Take care of time, and it will take care of you

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Published on 12/29/08

Abraham Lincoln is often attributed as having said that time and advice are a lawyer's stock in trade. The client receives advice; the lawyer expends time to provide it.

But there are two types of "law time": the hours necessary to develop and provide legal advice, and those necessary to run the practice. Managing this time requires setting and regularly reviewing priorities.

Most folks who claim they have too little time generally i) fail to make a list of priorities, ii) hop around the list, or iii) allow themselves to be distracted by important, but not urgent, other tasks. Then, they don't get "back on the wagon" to re-visit the priority list and pick up where they left off.

Take, for example, that important time-management task that far too many attorneys put off and ignore: completion of daily time records. These records should be prepared as the work is done. Many studies have shown that if time passes between when the work is completed and when it is noted, a certain percentage of the time worked never gets recorded. One missed 10th of an hour each day translates to 23 lost hours a year. At $100 per hour, this results in $2,300 of lost revenue. Few sole or small-firm practices would dismiss such a sum.

Consider just one example of where you can gain time by recording it. Like phone conversations, communication by e-mail on client matters represents billable time. Yet multi-tasking lawyers often don't write down their time notation as they're working on e-mails. And if they don't do it then, by the end of the day, let alone the end of the week, they're going to forget how much tine was spent. The result is lost profit.

The best practice is to keep a running log of time (software-based or otherwise) of everything you do as you do it - or, certainly before leaving the office that day. Even if your memory rivals that of the elephant, you will miss things if you don't do this every single day.

And make sure you review the full summary of time information, looking at it as a whole rather than as individual items. This is the best way to recall something that might otherwise be missed.

Daily time record reviews give you a chance to monitor your progress in achieving billable-hour planning goals. And by reviewing your time records at the end of each week, you will reinforce your chances of reaching those goals or determine the reasons why you are failing to meet them. Such a process will be a major benefit to your marketing efforts.

Finally, regular updating and review of time-management records makes it much easier to construct detailed invoices that itemize exactly what services clients have received for their money.

Because legal services are often intangible, the more information you can provide about your work and accomplishments, the more likely the client will be to perceive the bill as fair and to pay it promptly.

Rather than just billing, for example, "work on motion for summary judgment, 20 hours," detailed time records make it possible to break any such charge into its basic elements, with the amount of time needed for each: review key documents and deposition testimony, draft statement of uncontested facts as required by court procedure, research precedents in four similar cases, and so on.

Such itemization does not try clients' patience; it helps them understand just how much you did on their behalf. Both lawyer and client ultimately benefit, all from an effort that begins by taking just minutes per day.

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