'One step at a time' trumps fear, stress

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Published on 7/2/07

I could hear the stress on the other end of the phone. A coaching client had called and obviously needed help, but he couldn't verbalize why.

His practice seemed to be spinning out of control, and he couldn't decide which practice areas he should focus on, how he was going to focus on them, and whether he would make the money he needed if he did come to a decision on focus.

My first advice was that he should pause and physically take a deep breath. I used that break to explain that, for anyone feeling stressed out, the ultimate problem is fear of the unknown. Fear freezes us and keeps us from taking the necessary actions and decisions -- and sometimes we become afraid to do anything at all.

If you reach this point in your practice, there are two steps that can help you regain control:

First, strategize what you need to do. Start at the 40,000-foot level and do brainstorming with a paper notepad or a computerized one - whatever you're comfortable with.

Let's say you want to prioritize the time you spend on certain parts of your practice but don't know where to begin. Start by listing all the types of matters you help clients with. Sort them by what you enjoy doing most; or by which has the best clients to work with; or by which offers the steadiest work.

Don't worry about where you'll end up with this process. By thinking through what you do piece by piece, you will be less overwhelmed by, and fearful about, the totality of it. Then you'll be able to take concrete steps: go back to old files in the practice areas you've identified, dust off old contacts and get in touch with them.

Second, understand your financial position. Actually look at how much money you have coming in today compared to six months ago or a year ago.

Make a list of which clients you can reasonably expect to pay you in the next four weeks or the next eight weeks. Make another list of where your money is going -- for rent, salaries, equipment, and so on. What you'll end up with is a documented cash flow analysis. If there's cause for concern, your analysis will show it. If not, it gives you a tool to keep on top of things.

In both instances, taking the time to think things through is the equivalent of a deep breath that restores perspective.

Technology often conspires with traditional attitudes to make lawyers think they always know what needs to be done, and that they can do it themselves if they just work hard enough and fast enough. That's asking far too much of anyone, and trying to do such a big task all at once often produces self-defeating fear and paralysis.

A 1,000-mile journey is nothing more than a series of steps; take them one at a time.

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