Decluttering Your Law Office: Getting Started

Neat desk

While I wouldn’t define myself as a neat freak, I have learned over the years that my environment has a significant effect on my mood, my productivity, and my overall effectiveness. Whether at home or at work, I don’t like to have a lot of clutter around, and I like things to be neat.

Whether you think you are bothered by clutter or not, studies show that in fact, clutter can have a significant psychological effect on all of us – in short, clutter produces stress and anxiety – something lawyers certainly don’t need any more of.

I’ve been interested in organizing and de-cluttering ideas for quite a while and have bought and read a number of books on those topics over the years, and some of what I’ve learned I have incorporated into my work with clients. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m always perfectly organized. In fact, one of my own personal challenges is that I’m good at making things neat and finding places to stash things, but not always quite as good at letting go of what should be purged.

One of my most popular all-time posts over on the Legal Ease blog is this post on organizing your law office. As I discuss in that post, one of the first steps in decluttering and organizing is to purge – or get rid of – the unnecessary. Since I am admittedly better at the organizing part, over the past couple of weeks I’ve started doing some purging both in my home and in my office.

For some reason, this seems to be a February topic for me – the aforementioned blog post was also written in February. I’m not quite sure why. It could be because February is usually when I start gathering paperwork for my taxes, or because my birthday falls at the end of January and that sparks a need to get rid of the old and focus on a more promising future, or because it’s cold outside in February which means I’m spending more time indoors and I feel the need to work that much harder on my environment.

Should you Kon-Mari your office?

This year, all of this coincides with a sudden appearance of Marie Kondo everywhere.  Not a day goes by that I don’t see some reference to Marie Kondo in my Facebook feed or see another article or comment about her decluttering style. That could be because in the early part of the year people are focused on their New Year’s resolutions and making their lives better, or because of the recent Netflix series depicting Kondo helping clients to “tidy up.”

I was first introduced to Marie Kondo and her “Kon-Mari” method several years ago, and at that time, I purchased a (digital) copy of her book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” For those who are not familiar with her, Marie Kondo is a Japanese organizational consultant who helps her clients declutter and organize by category, rather than by room or location. In other words, she has her clients focus on all of their clothing at once (and I mean ALL of it – taking all of the clothing wherever it is located throughout the house and putting it in one big pile), then all of their books and papers, and so on, rather than tackling a specific room or drawer or cabinet.

The criteria Kondo uses for deciding what stays and what goes focuses – believe it or not – on what to keep, rather than what to throw away. This is a subtle, but important, distinction from much of the decluttering advice out there.

When making the decision about whether to keep an item or get rid of it (donate, recycle, give away or trash) Kondo counsels her clients to physically handle the item and ask themselves whether the item “sparks joy” for them. If it does, it stays.

Of course, Kondo also recognizes that some items are necessary even if they do not “spark joy” per se – and a lot of the clutter in your office probably falls into this category – but certainly not all of it.

Since clutter and organization is top of mind for me right now, and is a frequent issue for my clients, I thought I would do a series of posts tackling these issues and discussing my own experiences, along with the experiences of some of my clients.

Even with all of the advancement in technology that has occurred over the past several years, we are far from being a paperless society, and the practice of law is certainly not paper-free. Since paper remains one of the biggest clutter culprits in law offices, whether they are home offices or in large office buildings, it’s the first one I’m tackling.

De-cluttering office paperwork: What to do first

When dealing with your office, I’m not sure I can fully get on board with Kondo’s recommendation to take all of your paper and put it into one big pile to go through all at once (also keeping in mind that Kondo’s recommendation for almost all paper is just to toss it). I just don’t think that is realistic or that it could be accomplished within a reasonable amount of time, and it would be impossible to work while having all of your paperwork piled up in one spot waiting to be sorted.

For this reason, at least when dealing with paperwork in the office, I’ll stick with my original position for now, which is to tackle a small piece at a time. Modifying Kondo’s method, instead of doing one drawer or area of the office, I decided to see if I could tackle one category of paper at a time.

I started with my “reference” files, but you might prefer to start with your hard-copy caselaw or motion bank (have them scanned if you really need to save them), marketing or promotional materials, or your periodicals. This might work well for you if you can easily put your hands on all of the paperwork that belongs in a specific category at once. Otherwise, you may need to start one drawer or pile at a time – pick the oldest one, since it will typically be the easiest.

Right now I’m focusing on non-case or client-related materials, and paperwork not related to your practice financials, because I think they are easier to deal with, and you don’t have to worry about what your ethical rules or the IRS requires. In addition, working with these categories first means you can spend a few minutes at a time working on them and not interrupt the rest of your workflow. You can even take these categories of materials out of your office to a conference room or offsite to do your sorting and purging, if necessary.

