While out on a walk, I briefly overheard part of a conversation about weddings. What caught my attention was this comment: “Why do people spend so much time and money on their wedding and so little on their marriage?” That question struck a chord with me. Now I’m not one to say don’t celebrate life’s big events; but if your focus is such that it will only shine on the big events and never on the day-to-day, there’s a problem.
I’m a road warrior and I understand having to miss the band concerts, the cross country races, and the social functions with friends all in the name of earning a living and helping to pay the bills. I’ve also worked with too many solo attorneys who manage to fit in a long weekend every couple of years which they often refer to as “the family vacation.” Couple this with the stereotypical Big Law definition of part-time lawyers as those who work a 40 hour workweek and hopefully you begin to see my point. Kids don’t stay young forever, spouses don’t want to wait until retirement to enjoy a life together, and friends won’t keep asking if the answer is always “I can’t tonight.”
With all this in mind, I would like to share a few thoughts that if put in play might help keep things in balance over the long haul. Let’s remove some of the stress on the work side of the equation and perhaps find a little time to nourish the personal side. Then, take that time and spend it well. Here are a few ideas.
Do all that you can to determine if a client can actually afford your services before agreeing to accept their legal matter. If this is a hard conversation to have, it’s time to learn how. Also, stop acting like a bank. Consider shifting away from having to deal with the collections burden by accepting credit card payments or perhaps taking retainers. Finally, if an account becomes delinquent and there is no reasonable way for the client to eventually make good get out if able, come up with a new discounted payment plan that is going to be realistic for the client, or simply acknowledge that this one is going to be pro bono. Staying in denial wastes too much energy. You might also look for any learning in these situations so that you don’t find yourself handling a similar forced pro bono matter next quarter. For example, think about how you could change your intake procedures in such a way that would help you better identify potential problem payers.
Start every day by doing the one thing that you’ve been putting off. It might be returning a call to an unhappy client, having to pass along bad news, finally starting to write that brief, or making one of those marketing calls so many struggle with. We all tend to put off tasks that we view as distasteful. Stop it. The time that is wasted with procrastination and the toll of carrying the burden hour after hour or day after day isn’t worth it. Whatever it is, get it out of the way first thing and the rest of day will be more productive.
Set boundaries and stick to them. Who says all calls must be returned within two hours or that all email must be replied to immediately. We each work differently. If morning is a productive time for you, make sure to protect and make the best use of that time. Let clients know in advance that you will not take calls, receive walk-ins, or read and respond to email between the hours of 8 and 10 and have staff enforce that policy. Short of an important call from a judge or a true client emergency, this becomes your productive time. Calls can be returned and email responded to after. Interruptions wreak havoc because it takes time to get back into the swing. That’s time wasted and it can quickly add up to serious lost time. Learn to control and manage interruptions by setting boundaries. In this same vein, delegate what can be delegated. For those who struggle with this, trust your judgment in who you hired. It will be ok. If that’s hard, periodically review their work as a way to reassure yourself and then start the process of letting go.
Smart phones and tablets are wonderful tools that enable all kinds of efficiencies. That said, just because it’s possible to take a call while hiking in Yellowstone or respond to email while poolside in Cabo doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Personal time is just that, personal time. Keep it that way. Our kids knew not to respond to a text while at the dinner table and my wife, rightly so, continues to expect that I will refrain from checking work email whenever we’ve set aside couple time. No Surface Pro, no Droid. This is about learning to prioritize personal time in order to stay sharp. If you never get away, even if it’s just a short walk over the noon hour to get some fresh air, the “always available” lifestyle will catch up with you. Batteries die, engines break down, and hearts stop. I have literally seen guys go down with a heart attack. Trust me, not good. We all need to rest and relax in order to recharge and stay healthy.
Finally, focus on the day-to-day. Even on those occasional 14 hour workdays on the road I still manage to find time to text the kids, call my wife, and when I can, enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner. It forces me to slow down and refocus. When I am home, I leave work at work and get into the kitchen as much as I can. The whole family loves it when I do, but more importantly, that’s my time. Absolutely life’s milestones are worth celebrating; but if you’re missing too much of the day-to-day stuff you may come to find that no one is there to celebrate with you, or worse yet, that you’re the one missing.
This article was first published on February 5, 2013 on the blog of Solo Practice University. I invite you to take a look at what is another useful resource for information about managing one’s practice.