the author thanking all those who read a draft of the book and identified errors, unsubstantiated information, and unclear writing. Before scientists publish a paper, they receive a peer review that scrutinizes the data and the conclusions to make sure they’re reliable and valid.

As an attorney, you should feel no qualms about seeking similar kinds of help. Everyone needs a second set of eyes, whatever their profession. It’s an essential part of quality control. It’s no knock on your expertise to ask for a knowledgeable outside review of your most important documents. We’re often too involved in our work to see all the places where we might make the work sharper and more effective.

And, after all, “outsiders” such as judges, arbitrators, opposing counsel, and juries will be examining and weighing your work. Litigators know the importance of crafting ironclad work, since their opponents look for any breach they can find. And while the risks of weaknesses in a document are perhaps smaller for transactional attorneys, they are by no means absent.

Prepare your work for the challenges it will face by taking advantage of peer review or resources that will assist you in your drafting and document-curating process. These experts can include other attorneys as well as attorney editors. Consulting with these knowledgeable specialists will probably cost you some money at the front end, but they can save you from embarrassment, a lost case, and potential lost revenue. In the long run, you will come out ahead.

One final note: don’t become an inflexible adherent to perfectionism. To be sure, you want to produce work at the highest level, but the time you have available to you isn’t infinite. Once you’ve done your due diligence and made certain your work is as solid as possible—given the time you have, the tools you’ve used, and the quality checks you’ve performed—you’ve earned the right to move on to your next task with a clear conscience.

Chapter Four

Managing the business more efficiently

Now let’s return to the business management side of your practice. Many firms struggle even when they serve an abundance of clients. That’s often because they don’t measure how well or how badly the business side is running.

One effective strategy for getting a better handle on the business side of your practice is the use of what are called key performance indicators (KPIs). Though recently applied to the practice of law, KPIs have long been used in accounting, engineering, and other professions. They can help you develop a more disciplined approach that can make your practice more productive and more profitable.

The following are some examples of business fundamentals that your firm can measure and act upon.

Client development

Will you earn enough revenue from potential clients to justify taking on their cases?

Client acquisition costs

How much are you spending to add business? One way to measure this cost is to add up the money that you spent directly on sales and marketing, then add in the opportunity cost of staff or attorney time. Then divide that sum by the number of new clients your firm has brought in.


A helpful metric here is the total money your firm collected in a 60-day period divided by the total billings.


One way to measure it is to ask: how much money is collected per attorney compared with that attorney’s total billing?

Client experience

To expand your practice, it pays to measure and monitor your client satisfaction. A potentially useful measurement in this regard is the net promoter score, which is the percentage of your clients that promote your firm.

Monthly reviews of such measurements can help you track time spent on cases and projects and help you set fees. They can also help you determine whether you need—and can afford—to hire more staff or add new technology. Or you might discover that it is financially worthwhile to delegate business management tasks to outsiders, such as accountants and specialty bookkeeping firms, which can allow you to focus more of your time on billable work.  

These and other business management techniques are detailed in “The Winning Approach: How Small Firms Can Overcome Common Business Challenges,” a free white paper from Thomson Reuters.

Chapter Five

Summing up

Your vocation isn’t an easy one. The rigors of practicing law are well documented here and elsewhere. Success—both in business and the practice of law, as well as in achieving your professional goals—requires you to recognize the holes in the daily operation of your firm, those functions where valuable time likely escapes, uncompensated. Once identified, you must then create a system that seals the holes as securely as possible. For attorneys, that requires making use of both high-tech tools and human expertise.

As we’ve noted through various examples, there is a great deal that technology can do to help you reduce the time needed on legal research and business management.

But maximizing the time you devote to the actual, billable practice of law requires more than silicon and solder. Despite the blue-sky visions of some tech gurus, the practice of law will never be taken over by smart machines. The law remains a very human creation and the human element will always be a part of the legal practice. No machine can address that. Even more reason to spend time on those aspects of your practice—time where you’re billing for your expertise and not your access to software. And more reason to access the help of skilled human beings who can uncover the subtleties that might sink a case or crown a brief.

Ultimately, the key to improving the time management challenge is to never let “thinking small” tasks dominate your practice. And that requires you to think big about how that practice currently operates.

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