How to decide what stays and what goes

My reference files consisted of a whole file drawer full of articles and reference materials sub-divided into categories. Many of these articles had been painstakingly saved from CLE programs and seminars or ripped out of magazines over many years. Some of them were my own articles or materials from CLE programs I presented.

Often, the articles I had collected had been filed without ever having been read – I’d dealt with periodical clutter at some time in the past by pulling out articles of interest and discarding the rest of the periodical. But I still didn’t have time to read the article, so I just filed it. Others were saved with the idea that when I had a question or wanted to write about one of these subjects, I could pull out the file folder for that category to do some research or get some inspiration.

Thinking about how much time I already spent pulling out, categorizing, and filing these articles and reference materials – and the fact that I very rarely ever pull open that file drawer when I’m planning my editorial calendar, getting ready to write, doing research to write a piece or plan a presentation, or even when I’m working with a client on an issue corresponding to one of my reference files – was a little mind-boggling. But it really drove home the point for me that saving all of that material wasn’t serving me at all.

Realistically, when I’m planning or writing now, I’m much more likely to hop over to Google to do research or look for inspiration, or to go to Evernote and see what articles I’ve got saved relating to the topic I’m writing on. I also have a tag in Evernote for “blog post ideas” when I come across a topic that might be of interest to my readers, so if I don’t know what to write about, I’ll search Evernote for that tag. What I don’t do is search through my paper folders.

Given all of the above, I purged about 85% of my paper reference files in relatively short order. Most of what I kept will be scanned, tagged and saved in Evernote for the purposes I mentioned above. Most of the rest I will go through again quickly and just add to my list of ideas for presentations or articles – the reference materials themselves will go.

One thing I always knew, but confirmed again by going through my reference files is that most periodicals recycle the same topics over and over, so there is little need to save them if you don’t have time to read them when they come out – it’s far better to search the internet (and many of these periodicals have digital versions now anyway) to find the most updated version of the article or topic.

In the post I referenced above from the Legal Ease blog, I recommended that when sorting/purging, you ask yourself some questions in the “organizing” phase, after you’ve already purged, but upon further reflection, they are useful for the purging process as well. Here they are with some modifications and additions:

  • How long have I had this, and when was the last time I used or referred to it?
  • What is the realistic likelihood that I will use or refer to this in the future? Under what specific circumstance might I need to reference this information or document in the future?
  • Is the information contained in it still relevant and up to date?
  • Is this something I need to use or access frequently?
  • Is this something I need to retain for legal or financial purposes?
  • Is this information I can easily find elsewhere if I need it?
  • Do I have the time and energy to deal with this again in the future, or would it be better to get rid of it now?
  • Does it fit my current practice and my goals for myself and my firm?

Are you ready to take on the clutter in your office? Accept the challenge!

If you’re sick of the clutter in your office, or just want to make some more space to focus on what is really important, I challenge you to go on this journey with me and start de-cluttering your law office.

Leave a comment on this post or come on over to the Legal Ease Consulting, Inc Facebook page and join the discussion. Tell me what your biggest clutter and organization challenges are and what steps you’re taking to tackle them. And let me know if you have questions or topic ideas for future clutter/organization posts!

Tips to Avoid Lawyer Meltdown [Interview]

istockmicrophone000001548083smallI was recently interviewed by Law Firm Suites for their “Ask the Expert” series. They asked me for some tips for avoiding lawyer meltdown, as well as other tips for solo practitioners, especially new solos.

The interview was a good reminder of one of the lessons I’ve learned in my practice – to quote from the interview:

To be a great lawyer (or any type of service provider), you have to be a whole and complete person – and to be a whole and complete person, you have to have a life outside of work. To help others you have to fill your own well first – not just financially, but emotionally and creatively, too.

Make sure you make time for yourself and the things you enjoy. And if you need help with your practice, or if you’re a new solo, the interview covered a range of topics, including establishing a niche practice; learning how to turn away work; staying motivated; and necessary tools for solos. If you’re interested, you can find the complete interview here.

Learning to Disconnect

UnplugWe all need to unplug at times – but it’s easier said than done

There are different schools of thought about whether being ‘connected’ all of the time is the best way to serve clients, and I’ve discussed this topic before when discussing use of the telephone, giving out cell phone numbers to clients, etc. But this week it hit home more than ever how disconnecting helps clients not just in the immediate moment (giving full attention to one client or one task instead of being distracted by the phone, incoming emails, etc.), but over the long term.

Many lawyers today wear their workaholism as a badge of honor of sorts, talking about the number of hours they work, the weekend nights they’re spending toiling away at their desks instead of spending time with their families, jumping out of their seats at a restaurant to answer a ringing cell phone, one-upping each other with the length of time that has passed since they’ve taken a vacation. As a practicing lawyer, it’s tough not to give in to that mindset. When I was with my old firm, I was working constantly, hadn’t taken a vacation in years, and was getting more and more frustrated because the harder I worked the more it seemed there was to do.

