Here are the ten practical steps any lawyer can take to make a huge difference in the quality of their lifestyle.
By James Gray Robinson, Consultant and Speaker
In my consulting practice, I have met many successful lawyers who weren’t happy, satisfied or fulfilled. There are at least ten practical steps lawyers can take to quickly get back on track and be happy, fulfilled, effective and successful. Any lawyer can take these ten practical steps to make a huge difference in the quality of their lifestyle.
Look at Your Billing Structure
Since WWII most attorneys have billed their clients by the hour. Many don’t know why that practice started. Prior to the 1930’s most firms billed by the project and billed different amounts depending on whatever the project involved. To create sustainable revenues, attorneys came up with billing by the hour and managing their time. The bubble burst in the 2008 recession and thousands of lawyers were let go because clients could not afford to pay fees that were getting higher and higher.
The problem with billable hours is obviously attorneys can’t bill for 100% of the time they are in the office, so to make it to the 1,800 or 2,000 hours a year mark, they had to be on the job approximately 25%-35% more than the billable hours depending on how much personal time they took at the office on telephone calls, lunch, etc. This created a lot of stress on the attorney to be more efficient or work longer hours to “get ahead” in their practice.
One solution for the future will probably be a switch from billing by the hour to a flat rate fee per month for basic services (like group legal service contracts) along with specific fees for bullet point projects, such as estate litigation, discovery, arbitration/mediation and inner company conflicts. Many lawyers are already charging flat rate fees for loan transactions, wills, real estate projects, criminal work and other similar short term representation. By charging flat rates, both the client and the lawyer know the cost of the project and can plan accordingly.
Look at How Much Time Is Spent Collecting Bills
The largest source of stress for me in my practice was having to collect my fees, especially when I accomplished a great result for my client. I learned early on that there is no satisfaction of having to sue my client for a fee. The joy and satisfaction of doing a great job and getting a good result often turned sour when I had to collect a fee.
It is important to look at the economics of your practice to see what your loss factor is and how much time you spend chasing after clients. If it is over an hour or two a month, you are heading into high stress territory. Consider going to different billing practices (see above) that requires money in the trust account before you start your work. It is a lot easier to say, “no more” at the start than it is at the end.
Triple Check Your AI
The advent of internet technology has greatly changed the nature of law practice. Paperless law offices will be a thing of the future. The risks of the internet are starting to catch up to unwary lawyers who do not protect their client’s information. This is not to mention the horror stories of emails and attachments which were sent to the wrong email address. The reality of the internet is that lawyers rarely have the bandwidth to manage both their law practices and their technology, especially against malware and hackers.
Few lawyers forego bookkeepers and paralegals, why in heaven’s name would they forego an IT specialist, at least part time, to make sure that their fire wall is protecting their client information. There also should be filters that make sure that the attorney or staff is only sending information that needs to be sent over the internet. It also is crucial that the IT person can make sure that court pleadings are filed with the correct font, margins and spacing. You do not want to get a phone call from the clerk of court saying your pleading does not comply with local rules and has been rejected.
Schedule Time to Do Each Task Every Day
Efficiency experts, life coaches, practice consultants and behavioral psychologists are beginning to understand that the brain does not work the way that has been long thought. Free association and multitasking are counter-productive. Minds work better when the day is planned and the plan is followed. Of course, law practices often have days that aren’t predictable and putting out fires seems to be the order of the day. For the short term that can be exhilarating and fun, but over the long term it gets to be counterproductive and stressful.
Our brains work best when we focus on what we are doing and compartmentalizing those tasks. Getting up in the morning and knowing what we must do that day, doing it well, and going home knowing you have met your goals leads to a very satisfying day. Plan for what must be done for each client, a realistic amount of time that task will take, and put it on your calendar for when it will be done. Sure, things will come up, but you can get back to the task at hand once the emergencies are solved.
I am lucky enough to have spent most of my life without smartphones or anything starting with a capital “I”. I can still remember when my law partner tried to explain to me what the internet was and how to get on it. Even though I can’t imagine life without these technological miracles these days, it is a huge distraction. I have been in meetings and watched no one paying attention to what was happening because they were nose deep into their internet devices. I have been to board meetings, client meetings, depositions and other functions where I had to ignore the “tappity tap tap” of associates on their laptops.
If you want to become more efficient and more mindful, when you are working on a project or in the office, turn off your personal communication devices and pay attention. You can set a routine time to return telephone calls, emails and texts during the day. When you focus completely on your project, it is amazing how quickly and easily it will flow.
Three Times a Day Do Simple Stretching
Science has shown how unhealthy sedentary lifestyles have become for humans. Our circulatory system depends on our entire body to be in motion to circulate effectively. When we sit for long periods of time, blood tends to pool in our lower extremities and puts quite a strain on our hearts to get blood (and oxygen) to our brains. If we make it a priority to simply stand up and do some simple stretching from time to time, this helps us to get blood, oxygen and nutrients to where they need to go, especially to our brains.
For example, bending over and touching our toes, standing on our toes while reaching for the ceiling, and twisting our shoulders around as far as we can and then back to the other side can get your mind and body back in sync. There are hundreds of different stretches or body motions we can do to keep our brains and body healthy. It can make a big difference in our attitude and effectiveness.
As we all know, practicing law can be extremely stressful and unfortunately some lawyers (some say 33%) can get addicted to substances which temporarily ease the stress. Over eating, drinking, and controlled substances are often used to ease the pain. These substances (including food) can make us even more depressed and stressed out.
The epidemic of obesity is overtaking us. We must devise a plan to eat healthy foods, meditate, exercise and be proactive with our health, so that our lives can be much happier and joyful. Dealing with the health problems of addiction and obesity will multiply your stress and not solve anything.
Never Discuss Religion, Politics or Sex
There as some topics that should be off limits to avoid stress. The obvious are debating religions with non-believers, politics with those who are opposed to your point of view and sex with people who have rigid views which are different than yours. There is an old saying, “never try to teach a pig to sing. It will make you hoarse and piss off the pig.”
No matter which side of the debate, conversation or argument you are on, most people report that they feel differently after such encounters, usually for the worse. Simply decide not to waste your time trying to convince anyone to believe like you do and vice versa, and don’t waste your time with people who are trying to convince you to believe like they do.
Spend Time Each Week Outdoors
At one point of my career, I realized that I had not been outside other to drive home in quite a long time. I realized that I was depressed and stressed even more than usual. We are physical beings who thrive in sunlight and fresh air. We do not do well in florescent lighting and recycled air. Even if you just go outside and walk around for five minutes on a break, it will improve your mood and your attitude. It is even better when you can take off your shoes and have your feet touch the grass, sand or bare earth. Concrete and asphalt doesn’t count. Go wiggle your toes while standing on good old Mother Earth. She will put a smile on your face.
Budget Your Time
While one of the attributes of successful effective people is proper management of time and I urge all attorneys to balance their time between professional, personal/family and community activities. The actual amount of time spent by any one individual in any one of these categories will differ, but you can’t ignore any one or you will suffer.
It is easy to get your family involved with your community time, or you can get involved in your family’s community time. Many of my clients complain that they do not feel fulfilled or satisfied even though their careers are doing well. What we find is that they have been neglecting one or other categories that bring them satisfaction. Look at how much time you spend on any of these three categories and adjust as needed to bring you fulfillment and satisfaction in all areas.
James Gray Robinson was a third generation trial attorney, specializing in family law for 27 years in his native North Carolina, up until 2004. Since then he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations, and leading corporations. At the age of 64, Gray passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. www.JamesGrayRobinson.com
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