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October 2005

A Rational Lawyer Life

      When I started this firm, I said that I wanted to build it on the foundation of rational behavior. Rational behavior does not ignore reality. Rational behavior takes an honest look at what is happening around you and uses the power of intellect to make smart decisions. That is what I try to do for my clients. Sometimes I do it better for them than I do it for me.

      It is Saturday and I am out jogging on the gorgeous wooded trails behind my office. Fall is here. Leaves trickle down from the windy sky and flicker in the brisk wind. It is sixty-three degrees, with blue skies and sunshine.

      This is the first day that I have been jogging this week. That is not very rational at all. I can rationalize my inability to jog during the week by suggesting that I am just too busy. But if I take an honest look back at the week, I see hours of lost time, inefficient time or low value time spent on low value items. From a rational standpoint, my health and my focus are both tied directly to getting exercise and eating right yet those are things that I have not been doing well lately. As I sit here in the wind in the brown grass along the trail, I know that I must become much more honest about who and where I am in life. It is time to take the next step forward and become a better person than I ever have then. Better for my clients. Better for my staff. Better for my wife. Better for my kids. But most importantly, better for me.

      I don't know what is worse, sliding backwards or standing still. I almost think that staying the same place is a bigger waste. We are all creatures of habits. We must break habits in order to get to the next level. We must build habits in order to get to the next level.

      I think I will spend the next month breaking bad habits and creating new good ones. It is time to challenge myself to take one step further forward in reaching my true potential.


Quality vs. Technology

      The recent NY Times  (need to register to see this article for free) article which highlighted the distracting parts of technology has got me thinking a bit about distraction. The NY Times article essentially recounted research which showed that our ability to focus is often negatively impacted by the distractions of technology. But, there are other distractions that fill our day. BigLawAssociate noted the distractions which come as a result of being an associate of a large firm. He noted that partners would sometimes come in and demand attention. They dole out assignments as if no one's time counted but their own. They freely interrupt and demand that you stop what you are doing right now and listen to them. It isn't that they are trying to interfere with you. It is more that they see themselves at the center of the universe.

      So, do we live in a world where distractions are becoming more abundant? I think that most people would answer this question yes. I know that I would. Yet, we know that quality of work comes as a result of focus, attention, concentration and intellect. I think we all feel that it is more difficult to deliver quality as a result of distractions. However, we also achieve the efficiencies of technology which makes information more readily available, strategic analysis more accessible and increases the ability to exercise intelligence. For instance, in preparing my mediation brief, I can access every document in the file as an Adobe PDF sitting on my hard drive. I have all of my prior analysis embedded into those files. My file structure on my file server breaks information out into categories and subcategories. So that I can quickly grab the important content in the case and throw it into the themes and strategy which my technology also provided leverage on when I first started the case. Instead of spending eight hours preparing the case facilitation brief, I can do it in three.

      So while we can do better quality work as a result of technology, we also know that technology makes it more difficult to focus on the essentials which are there on your file server embedded in your documents. Once we can blend the efficiency which technology brings to bear in an atmosphere of uninterrupted focus, we will have reached a level that has never existed in legal services. Isn't that what we are all striving for?


Removing the Hourly Handcuffs

As I ease into the fall season of my first year as an independent practitioner I am struck by how different legal practice is now compared to a year ago at a traditional hourly billing firm. The work is still hard and challenging. However a lot of the extraneous pressure and distractions are simply not part of my day anymore. I really do find myself focused in on the quality of my work product and my relationship with my clients. These were two areas for which there was no time in a firm where the focus was driven by hourly billing and forcing clients to pay their outstanding bills.

I cannot put into words exactly how this transformation has occurred. Nor can I put into words how different it really feels to have the hourly handcuffs removed


What technology do I use the most?

      Sitting here this morning at my laptop cart, I tried to make myself aware of what technology I am using the most in my practice. I have to say that the most valuable piece of software that I have downloaded on my computer in these last twelve months has been Copernic Desktop Search which allows me to search emails, files, favorites and a variety of other digital files almost instantly. Instead of scrolling through my email inbox or filing structure to find particular document, I simply type in a search term which I know will pull that document up, and then sort by sender, from or date. Because we have standardized file naming conventions, I am able to effectively find .PDF files even when they are not OCR readable. You can download Copernic Desktop Search here. 