That’s really the key – there will always be more work to do. The phone will always ring. The email will keep coming in. The trade journals and bar association publications will keep being delivered. At some point, we just have to say, “STOP.” A burned out lawyer is no good to any client. Inadequate nutrition, poor concentration, bad sleep habits, lack of motivation, low energy, and that feeling of having too many people to give to and not giving enough to each person are all detrimental to your clients.

Rates of alcoholism, depression and divorce are higher among lawyers than the population at large. It should be clear that none of those three are especially helpful to clients. The morale of lawyers has declined, and many lawyers say they wouldn’t become lawyers if they had to do it again, and they wouldn’t advise others to become lawyers. Since we take our cues from those around us, it’s likely that our clients are suffering from this low morale as well. Low morale, energy and motivation certainly aren’t leading to creative thinking or problem-solving, either.

Many lawyers think that being ‘on’ 24-7 gives them more control in an out of control world. Competition is increasing at a steady rate. Lots of tasks that could only have been performed by lawyers in the past are being commoditized and ‘sold’ on the internet and elsewhere by non-lawyers. Price competition is fierce. Lawyers are at the mercy of judges and clients. Civility is decreasing and the environment is often adversarial. Lawyers have begun to accept sacrificing their entire lives to their work – for what? Is it worth it? In actuality, in the attempt to control everything, lawyers often sacrifice everything and still control nothing.

I’d like to think that my work – both online, in this blog and in the ‘real world’ will help lawyers prevent what I call “lawyer meltdown.” By finding more efficient ways of practicing, learning how to work better with employees, associates, staff, vendors and colleagues, tapping into vision and the reasons for becoming a lawyer in the first place, changing billing practices, focusing on the ‘right’ tasks and the ‘right’ clients, we can turn the legal profession into a happier, more relaxed place to be. Lawyers have a bad reputation, in part because of the pressures we place on ourselves and the resulting image that necessarily projects. Lawyers are leaving the profession in droves. It’s time to change all of that and bring life back into the law, keep good lawyers in the profession and serve clients exceptionally well at the same time.

Lawyer Assistance Programs have been established to help lawyers deal with problems such as alcoholism and depression, but it would be so much better if we could find ways to practice law that reduced or even prevented these problems in the first place. It may take a culture shift for the profession as a whole to get there, but each individual lawyer intent on avoiding lawyer meltdown is a step in the right direction.

The first step is to learn how to disconnect. Turn off the phone and get away from email for a while and really sit with the case, brief, contract, letter that you’re working on. Give the client your full attention when you’re with them or when you’re working on their case. Then get away and let things percolate. Let your brain work the way it’s supposed to, rather than forcing it to run from one task to another with no break. Sometimes the best solutions come when we stop thinking about the problem. The energy and perspective that is produced by disconnecting will take you much further than you could ever possibly go when you’re rushing from task to task, or trying to do three things at once. Do yourself AND your clients a favor – disconnect for a while.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

How to Get Motivated

See this article as it appeared in the May 2006 Law Practice Today on line publication of the ABA Law Practice Management Section: “How to Get Motivated”
http://www.abanet.org/lpm/lpt/articles/mgt05061.shtml

Do you ever have those days when you come into the office and, as soon as you see the piles on (and maybe even around) your desk, you’re paralyzed?  Is your ‘to do’ list so long that you don’t know where to start?  Are you just dreading facing yet another day at the office?

We all have days when it’s difficult to get motivated.  So here are some tips to help you get inspired again:

1. Do Something: The fact is that sometimes we just have to get started, even if we’re not motivated.  Staring at the piles and agonizing over the lengthy to do list only adds to the stress and anxiety that keeps you un-motivated.  Many times, the quickest way to get motivated again is to ‘just do it.’  Start with one pile and make your way through it methodically, only touching each item one time and taking action until that one thing is finished.  The sense of accomplishment usually kicks in and keeps you going – it’s the getting started that’s the tough part.  Writers will tell you that the most difficult part about writing is just sitting down and doing it – frequently when you just don’t feel like doing it. 

2. Do Nothing: And I really mean nothing.  Don’t stare at the piles.  Don’t agonize over the to-do list.  Don’t talk to anyone.  Don’t turn on the radio, pace around your office, get a cup of coffee, or make another list.  Just close the door, close your eyes and do absolutely nothing for 15 minutes.  If you’re not used to doing this, chances are that you’ll start fretting about what you need to do and all kinds of thoughts will begin racing around in your head.  Don’t worry about that.  Just recognize the thoughts and then let them go.  Concentrate on your breathing.  Fifteen minutes of nothing, particularly in the midst of a frenzied week or at the beginning of a long day, will do wonders for clearing your head and reducing anxiety so that you’re motivated to tackle even the most daunting challenge.

