Overwhelmed? Try this calendar hack

If you feel overwhelmed from the moment you arrive at work until the moment you leave, perhaps you’re not using one of the best – and easiest to use – tools effectively. And that tool is your calendar.

In this video, I talk about how you can use your calendar not just to record when work is due, but also to find the time to do the work.

How NOT to Use Email

Email is a fantastic tool – but it isn’t the right tool for every job. Email is especially poor for scheduling meetings, particularly meetings for more than two people. Use a dedicated scheduling tool instead. Learn more in the video below.

Use QuickParts to Streamline Your Workload

My latest video talks about how you can use Quick Parts in Word or Outlook to help streamline your workload. Instead of reinventing the wheel all of the time, create a Quick Part for frequently asked questions, email responses or other repetitive copy.

Automate Your Email Inbox

Why waste time sorting through your email inbox to find the most relevant messages when you can set up your email program to do it for you?

This is the latest in our series of tips about handling your email more effectively. In the previous two videos, we talked about eliminating email as a source of distraction throughout your day and using the triage method to handle email when you do look at your inbox.

In this next installment in the series, I’ll discuss ways you can set up your inbox to automate the process of sorting your email so you can concentrate on the emails that are the most important to your practice.

Triage Your Email Inbox

Email is a HUGE time-waster, as we can see from this short video on how to prevent email from becoming a distraction.

But when you do choose to look at your email inbox, what’s the best approach? The video below outlines the triage approach.

Email Tips: Don’t Let Email Be A Distraction!

Email can be a great productivity tool or it can be a huge distraction that puts others’ priorities ahead of your own and prevents you from getting important work done. This short video includes a few quick tips for keeping email from being a distraction.

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!

Tuesday Tip: Working with Support Staff

Every working relationship is different, and it can be frustrating when the work you delegate to others doesn’t get done as well or as quickly as you’d like. Often, whether you’re a law firm partner, a mid-level associate or a brand-new attorney, it’s easy to blame problems on the staff or how they are working. But consider that the solution isn’t to change what your staff is doing – maybe the solution is to make a change in how you approach working with your staff.

Here are three tips for working more effectively with your support staff:

1. Stand in their shoes

Take a step back and look at the task or issue from the perspective of your staff, rather than focusing on just getting work off of your plate. Staff are people, too! Treat them the way you would like to be treated.

When something goes wrong, don’t be quick to point the finger at your staff – instead, think about how you might have contributed to the problem. Did you give them work at the last minute? Set an unrealistic expectation about how long it would take to complete a task or project? Fail to provide them with the information or resources they needed to perform the task as expected?

Do better next time by asking yourself questions like:

  • How are the circumstances different for your staff than they are for you?
  • What do you know that they don’t know?
  • What education do you have that your support staff doesn’t?
  • What resources might your staff need to make it easier to get the job done?
  • Who else is that staff person working for and what other obligations do they have?
  • What time constraints or other outside factors may be getting in their way or influencing their ability to get things done? How can you help minimize or eliminate the effect of those other factors?
  • How much time will it really take (recognizing that it may take them longer to do a task than it would take you, or it may be their first time completing this task)?
  • What does their day look like?

Doing this exercise can be eye-opening. It can reveal hidden obstacles to getting work done. When you take into account your staff’s entire day and the other demands on their time, you may realize that you need to alter your expectations, get additional help, or give your staff better instructions or resources. But don’t just leave it there – take the conversation to your staff to get their perspective.

2. Be a team player

You and your staff are a team. Instead of just passing work off or treating them like a dumping ground, approach tasks and projects with a collaborative mindset. Sit down and talk to your staff about how you can help to make them more successful. Do they need better equipment? More training? More opportunity to ask questions? How do they prefer to receive their information – do they respond better to written instructions or lists as opposed to oral explanations?

What part of the project might you undertake so that they can do the rest? How can you provide them with the resources they need? If you are asking them rearranging their priorities to get something done for you, what can you do to help them meet their other obligations? For example, if they will be skipping lunch to get your work out the door, offer to buy them lunch or let them leave an hour early. Take another task off of their plate so they can focus on the task you think is most important.