Blawg Thinking

      With BlawgThink in Chicago right around the corner, I am once again wondering about such issues as the importance of blogs. There is no question that blogs are growing in both number and importance. However, if I had to name five other local attorneys who read blogs, let alone had an RSS feeder on their computer, I could not name any. Many lawyers I speak to do not really know what blogs are and have very little experience with them.
      This makes BlawgThink even more important for me. Again, I have the opportunity to be at the forefront of a movement and a new technology. Instead of playing catch-up, I have yet another opportunity to take the lead. Knowing what my blog can do in the search engine world, I currently have a huge advantage in obtaining leads for my law firm. In order to maintain that advantage, I need to be two steps ahead of the people behind me and ten steps ahead of those who start adopting this technology in the next six months.


Why Lawyers Don’t Talk about Budgets with their Clients

Does anyone doubt that the reason lawyers don’t talk about budgets with their clients is that they are so focused on getting the client signed up that they don’t want to put any impediments in the way of retention? If a client shows up in a lawyer’s office, there is a good chance that that client has thousands of dollars to spend on legal services. But Lawyers often avoid specific discussion about what it might cost to achieve a certain result. If a client only has fifteen thousand dollars to spend on legal services, but the case is one that looks like it would have to be litigated, then that client is looking at spending fifteen thousand dollars to get nowhere. In many instances the lawyer bills twenty thousand dollars before the problem becomes evident and the client indicates that they are out of money. Of course, nothing of substance has been achieved in the case at that point.

Isn’t it better for attorneys to simply tell clients up front that the result the client seeks cannot be achieved within the client’s budget? At least then, alternatives to litigation can be explored, or the client can simply make the intelligent decision to walk away from the problem. When a lawyer charges a client fifteen thousand dollars to get nowhere, the client will leave that lawyers office unsatisfied and, in all likelihood, with a billing dispute. That client won’t be coming back to that lawyer’s office.

In short, I think that it is a lot better for lawyers to make sure that clients can achieve their expected results within their budget from the very beginning of the case. This approach focuses on strengthening client relationships as opposed to simply draining the clients pocketbook of whatever money is available.


More on Techonology Distractions

My post on continuous partial attention phenomena has sparked some significant debate. The just of the article is that technology is such a huge distraction that it precludes us from actually focusing on tasks in a meaningful way. I think we all experience this at some level nearly every day as a result of cell phones, beepers, computers, email, skype, RSS feeds, ect. Carolyn Elefant at My Shingle posted this comment:

       "I'm going to link to this at my site, but in the meantime, thank you for this tip. At the end of the day, I often feel that I haven't accomplished enough and I blame myself for inefficiency and lack of focus. Now I see that the problem is not necessarily me, but rather, a broader problem that most people face. I know that this realization does not solve the problem, but at least, it enables me to refrain from being so hard on myself."

So this raises the question, what kind of strategies are we going to use in order to get the most out of technology, without suffering the detriments? I would recommend the following three things:

  1. Do not disturb signs. We need to set aside blocks of time where we can get substantial work done without interruptions. Often, I block out sections of my calendar to work on briefs or preform drafting that I know is going to require several hours of uninterrupted time. I would encourage lawyers to use their calenders not only to schedule events, but to block off working time.
  2. Step away from your computer please. We need to find activities in our office which get us out of our seats and away from our computer. In my office, I have a lot of space so I am able to walk around. I have couches. I have working areas where I process papers which are away from my computer. I also make it a point to go visit with staff occasionally in order to simply break away from the laptop. There are too many days where you simply get into the office and sit down at your desk, stare into your computer and wake up realizing it is 6 o'clock at night. We have got to find a way to stop this from happening.
  3. Customize your cell phone message every day. I route most of my calls directly to my cell. I start each day indicating the day, date and my general schedule. Even if I don't have too much on my calendar, I make it clear in my message that I may not be able to return the call right away and provide an emergency number directly to my office if something should arise. You shouldn't pick up every cell phone call. You shouldn't leave messages that indicate that you will immediately return calls because you simply don't know what is going to happen on any given day when you initially customize your message.

The Big Law Associate Blog had an interesting post on the continuous partial attention phenomena. This anonymous blogger states:

            "This becomes a huge problem when you have billing targets to meet and an ethical conscience to maintain. For BigLaw associates it is all too common to spend a day in a state of frazzled and chaotic inattention, with constant interruptions or too many urgent tasks on your mind, and at the end of it feel that you have achieved nothing. Yet, you have to bill your 8 hours at outrageous rates or fall further behind."

Big Law Associate is correct that it is not only technology which can distract us but other members of a firm. This is another huge advantage of being an independent practitioner. I only have to juggle my clients and my staff. I don't have to answer to other attorneys or partners for whom there is no politically correct way to say "not now." There is no way to say that "I will have to put your task at number fifteen because I have fourteen other more important things which need to be done." Until we are able to take control of our task lists, make priorities on objective factors such as need and risk and find blocks of time to do quality work, our clients will not be as well served as they deserve to be.