3. Get Moving: Got a bear of a brief to write, an opening statement to prepare, or an estate plan that requires some real mental gymnastics?  Getting your body moving will make those mental exercises flow more easily.  Take a walk, go to the gym or run around with your kids.  Your physical energy will get the mental energy flowing.  Lots of times, great ideas come in the midst of a physical activity.  Sitting at a desk, in meetings, in court waiting for your adversary, at a deposition or a closing for hours on end shuts down not only your body, but your mind.  Get your body moving and the blood flowing to your brain.

4. Carry a Notebook: Inspiration comes at the most inopportune times.  Capture those great ideas when they arise so that when you’re not as motivated you’ll have something to fall back on.  Always have a small notebook, some index cards, or something else to write on, as well as something to write with.  Sitting in the movie theater, driving in the car (wait until you’re stopped to write, though), taking a walk (see above), and those last few minutes before you fall asleep are often the times when the best ideas come.  If you have a pen and paper handy, you can preserve those great ideas and then get right back to what you were doing, without the anxiety that you’ll forget.  And they’ll be ready for you when you’re facing another day of work.

5. Create a Deadline: Often, the best ‘motivation’ is knowing that you have a filing deadline, a date on which you have to give the presentation, an appointment with the client to discuss their estate plan, or a court appearance.  But since not all tasks have built-in deadlines, sometimes we have to create our own deadlines.  If you’re facing the awesome task of clearing some space on your desk so that you can work again, setting a timer for 15 minutes can be a great motivator.  Often, once you get through that first fifteen minutes, you’ll be motivated to continue. If you’ve got a project that is important to complete, but not urgent, make it urgent by setting a deadline and writing it in your calendar.

6. Enlist a Friend: You can reinforce your deadline by enlisting a friend, colleague, or coach to help you.  When you tell someone else that you’re planning to do something by a specific date and time, it creates an expectation.  We don’t like to embarrass ourselves or let other people down. We’re much more likely to get it done so we don’t have to admit to someone else that we didn’t do it. 

Ask your friend, mentor, colleague or coach to keep you accountable by following up to make sure you’ve done what you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it.  Even an adversary can be a ‘friend’ in this context if you promise that you’ll have the discovery documents to them by a certain time, or you’ll be present for a settlement conference on a specific date. Create an appointment where one didn’t exist before, and you’re creating a built in deadline for yourself.

Coaches, colleagues, family and friends can also help motivate you by being sounding boards for your ideas, or just by lending an ear when it’s time to vent about the bad day you’re having, the pressure you’re under or the uncertainty you’re facing with a particular client or matter.  Sometimes we lose motivation after completing a big project.  Talking about your successes or your progress can be exceptionally motivating, too.  Don’t underestimate the power of sharing yourself with others to reduce your anxiety and get you back on track.

7. Turn On Some Music: This may not work in all situations in which you feel unmotivated, but it can certainly help.Music may ‘soothe the savage beast’ in you by calming you down if you’re anxious, but music can also raise your heart rate, get your toes tapping and lift your mood so that you’re ready to work.  And if you turn on the music and start dancing, you’ll be double motivating yourself.

8. Take a Vacation: Take a good, hard look at where you are, how much and how long you’re working, and when the last time was that you took a break.  Many lawyers confuse lack of motivation with pure exhaustion or burnout.  Everyone needs some down time, and if you haven’t taken a vacation in years, you’re routinely working around the clock and on weekends, motivation may not be the real problem.  Making a clean break from all things legal, even for just a few days, can bring you a fresh perspective and a whole new reserve of motivation.

9. Try Something Different: Maybe your lack of motivation is the result of pure boredom.  If you’re doing the same things, day after day, your brain turns off and tunes out.  We all need growth and stimulation.  See if there’s a project you can work on that would stretch your mind, challenge your knowledge, or force you to work on something different.  Join a new committee at the bar association or find a lawyer in your firm that practices in a different area of the law and see if there’s something you can help with.  Take some CLE courses in a different area of the law.
Doing something different may mean doing something different outside of your work life. Motivation for your work can return when you feel inspired by other areas of your life.  Volunteer, take a class, or learn a new skill.  Even reading books in areas or on topics you haven’t previously explored can bring new insights or inspiration.