3.  Show your appreciation

You can’t be successful without your support staff, so show them that you appreciate what they do for you. As one of my clients said to me recently, “A simple thank-you goes a long way.” Applaud their efforts, even when they are imperfect (remember – you aren’t perfect either, and everyone makes mistakes). Not only will this make your staff feel good, but they’re likely to want to do an even better job for you.

Don’t limit all of your conversations to work-related issues – show that you care about them as a person. Inquire about their families, their vacations, their weekends, and their hobbies. It doesn’t take much time or money to show someone that you care about them. Give a handwritten thank-you. Send them flowers. Give a favorite book or a gift certificate for a night out with their spouse.

These are three easy steps that any attorney can do to improve their relationship with their support staff.

What Should Your Engagement Agreement Include?

I had an article appear in the October issue of the New York State Bar Journal entitled, “What Should Your Engagement Agreement Include?” Read it here or click on the link below the images to see the full article.

What Should Your Engagement Agreement Include – NYS Bar Journal October 18

Reprinted with permission from: New York State Bar Association Journal, October 2018, Vol. 90, No. 8, published by the New York State Bar Association, One Elk Street, Albany, NY 12207.

Improve Your Law Firm’s Collaboration and Productivity with G Suite

Improve Law Firm Collaboration and Productivity with G SuiteIntroduction

Looking to improve workplace collaboration & productivity within your law practice? Miles Hischier, of HiView Solutions, a Google Integration Partner, authored this article for Lawyer Meltdown to share insights about how law firms can use Google G Suite for work email, project collaboration, and document storage. Learn about G Suite  and the popular features relevant to a law firm.

What is G Suite?

Google G Suite, sometimes called by its former name, ‘Google Apps for Work,’ is a collection of Google office productivity apps for business. The G Suite package includes:

  • Professional email through Gmail (name@domain.com)
  • Google Calendar
  • Google Hangouts
  • Google Drive
  • Google Docs

. G Suite also includes administrative tools through the G Suite Admin Panel.

Google offers 3 plans: G Suite Basic ($5/user/month), G Suite Business ($10/user/month), and G Suite Enterprise ($25/user/month). This article focuses on G Suite Business, which is appropriate for law firms with fewer than 250 employees.

Google Doc Features that Lawyers Love

Suggesting Mode. Google Docs allows you to ‘track changes’ and provide specific feedback inline within a particular document. Suggestions appear in colored text and can be “accepted” or “rejected” by other editors.

Commenting. This feature can be utilized to provide metadata or commentary about a specific inline edit. Just like Microsoft word, comments are captured & labeled with the commentator’s name.

Version Control. Instead of manually versioning files by name & date, Google automatically saves all edits. At any time, you can review the entire version history of a document and identify who made the last change and what specifically was changed.

Interoperability with MS Word. Google Docs can be downloaded into MS Word Docs. Google Doc Suggestions & Comments will also transfer into the Word doc as well.

Google Drive for Document Storage

With G Suite Business, you get unlimited storage (with 5+ users) and Team Drives, which enables law firm ownership of files/folders instead of Drive file ownership at the employee level.

Team Drives. Team Drives can be a useful complement to your case management system. For instance, you can add multiple Team Drives, organized by client name or by case, and then archive Team Drives over time. With unlimited storage & Google Vault for data retention (see below), you’ll have an easy search panel to cull through old files down the road if needed.

Work with MS Office Files through Filestream. Filestream was created so you can easily work in MS Office from your local computer and save new versions to your Google Drive account. Filestream is a Dropbox-like sync client that connects to your G Suite account and automatically uploads a new version of your MS Office Document to G Suite. You only need to select the Filestream folder through Finder on Mac or Explorer on Windows.

Protect Firm Data through the G Suite Admin Panel

 Mobile Device Management. If you have employees accessing work data on their own mobile devices, you can use Google’s built-in mobile device management service to enforce a device passcode, helping ensure that a lost iPhone doesn’t compromise your firm’s information. Further, admins can configure ‘account wipe’ which enables you to remove all firm data from the mobile phone without deleting the employee’s personal data, like photos.

