The Delicate Balance of Law Firm Priorities

Reprinted from:
Published 1/13

Even after years of tough economic times, good lawyers still have more than enough work. In fact, sole practitioners who have effectively marketed themselves can face client demands so high that they cause stress over whether the work will get done. These days, a single lawyer can create an outsized presence in the profession through a web site, blog and advertising, as well as by using articles, speaking engagements, service on community boards of directors and bar association activities. If these have all been successful, they may bring in a volume of work that seems too great to handle.

Lawyers are always concerned over having enough client demand in the pipeline. But, being over-extended is just as great a worry. The flexibility offered by word processing and billing software, voicemail, email and other electronic tools, combined with the entrepreneur's "I can manage 100 cases by myself" mentality, can lead to a volume of work in which clients increasingly experience quality problems and inattentive service. That defines an overwhelmed practice, one that is headed either for client complaints, malpractice claims or insolvency.

Too Much Work, or Too Little?

This, of course, contrasts with the nagging fear, present in even the strongest practices, that work could suddenly dry up. Consider a lawyer whose new practice has taken hold, with the result that she has succeeded in keeping her accounts receivable current and well-managed. In other words, she has been able to work, bill and get paid quickly. Her concern, though, is whether promptly securing payment from clients puts her at a disadvantage by limiting how much additional work she has lined up to do.

This is a misplaced concern in light of the three-part cycle that drives law firm operations. Lawyers must, in turn, win the work (the marketing function), do the work effectively and efficiently (the production function), and get paid (the collections function). The trick is in balancing the three functions so that the business pipeline remains consistently full. Too many lawyers overweigh the marketing and production sides rather than collections. They equate financial success with billable hours – the end product of marketing and production. But all three functions must be treated with equal importance. If collections are insufficient to support cash flow, the practice becomes a three-legged stool with one leg too short. The resulting imbalance is dangerous.

A large receivable listing creates a different problem. This means that too many receivables are old and too little effort is being made to manage and collect them. The most drastic cure for this kind of imbalance can be to "stop working" and to focus all the practice's energy on collecting the accounts that are overdue. Even if no work is done for the next 30 days on any legal matter, except for deadline-sensitive matters, the amount that that could be brought in may well equal many months' revenue. This may be an extreme suggestion – after all, lawyers are ethically bound to assist current clients whose matters require attention and to consider representing potential clients who ask for assistance – but it again illustrates the importance of placing equal weight on all parts of the production cycle.

No Time, or No Priorities?

For lawyers, nothing is more important than the management of what Lincoln called our "stock in trade" – time. Lawyers don't really sell time, but time, in the form of billable hours, typically measures our effort. Late in the year, with collection targets looming and the press of completing and billing projects before December 31, the need to manage time better can be overwhelming. Then come the urgent voicemails, unread emails and text messages, overloaded inbox, family pressures ... creating what seems to be an inevitable time shortage for making the production function work.

In fact, what is needed is a review of priorities. Most lawyers who claim they have too little time, or are overwhelmed by time demands, generally either fail to make a list of priorities, hop around any list they do make, or are easily distracted by other tasks. This defines procrastination, and the root cause typically is that lawyers simply find it difficult to prioritize. Attempting to do so when there appear to be so many competing priorities for work and practice demands produces lawyers who are close to burn-out, or at the very least are unhappy.

Some lawyers feel that flexible work schedules are a viable solution to this kind of prioritizing dilemma. Certainly flexibility is needed to satisfy the now sometimes four generations of lawyers working in the same office, each with their own concept of priorities and demands. No clear universal solution exists. Any viable approach must reflect not only the lawyer's situation, but also the needs and priorities of the lawyer's clients.

Clients and lawyers often disagree about work-life balance. Perhaps the only real solution is to match the clients who accept work-life balance for themselves, as well as for those who serve their interests (demand), with the attorneys who believe that they can perform excellent legal services at the same time they have a reasonable life (supply). Even then, a prioritizing system for billable work is essential, because important client priorities must be addressed.

Under Control, or Out of Control?

Several years ago, I participated in a discussion where solo lawyers expressed reluctance about marketing their practices and getting more business. Some feared losing time for professional and personal obligations, others feared less flexibility of their schedule. All believed in setting limits on how much they could and wanted to do. Such work/life balance is a long-term assessment that every lawyer must make. In the short term, there is really no such day-to-day phenomenon as balance – at any given moment the lawyer is doing just one thing, either working or engaging in personal pursuits. The broader perspective is how much cumulative time is devoted to each, and what you value more.

All successful people work long hours and are focused and passionate about what they do. In the effort to excel, made more intense by the pressure of economics, trying too hard can cause problems for lawyers. Generally, successful lawyers are competitive lawyers. But, if a lawyer doesn't know when to stop, and has to come out on top and in control even for little things, the striving for success can be counterproductive.

Having 2,000 or 2,500 or more billable hours a year indicates hard work, but this is only a method of accounting. Lawyers work long hours because we love what we do; we love helping people; and we want to earn more money to better take care of our loved ones. Billable hours are merely a way of showing clients what they have bought. Lawyers wanting to maximize their billable hours, while maintaining a sense of balance in their lives, should take a deep breath and assess their time and money wants (desirable but not necessary) and needs (fundamental requirements). Remember what Confucius said, "Pursue a job you love and you never have to work a day in your life." Successful lawyers can get past the distractions and stress, define what matters, then put their focus on what they value most.

It's no secret that lawyers tend to be individualistic (reluctant to give up personal control or direction), reactive (believing they must be flexible to accommodate variables that can't be anticipated) and short-term (focusing on the contract, case or negotiation they have today). These traits undermine having adequate control of time. But by defining and pursuing priorities on a structured basis, lawyer, clients and firm all will benefit, by improving management of work, priorities and time.

Asking Enough, or Too Much?

Each lawyer has strengths, weaknesses, productive behaviors and stress behaviors. The interaction of these factors determines the ability to deal successfully with work, time and control issues. The lawyer who expects to respond perfectly in every situation without taking the time to plan for and consider the balancing of priorities is unnecessarily adding to a stressful burden.

From the time they enter law school, lawyers are trained to 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. Ultimately, such an attitude can make a practice and a life feel like both are spinning out of control.

Lawyers facing such an impasse should pause and physically take a deep breath. For anyone feeling stressed out, the ultimate problem is fear of the unknown and fear of being able to cope with it. Fear freezes us and keeps us from taking the necessary actions and decisions – and is the root cause of much stress. Taking the time to think things through – the volume of practice work, the operations cycle of the firm, its priorities and how well the lawyer is able to set and control them – is the equivalent of a deep breath that restores perspective. A thousand-mile journey is nothing more than a series of steps; take them one at a time.

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