10. Do Something for Someone Else: Again, this doesn’t have to be related to work, although it can be. You can volunteer at a free clinic, give a free seminar, take on some pro bono work, or offer to mentor another lawyer.  There are a million ways that you can be of service to others, whether it’s joining a community organization, helping at your local church or food kitchen, visiting an elderly or sick relative or friend, surprising your spouse by making their favorite meal or doing a chore they hate, helping someone move, taking your family on an outing that they want to take (as opposed to going where you want to go), or calling up an old friend you’ve lost touch with.  Doing something – anything – for someone else takes the focus off of you and often leaves you feeling better about yourself – and more motivated – in the bargain.

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Already a subscriber? Want to learn how I can help you? Learn more about the products and services I offer by clicking here.

Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Too Much To Do, Too Little Time?


Why Your ‘Don’t Do’ List May Be More Important Than Your ‘To Do’ List

See this article as it appeared in the July 2006 Law Practice Today on line publication of the ABA Law Practice Management Section: “Too Much To Do Too Little Time?”
http://www.abanet.org/lpm/lpt/articles/mgt07061.shtml

By: Allison C. Shields

Another day, another five million things on the ‘to do’ list. Most days, nothing even gets crossed off the list because too many other things come up – phone calls, unanticipated client problems, a last minute emergency that “must” be handled today. And at the end of the day has anything of value been accomplished?

You think you’re organized because you’ve got a ‘to do’ list – you’ve thought about what you want to get done, and you’ve got it all planned out. But somehow it just never works out. The problem may not be your ‘to do’ list – it may be that you need a ‘don’t do’ list.

What’s a ‘don’t do’ list? It’s a list of the things you shouldn’t be doing, the things that could be delegated to someone else or outsourced. The ‘don’t do’ list also includes all of the things you completely let go – things that can be eliminated entirely (or eliminated for a specified time period).

We’re so preoccupied with how much needs to get done, and we’re always on the go, rushing from one thing to the next, to the next. And while we’re busy doing the first thing on our list, ten other things crop up, or we’re thinking about what we need to do as soon as we’re done with what we’re working on. It’s frustrating, exhausting and ultimately, completely unproductive.

Law school education trains lawyers to spot issues, but this issue spotting behavior isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to run a law practice. In fact, it often leads to “analysis paralysis” – every issue must be at least considered, if not addressed, and this hampers lawyers by creating too many distractions. In effect, the ‘don’t do’ list narrows your options so that you’re not overwhelmed by so many choices every time something new arises.

Having a ‘don’t do’ list lets you identify from the outset the kinds of things you don’t want to do, or just shouldn’t be doing because they distract you and prevent you from accomplishing more important tasks. If it’s already on the ‘don’t do’ list, it’s easy to immediately recognize it and move on to more productive endeavors.

How do you decide what goes on the ‘don’t do’ list? Anything that distracts you from the main goals that you want to accomplish belongs on the list. The ‘don’t do’ list can come into play in a variety of areas in your practice – in the choice of day to day activities, your selection of clients or matters, or even what matters you should respond to first.

I had one client who was the managing partner of a four attorney firm and felt it was her obligation to open the mail every day so she could be on top of what was going on at the firm. But the time it took for her to open and sort the mail was time away from her other, more valuable duties. When my client finally used her ‘don’t do’ list and gave the job of opening and sorting the mail to her receptionist, she reclaimed a lot of billable time. Now she can breeze through the already opened, date-stamped and sorted mail and still keep current.

Your ‘don’t do’ list may also include certain types of clients. A friend recently fired a client who was difficult from the moment my friend first met him, and she finally drew the line when he began treating her abusively. She’s added abusive clients to her ‘don’t do’ list. Now when she sees one coming, she’ll just say no. She won’t add to her stress level by dealing with clients that don’t respect her and don’t value her work. The money that client might bring in just isn’t worth it. She saved herself endless hours of worry and unproductive activity – because dealing with that abusive client was distracting, even when she was working with other clients.

Think about your strengths and weaknesses when making your ‘don’t do’ list. If you’re a great speaker but a poor writer, perhaps writing articles, motions, briefs, etc. should go on your ‘don’t do’ list. You can use a ghostwriter, hire a contract lawyer to do the writing for you, or give the task to someone else in the firm with excellent writing skills. Then you can focus your energies on trying cases, giving seminars or presentations, or other activities where you can showcase your speaking skills.

Some marketing activities may belong on your ‘don’t do’ list. One solo I know belongs to so many networking groups that he’s at a networking event every day, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day. That means he’s at his office late into the night, and every single weekend handling his regular work. As a long term strategy, this might not be the best for him or his family. Marketing and practice building are very high value activities for a solo to perform. But they’re only valuable if they are strategic – if they’re putting you in front of potential clients or leads, or if the groups or events are ones which you’re passionate about.