Drive Sharing Controls. Since law firms handle sensitive information, we recommend that you disable external link sharing. This means that links can be shared internally, or with clients/partner organizations that have been whitelisted through the G Suite Admin Console. If someone outside of this protected realm needs to access a document, they can still be added directly to a file as “contributor,” but will need a Google Account to access the file.

This can happen 1 of 3 ways:

  1. Their company has G Suite
  2. The account shared with is a @gmail account, or
  3. They’ve created a free Google Account with their work email address at accounts.google.com

This way, you always know who your information is being shared with. With external link sharing enabled, anyone with the link can open that file.

Security Controls. From 2-factor authentication to usage reports, there’s a range of security control options that administrators can enable through the Admin Console to ensure G Suite is secure. Read more about G Suite Security here.

Google Vault (eDiscovery & Retention). Google Vault enables law firms to archive historical mail, chat, and group history. Google Drive Files can be archived as well. Firms can enable a default retention rule, such as “save indefinitely” to retain information. Google Vault can also be used for Legal Holds, Search, and Exporting data. Audit reports are also available to show actions taken by Vault users.

Google Meet for video/audio conferencing with clients

 Google Meet is a scalable and stable audio/video solution. Google Meet offers a way to join via URL from a computer, as well as a unique dial-in number & meeting PIN. This way, you can present yourself on camera to your clients or colleagues in another location and review documents together. Sometimes, it might be useful to simultaneously share a Google Doc so you can collaborate in real time on the call as well. G Suite Enterprise is quite a step up in price but includes the option of recording calls if you desire that functionality.

G Suite = A new way of working

G suite offers law firms a collaborative set of tools that provides alternative workflows to the traditional Outlook/MS Word combo that many law firms rely on today. Plus, as you bring younger lawyers into your practice, there’s a strong chance they’re well versed in this set of tools already. Google offers a very similar toolset in their G Suite for Education package, and younger employees (most people under age 35) bring Google Apps knowledge with them to the office.

For employees less familiar with Google products, a quality Change Management engagement with a Google Partner like HiView Solutions can help you convert even the most stubborn employees over to new ways of working. To learn more about G Suite, visit gsuite.google.com.

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.

FREE Data Protection Checklist for Choosing Cloud Practice Management Providers

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Download our FREE data protection checklist for cloud practice management program selection – just enter your name and email below. I promise never to share your email – it’s safe with me.

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How to Do More In Less Time Podcast

How to Do More In Less Time Cover Image

Having difficulty managing your workload? Think you could be more productive? My newest book, How to Do More In Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line may help. The first part of the book will provide you with strategies to help you manage your day to day tasks, while the second part of the book will give you specific tips on how you can shave time off of everyday tasks by using the software programs you’re already employing in your law practice more efficiently.

Want a preview?

Listen to this podcast interview with me and my co-author, Daniel J. Siegel.

Make Meetings Count

Business MeetingLawyers attend (or host) a lot of meetings. Even solos are involved in bar association committee meetings, networking meetings and client meetings, just to name a few. Meetings can be held in-person, or virtually by video or teleconference. Meetings can be invaluable tools to brainstorm, get input from a number of people at once, develop goals or strategies, discuss a problem or choose an action or outcome.

But meetings can also be huge time-wasters. Many meetings are unproductive due to the lack of a specific objective, unclear agenda or other problems. That lack of productivity is compounded when the wrong people attend or when meetings are unfocused. And just like email isn’t the best tool for all purposes, meetings aren’t the best tool for all communications. Meetings should have a specific goal or intended action outcome.

If you’re tempted to schedule a meeting just to provide an “update” to a number of people, it may be more appropriate to provide that update using another method and eliminate the meeting. In those cases, a more appropriate tool to provide the information might be a project management tool (like Basecamp), email, or a note in the client or project file, unless the update is significant or is tied to an event or celebration.

