Don’t procrastinate, prioritize -- and get help

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Published 06/14/2010

There are two types of "law time" hours: those necessary to develop and provide legal advice and those necessary to run the business of law. Both types are required for a financially successful and personally satisfying law practice.

Taking the time for business management requires setting and regularly reviewing priorities, but far too many lawyers procrastinate on that vital task. They either lack confidence in themselves to do the task (never having received either law practice management training in law school or on-the-job training), lack interest in achieving the objective (finding law more interesting and absorbing and demanding) or put too low a priority on achieving the objective (preferring to emphasize billable time rather than viewing the practice as a holistic whole).

Finding time for managing the firm requires creating a set of priorities. Start with daily prioritizing: If you have an overall goal to achieve for the practice, break it down into smaller tasks that are performable and achievable within smaller timeframes.

Sit down today and create a list of priorities for tomorrow based on your overall business goals. When you come in tomorrow morning, address the number one thing for the day, then two, then three. At the end of the day, assess the priorities that were left undone and reprioritize them for tomorrow. By doing that you are always at least accomplishing the first priority and moving the ball forward

Using that prioritizing system for billable work is usually no problem because there are always ways to address important client priorities. In marketing or similar non-billable issues, priorities are harder to set because they’re typically approached only after the billable work is done.

Unlike with client matters, there are no ethical or financial consequences for not meeting business priorities. They simply languish, to the long-term detriment of the firm. But there’s no threat of lawsuit for malpractice or complaints from clients to the state bar because you didn’t take care of your own financial well-being.

The way to set priorities here is for the lawyer to define the self-consequences if business priorities are not achieved. Even so, acting as your own conscience in that way is difficult.

The more practical way to get those non-billable priorities done is to work with a coach and have the coach provide accountability. No one wants to look foolish or unreliable before an authority figure, and failure to adhere to your own goals is failure to be reliable. Adding accountability to the role of a coach creates short-term consequences. If you don’t achieve priorities, the coach will show you your own unreliability and what that can mean.

A good coach is not a friend who only compliments and encourages. Accountability means a coach is a leader who also pushes and challenges. That is difficult for lawyers to accept. I recall a personal experience when my wife wanted me to take up skiing, which I was reluctant to do. She even scheduled a ski school session for me over the Christmas holiday.

Before then, however, I had the opportunity to take skiing lessons from a friend, thoroughly upsetting my wife. I ultimately realized why I had acted as I did: My friend asked me to learn to ski and offered to be my teacher, saying I could go into a school on the mountain later if I still wanted to.

My wife told me to and said she would "put me in school," rejoining me later in the day. I resented the "order" being told what to do.

In reality, my wife was simply pushing me to achieve, as a coach would do, and the best approach — with wives and coaches — is to accept the challenge and strive to meet it. The truly successful person wants and needs a target, and when it comes to prioritizing, a coach can sharpen your aim.

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