Saying ‘no’ is an essential part of your ‘don’t do’ list. Being unable to say ‘no’ to a request when you’re already overburdened is a mistake. If you’re unable to devote the time and energy necessary to a project or group, your participation can end up working against you by creating a negative impression. Evaluate which groups or activities will be the most beneficial to you (or to the people or causes you’re supporting). Limit your participation to the most valuable events or organizations. You can get more value for less time, energy and stress. If the things already on the ‘to do’ list are more important or more valuable, these ‘invitations’ belong on the ‘don’t do’ list.

Although we need to be responsive and accessible to our clients, a good ‘don’t do’ list might include particular days or times when you’re ‘off limits.’ Allowing constant interruptions of family or leisure time not only robs you of much-needed recharging and rest, but is a disservice to clients who are only getting part of your attention. The same goes for interruptions of important business or client-related activities. It’s rare that clients have a real emergency that can’t wait an hour or two for you to finish preparing your motion in limine or complete a meal with your family.

Practice areas can also be items to add to your ‘don’t do’ list. If your practice focuses on family law and a client brings you a medical malpractice case, or if you’re a transactional lawyer who has never seen the inside of a courtroom and you’re asked to try a case, turning down the case may be the right decision. If you aren’t well-versed in the particular area of the law, don’t have the time or resources to learn or don’t have someone to help you, you may be asking for more trouble than taking the case on is worth. Having a ready network of attorneys to whom you can refer cases in other practice areas so you know these clients are well taken care of can assure that you’re meeting your clients’ needs while still remaining true to your own goals.

Identifying the ‘don’t dos’ can be an effective tool for managing your time and reducing your stress. Knowing in advance what things you won’t do lets you move on quickly, without wasting additional time analyzing everything that comes to your attention.

The ‘don’t do’ list also reminds you to ask for help in the areas that aren’t your strengths, so you can focus our efforts on what you do best and what brings the most value to your clients and to your life. It allows you to let go of the idea that you can do everything and be everything to everyone. It’s a shorthand way of cutting through all of the clutter of what needs to be done so you can get back to providing great service to your clients.

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If you liked these articles, subscribe to my e-newsletter, and you’ll receive new articles in your in-box. The articles in the newsletter are not available to the public – the only way to see those articles is to receive the newsletter.

Already a subscriber? Want to learn how I can help you? Learn more about the products and services I offer by clicking here.

Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

How to Take Control of Your Practice by Creating Vision and Mission Statements

See this article as it appeared in the February 2006 Law Trends on line publication of the ABA GP/Solo Section, “How to Take Control of Your Practice by Creating Vision and Mission Statements”
http://www.abanet.org/genpractice/newsletter/lawtrends/0602
/business/visionstatements.html

Many solos and lawyers responsible for managing their firms report feeling out of control or overwhelmed.  Even successful lawyers will admit that their practices grew almost by chance, rather than by design.  They don’t have a handle on how their clients are coming to them, or what their clients are really looking for.  They aren’t sure how to grow their practice, to take it in a new direction, to get better work or better clients.  They never sat down and thought about exactly what they wanted their practice to be, but they tell me their practice isn’t what they want it to be.

There is hope.  Stop to take stock of where you are and where you want your practice to be in the future.  After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there?

The first step toward creating the practice that you want is by establishing the vision and mission, writing them down, and sharing them with everyone that works in your firm so that they are inspired by them.

The vision and mission statements  are the touchstone for everything you undertake, from strategic planning, marketing, management and practice building to recruitment, hiring and performance evaluations.  These two statements are important, concrete guides for the future of your practice.  Once the vision and mission are written and digested, the rest of your business activities, including the management and marketing of your practice, have a direction. 

With a mission statement, you have a guiding principle against which to measure each of its actions.  You can begin to craft your practice in a more purposeful way and create business plans which will bring the firm to its destination – the attainment of the firm’s vision.

What is a ‘vision?’
The vision is the statement of what you are building.  It describes the idea of your firm in a way that captures your passion for your business and inspires you.  It is the picture of what the firm wants to be in three to five years.  Although some advocate creating a vision with a much longer time-frame, with the pace of business today and the changing legal landscape, creating a shorter term vision can keep you inspired and won’t become obsolete before it is reached.

The vision should be specific and include items such as culture, the ‘feel’ and atmosphere of the firm, the intangibles that customers can expect, as well as the ‘harder’ or more tangible aspects of the business, such as number of clients, gross profits, number of employees, number of offices, number and types of practice areas, etc.

Crafting Your Vision Statement
The vision describes your dream for your practice.  Set no limits when initially exploring the vision statement – let yourself describe your vision in an expanded manner.  It may help you see possibilities you might not otherwise have recognized.  Spend some time thinking about it before editing down to what you think is realistic or achievable.  But remember when editing not to edit out your passion – that which makes you enthusiastic about reaching your vision. 