If you can’t eliminate the meeting entirely, make it more effective and avoid wasting time by avoiding the most common meeting time-wasters and following these steps:

1. Determine your purpose

First, decide the purpose and goal for the meeting. What outcome do you want to see from the meeting? Is this a brainstorming meeting to generate ideas, a meeting to identify and/or resolve issues, an action-based meeting to identify next steps and responsibilities, a task-based meeting to accomplish a particular assignment or a meeting to make a decision?

Once you know what you are trying to accomplish, you can decide on the meeting structure that will work best: will it be a free-flowing discussion (good for brainstorming or generating ideas) or will participants have a set time to speak (perhaps better for check-in or status based meetings)? Does the meeting address a time sensitive issue that must be addressed right away, or is it a future-oriented, planning meeting?

2. Decide who should participate

Attendance can make or break your meeting: inviting too many people can unnecessarily complicate it, but inviting too few (or the wrong people) can hinder progress.

Your knee-jerk reaction might be to invite everyone in the firm or everyone in a particular category of people to participate in every meeting, but we recommend that you give a little further thought to who should participate in your meetings.

The meeting’s purpose will also drive the attendance. Determine whose experience or expertise will be necessary to accomplish the meeting’s purpose. If the meeting is a decision-making meeting, it stands to reason that the decision-makers must be present in the room in order to accomplish the goal of the meeting. But be sure to include other stakeholders and those who might be significantly impacted by the decision so that they may provide their input or perspective on what factors should be considered.

You may also want to consider whether some participants should only be present for a portion of the meeting, rather than for the entire meeting.

3. Set the agenda and communicate in advance

Create an agenda for the meeting with topics to be discussed and persons responsible. Show that you respect the time of all involved and set limits for discussion, with a concrete beginning and ending time for the meeting.

Advise attendees of the date and time of the meeting. Communicate the purpose and expected outcome of the meeting, goals and agenda to all participants well enough in advance of the meeting so they can prepare. Include any supporting documents needed for the meeting, or that you expect participants to have reviewed or to be familiar with for the meeting. Advise participants of their expected role at the meeting. Request that participants respond to confirm their attendance. Send out a meeting reminder the day before the meeting to confirm.

4. Ensure the meeting stays on track

Start on time and stick to your agenda. Make sure introductions are made if you are not certain that everyone participating knows one another or if some participants are attending the meeting remotely. Have each person indicate who they are and why they are there or what their role in the firm or group is.

Begin the substance of the meeting by repeating the goal or purpose. Advise participants of the format of the meeting. If there is a projected (or firm) end time for the meeting, announce it in the beginning so that everyone is aware of it.

If issues arise that are unrelated but must be discussed during the meeting, request agreement of the participants to continue the meeting beyond the originally agreed-upon end time and establish that only those individuals involved in that particular project or issue be required to stay. If non-urgent issues arise, table them for a meeting to be held at another time specifically for that purpose.

Designate one person to be the meeting facilitator to keep the meeting on point and on time, or assign a time-keeper to keep an eye on the clock and remind the facilitator.

To obtain maximum participation, make the meeting a ‘safe place’ for people to express their opinions without judgment or ridicule. Allow each person the opportunity to speak, but don’t let one person take over the meeting. Obtain different perspectives by asking open-ended questions. Increase participant engagement in the meeting is to assign different people to lead the discussion on each agenda item.

When controversy arises, look for points of agreement. (“Can we all agree that the goal is…” or “If I’m hearing correctly, everyone seems to think there is a problem with Y, but we haven’t come up with the best way to solve the problem yet. Let’s see what we can come up with.”)

Before concluding the meeting, develop an action plan based upon your initial agenda. If necessary, recap the decisions that were made, lessons learned, or options identified during the meeting.  Identify next steps, set deadlines for the tasks identified and assign responsibility for those tasks to specific groups or individuals. Determine whether additional or follow up meetings will be required and, if possible, schedule them immediately.