Questions to Consider When Creating a Vision Statement
Who is your ideal client?
What are your financial goals for your practice?
What will you or your firm be known for?
What services will you provide your clients?
What will your role be in the practice?
Where do you practice?
When will you need more space, different systems, more staff, more attorneys? 
Why are you practicing law?
Why will your clients hire you rather than your competition?
What will the culture of your practice be?
What are your beliefs and values and how will they affect your practice?

What is a mission statement?
The mission statement describes the firm’s current purpose, identifies the firm’s market, values and priorities.  It illustrates how the firm intends to achieve its vision and how it goes about the practice of law every day.  It answers the question why clients will hire you to represent them.

Spending the time creating the mission statement and obtaining input from others in the firm enhances ‘buy in’ from the firm, regardless of its size, and establishes a starting point for the firm’s forward progress.

Your mission statement will also be useful for your clients – it will convey to clients and potential clients the essence of your firm and the manner in which you do business.  The mission statement can be a powerful tool, both for strengthening the infrastructure of your business, and for attracting and keeping the clients you want. 

Crafting Your Mission Statement
The three keys to a mission statement are purpose, business and values. 

Purpose
What is the firm’s core purpose?  Your response to this question should be a concrete one, and it is truly the foundation of your whole practice, and especially your management and marketing plans.  Spend some time thinking about why your firm was created, what need it seeks to fill.  Why are you practicing law?  What do you hope to accomplish?  What are you committed to providing to your clients?

The purpose section of the mission statement should also provide some information about the firm’s basic management philosophy and ‘in-house’ style – does the firm want to be a small, boutique law firm, a large business, a family atmosphere, corporate atmosphere, etc. 

Business
Your mission statement should also address the business of the firm – the firm’s clients, practice areas and services provided.  Keep in mind that if your firm has multiple practice areas, it might make sense to keep your overall firm mission statement more general and craft separate mission statements for the different practice areas.

Do you have or do you want to develop a niche practice?  Who are the beneficiaries of your work? Who is your ideal client?  What are their demographics?  What are their problems or needs? What services do you provide to address those needs?

Values
The values expressed in your mission statement emphasize what you are aiming for, what the firm’s core priorities are – does the firm emphasize responsiveness over completeness?  Do you emphasize alternative dispute resolution over litigation?  Do you emphasize compassion versus aggression?  What is most important to the firm, and how do you want to be known?

Set Yourself Apart
To be effective, the mission statement should be unique to you and your practice and reflect your personality. 

The problem with many law firm mission statements currently in existence is the same problem lawyers frequently have with their marketing – rather than focusing on who the target audience is, and what their problems are, the focus is only on the firm or lawyer – their education, their skills, etc.  The mission statement, just like a good marketing message, must focus on the client – what their problems are, and how your firm solves their problems or meets their needs better or in a different way than your competition does. It’s not about you, it’s about them, and about being of service to them.

If you substitute the name any other law firm or lawyer that practices in your area of law in your mission statement, is it still true?  If it is, your mission statement is too vague.

For example, “To provide quality legal services and practical, effective solutions to individuals and businesses at a fair cost with a focus on client satisfaction” is an ineffective and uninspiring mission statement.  It doesn’t convey a sense of the firm’s uniqueness or culture.  It doesn’t communicate the kind of services the firm provides, to whom they are provided, or how.  This mission statement sets forth the bare the minimum level of service which all clients expect their lawyers to provide – effective solutions at a fair price. 

Tips for Writing Vision and Mission Statements

  • Be specific, but make sure that the mission statement doesn’t become a strategic plan.  The mission statement should be an enduring statement of the firm’s identity, and should not contain goals and objectives.  The specific goals, objectives and actions to be taken by the firm should be incorporated into a plan, but that should be separate from the mission statement. 
  • Use ‘we’ to emphasize the firm as a whole, and focus on the firm’s culture and strategies.
  • Make sure all of your employees can relate to the mission statement – that it inspires all employees to be their best and to work toward a common goal. 
  • Make it easy to understand – don’t use ‘lawyer-speak.’  Remember, many of your employees are not lawyers, and most (if not all) of your clients are non-lawyers!
  • A good mission statement fosters commitment, motivation, and inspiration.
  • Seek input from all levels of the organization – from the file clerks, receptionists, secretaries, attorneys, paralegals, etc.  This creates ‘buy in’ for everyone at the firm, makes them feel a part of the team, and provides different perspectives. 
  • After input is received, the mission statement can be written by an individual or a small committee composed of individuals sensitive to the entire firm’s viewpoints, and it should reflect areas of consensus.  But do not allow a large group to be involved in the actual writing of the vision and mission statements, as this approach often devolves into nitpicking about comma placement, etc. and accomplishes nothing. 
  • Set a deadline for completing the mission statement.
  • Circulate a draft of the mission statement before it is finalized for review and comment. 
  • When reviewing the draft, ask yourself: Does this accurately reflect my understanding of the firm and its business?  Can the partnership live up to this?  Can the individual attorneys live up to it?  Can our staff live up to it?  Can we operate by this on a daily basis?  Are we willing to measure everything the firm does by this?