5. Take action after the meeting

Even if you don’t take ‘minutes’ of the meeting, make sure that the main goals and decisions, deadlines, action steps and responsibilities determined during the meeting are communicated afterwards, in writing, if necessary. Consider whether they need to also be disseminated to those who were not present at the meeting to make follow up and future meetings more productive, even for those who were unable to attend. Follow up individually with those who have action steps to complete. If follow up meetings are necessary, add the tasks and responsibilities that were established to the agenda for follow up, or request that responsible parties submit a report of their progress to be attached to the agenda for the next meeting.

Meetings don’t have to be a black hole of wasted time if they are utilized properly. First, you must determine whether conducting a meeting is the correct way to accomplish your objectives. If it is, you’ll want to develop a meeting agenda based upon those objectives and invite only those people who are required to meet those objectives or make decisions necessary to move the project forward. Communicate the objective in advance to allow participants to fully prepare. Then use meeting facilitation techniques to keep the meeting on task and on time. And don’t forget to summarize what was accomplished and document next steps, deadlines and responsibility.

This article is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line,” with Daniel J. Siegel, scheduled to be published later this year.

Dealing with Difficult Clients

Difficult conversationsIf you have been in practice for any length of time, sooner or later you’re going to get stuck with a difficult client, or at least a difficult client conversation. Uncomfortable client conversations can arise for multiple reasons. Sometimes those reasons have more to do with the client than with the lawyer, but every attorney-client relationship contains two players, so you need to be aware of the ways in which you might be contributing to the problem and the ways you can contribute to a solution.

Take on the right clients

The best way to deal with truly difficult clients is by not taking them on in the first place. That requires that you be able to identify potentially bad clients early – preferably before a retainer is signed so that you can avoid them entirely. Make a list of bad client warning signs to help you identify potentially difficult clients. (See this blog post for tips on identifying bad clients).

Pre-screen and pre-qualify clients by:

  • Asking the right questions
  • Educating clients about the legal process in general and your services in particular
  • Evaluating whether your firm is the right fit for the potential client.

Pay attention to what your gut is telling you when you first meet with clients – if your gut tells you the client is not right for you, don’t agree to the representation.

If you’ve already hired a client that isn’t the right fit, consider firing them.

Communicate value

To effectively attract and retain good clients, you must communicate the value of the services you offer. Know what is important your potential clients and be able to differentiate yourself and your service from the others in your practice area – not just when you’re trying to attract new clients, but throughout the engagement.

Relate your services to the benefits to the client. Everything you do should be based upon the clients’ perspective – what’s in it for the client? How does each of the activities you undertake advance the client’s goals or contribute to their desired outcome?

Manage clients’ expectations

It is crucial that you discover, and help shape, the client’s expectations at the outset of the engagement, and that you continue to manage them throughout the engagement. In her article, “How to Handle Difficult Clients,” in the July/August issue of Law Practice Magazine, Justice Carole Curtis notes that clients have expectations not just about results, but also about service, time and costs. If the client’s perception of ‘service’ is something more or different than what you provide, the client will always be dissatisfied, regardless of how good your work is. It’s your job to manage expectations in each of these areas.

For more tips on managing clients’ expectations, see my posts Tips for Managing Client Expectations on the Legal Ease Blog or Managing Client’s Expectations on Lawyerist.

Know your boundaries and set limits

Often confrontations arise when the unexpected occurs. You can reduce many common difficult client situations by being prepared and setting boundaries at the outset of the engagement. Clients who can’t abide by your processes or boundaries will often self-identify themselves, offering you the opportunity to explore the situation before a confrontation occurs or the chance to decline the representation. There’s no reason to tolerate an abusive client!

Provide excellent service

Keep the client updated about what’s happening with the case. Don’t make clients ask you for a status; be proactive and provide regular updates, even when nothing is happening.

If you need to make a staffing change on the file, give the client a heads-up; don’t wait until the client receives a bill with a new attorney’s name on it or receives a phone call from a new attorney in your office they don’t know. Always present your best work; even if it’s just a draft, it should be free of spelling and grammatical errors, typos and other problems. Always accompany copies of documents or decisions in the client’s matter with a plain language explanation of what the document is and how it affects the client’s case.

Recognize that the client may not always agree with the course of action you think is best. Explain how the different options might advance the client’s stated goals and give your insight about consequences and potential pitfalls, but remember that ultimately, it’s the client’s job to choose the course of action. Document these conversations or follow up in writing.

Under-promise and over-deliver, keeping the four areas of client expectation listed above in mind.

Bill appropriately

Often, client problems or complaints arise out of disputes about or confusion over fees. Don’t nickel and dime your clients by charging them for items that really constitute part of your overhead and should already be factored in to your fees. Make sure your fees are fair and reasonable. If there is a change in your budget, big expenditures that need to be made, or if unexpected costs arise, advise the client as soon as you become aware of the change; don’t wait until the funds have already been expended or simply add it to your bill without discussing it with the client first.

Obtain client feedback

A client that doesn’t complain isn’t necessarily a happy client. And even happy clients may have additional needs that you could address. Obtain feedback throughout the engagement and upon its conclusion and act on that feedback when you receive it.

Handling Difficult Client Conversations

Even if you have done all of the above, you may still won’t be able to avoid difficult conversations entirely. Even generally good or cooperative clients can become difficult at times, especially when you have to tell them something they don’t want to hear, or when they have a complaint.

Sometimes conflict arises because clients don’t feel understood. Even business clients have an emotional investment in their legal matter, and many legal matters have high stakes, affecting clients’ finances, livelihoods, businesses, or their very lives. If you can guide the conversation in a way that makes clients feel understood, the conversation will run much more smoothly.

When you find yourself in a situation that requires a difficult conversation with clients, keep these tips in mind:

Mirror the client’s concerns. Let the client tell you what the issue is, and then reflect it back to the client. This way, the client knows they’re being heard, and you ensure that you understand their issue.

Focus on the client. The key to resolution is concentrating on the client’s feelings and the client’s desired outcome, rather than focusing on yourself, the work you have already done, or additional work that may be required. For example, if a client asks for something in a rush, respond by first acknowledging the client’s sense of urgency and how it affects their goals – not by telling them how much work you have to do or why what they’re asking is impossible.

Lay the groundwork for bad news – and go slowly. Resist the urge to just ‘get it over with’ by blurting out the bad news all at once. When you know the client isn’t going to be happy about what you have to tell them, start out by acknowledging the client’s desired outcome or goals, introduce what you are going to discuss, or explain that there are a number of different strategies that can be employed to move forward with their matter. Be sure to give the client reasons for those options and for what occurred. After you’ve delivered the bad news, let the client know that you empathize with their position.

Acknowledge the client’s feelings. Acknowledging a client’s feelings by saying something like, “I can tell that you’re upset about this” will begin to defuse the situation. Don’t let yourself get emotional or allow the client to push your buttons and don’t argue with clients about their feelings, whether you believe they are justified or not; you won’t change their mind and you are likely to make the situation worse.

Let clients know that they’re not alone. If this particular problem is a common one, or many clients seem to be frustrated by the same thing (for example the Court’s delay in making a decision, or opposing counsel’s refusal to provide documents), let the client know that not only are their feelings valid, but that they have been expressed by others in the past. If you are similarly frustrated, let the client know; it can be a way of getting you and your client back on the same side.

Work toward a resolution based on where you are now. Once the client is calmer and you’ve acknowledged them, you can begin to gather information that can help you to reach a solution to the underlying problem. Offer the client options for resolution, even if you can’t meet their specific demand.

Focus on the positive. Instead of saying no or telling a client what you can’t do and why, tell them what you can do. Explain the options in terms of the client’s goals (i.e. because I know that you don’t want to drag this litigation out…” or “Since you want to keep costs down…”

Don’t retreat or get defensive – it only escalates the confrontation.

Get help. While these suggestions may seem simple, they’re not always easy to implement. Working with a coach or getting some client service training can help you develop the skills necessary to handle difficult client situations.

Need help identifying bad clients or weeding them out? Want some training on dealing with difficult clients? Contact me for a consultation.

A version of portions of this article originally appeared on JD Supra.