A Final Word About Implementation
Writing vision and mission statements alone will not bring about change or reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.  To be effective, implementation is essential.  Everything in the practice must be based upon and measured against the mission statement.  If a client, a project, a charity event, a case, or a method of practicing is not in alignment with the firm’s mission statement, the firm risks diluting the firm’s identity and power.

Just as any good trial lawyer knows not to make promises in her opening statement that she can’t keep, so every law firm should beware of crafting a mission statement which the firm is not prepared to act upon and enforce.  Don’t create expectations that you can’t or won’t live up to.  If you don’t believe your mission statement, why should your client?  If the partnership doesn’t believe it, why should your associates and staff?

In order to create effective and inspiring vision and mission statements, it is crucial to ensure that the firm leaders are in agreement. Do they all agree with the vision?  Do the partners agree on the direction of the firm, the types of clients the firm does and will represent, and the manner in which the clients are serviced?  Can all partners articulate and agree upon what sets your firm apart from the competition?

If you want to create a direction for the future of your practice, and a way of doing business that inspires you, your entire firm, and your clients, creating vision and mission statements are a good place to start.  Once you have a clear direction, making real progress toward your goals is much easier, and reduces that feeling of being overwhelmed.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Success Is Not A One Person Sport

I have to credit my friend and business coach, Leslie Malin for the title of this article – it was the title to an article in her E-zine and it brought up so many great thoughts related to managing and marketing a law practice that I had to share it.

I do a presentation on mistakes lawyers make in managing and marketing their practices, and Leslie’s title relates to a lot of them. So many lawyers think they have to do everything on their own and be all things to all people, not realizing that they’re just shooting themselves in the foot. I don’t know if it’s the way lawyers are educated or the type of people that gravitate toward the law, but that tendency to try to ‘prove’ that they can do it all is pervasive.

Believe me, I’m not knocking lawyers, being one myself, and I know I have this tendency also -trying to do everything myself and having trouble asking for help. Or being afraid that nobody else could possibly do it as well. Maybe the problem isn’t just lawyers, it’s our society as a whole. Perhaps it’s that American individualism that prevents us from realizing that it’s relationships and community that are the true keys to success. 

Although I do believe that everyone is responsible for their own career, whether they work as a solo, in a firm, in the public sector or in a corporate environment, being responsible for your career includes knowing when, where and how to ask for help. For some, that ‘help’ comes in the form of hiring staff or other employees. Sometimes, it means giving up the idea of trying to do everything yourself and hiring and training other to do the work, and, most importantly, trusting them to actually do it. Unfortunately holding so tightly to everything and believing that you have to control every detail can have a negative effect on the bottom line of your practice, not to mention morale of your associates and staff if they feel they’re being micromanaged.

Other solutions to the ‘one person sport’ syndrome may include outsourcing work or hiring a ‘virtual assistant.’ It may mean banding together with a group of attorneys to discuss issues that relate to your practice. Realizing that trying to do everything alone doesn’t work may lead to hiring a coach or a consultant to help you sort out technology, accounting, marketing, or other aspects of your practice so that you can do what lawyers are meant to do – practice law and provide clients with solutions.

Speaking of clients, forgetting that the clients, and not the lawyers, are the crux of any law practice, is another way that many lawyers try to make success a one person sport. No lawyer can be successful without clients – particularly happy, paying clients. To get the clients to come in the door requires that lawyers focus their marketing message on the client’s needs and on the benefits the lawyer can provide to the client, rather than focusing solely on the lawyer. Sometimes, that may mean turning down or turning away work, regardless of how difficult it may seem. 

Trying to be the one lawyer who can represent everyone often leads to an impression of the ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’ Accepting that you can’t be all things to all potential clients can lead to strategic alliances with other firms that have expertise in areas your firm lacks, and can result in strong referrals. For solos, rather than fearing that someone else will ‘steal’ clients, it’s worth it to remember that having a backup can be invaluable.

It occurs to be that the reference to sport is particularly appropriate while the Olympics are ongoing. Although many of the athletes are competing as individuals, none of them got where they are alone – they all have coaches, trainers, other athletes with whom they train and compete, and support of all kinds – physical, emotional, mental and financial. 

Even for the Olympic gold medalist, success is not a one person sport. Take their cue and build your own ‘team’ of supporters who can inspire you and each other to ‘go for the gold.’

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Already a subscriber? Want to learn how I can help you? Learn more about the products and services I offer by clicking here.

Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!