New Work Habits for a New Year

The nice thing about a new year is that it offers a second chance.  An opportunity to step back and take a fresh look at how to run your practice.  As someone who likes the idea of starting over and trying something new I am here to encourage you.  Please read on.

business-office

Are you in a rut?

Let’s face it: we all get stuck in a routine now and again.  Day after day we trudge on without question.  Depending on the routine, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  For example, following set procedures for responding to client email, docketing deadlines, or checking conflicts are helpful time management and malpractice avoidance techniques.  The problem arises when we form work habits that are self-defeating or even life-threatening.

Working long hours can kill you

Six years ago I reported on a study from the Annals of Internal Medicine that found people “who work an average of 11 or more hours per day have a 67 percent higher risk of suffering a heart attack or dying from heart disease than people who work a standard seven- to eight-hour day.  Those who work between 10 and 11 hours per day have a 45 percent higher risk.”

For those of you who champion working hard and putting in long hours, these numbers are a sobering wakeup call.

Sitting is the new smoking

In 2016 came the admonition: get off your duff to improve your health.

While deadlines may sometimes dictate longer hours, sitting in your chair for 10 or 11 hours a day shouldn’t be the norm.  Long hours translate to physical stress, little or no time to exercise, and eating habits that are often less than stellar (like grabbing fast food on the way home.)

The truth is that none of us can maintain a “7-7-7 schedule” (7:00 am to 7:00 pm seven days a week) without suffering the consequences.  Even if you buy a treadmill or standing desk.

Time for a do-over

If I am describing you, stop.  You can do better, and you’ll be happier for it.  Here’s how to cut back the amount of time spent in the office and still accomplish what you need to get done.

Learn to say “goodbye” and “no.”

Two of my favorite words.  And they should be yours too.

Find it hard to turn people away?  I understand how you feel.  Lawyers face economic pressure: I don’t really have a choice.  I need the money.  And emotional pressure: Family, friends, or former clients are depending on me.  

Next time you want to say “no,” but are struggling, follow this simple advice.

Overwhelmed by the amount of work on your plate?

This is a good news/bad news scenario.

Let’s start with the “bad news” first.  You have too much to do and can’t get it done.  You may be paralyzed or depressed.  You don’t know where to start.  Call the attorney counselors at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP).  They provide free and confidential help with issues just like this.  They can also connect you to resources that can help relieve the pressure.

On the “good news” side, having too much to do means you can afford to be more picky about clients and cases.  Time to cull the herd:

What are your priorities?

Yes, I’m talking to you.

What do you want to make a priority?  Create time that is sacrosanct to tackle what you want to get done by blocking out time on your calendar.  Treat this time as if it were a client appointment – take no calls, do not read email.  Stay off the Internet unless the task at hand involves being on the Internet.  Give the matter your undivided attention.

Multi-tasking is for the birds

Or rather, the bird brains.  Literally.  It’s just about the worst thing you can try to do.

The idea that we can juggle ten things at once is a myth – we simply can’t do it.  Here is one of the better explanations I’ve read about why multi-tasking doesn’t work.  It was the inspiration for this post.  If you want to do something well, not start over ten times, remember it afterward, and get finished sooner, then single task!

You can control client expectations

Learn to shape and manage client expectations – from the very simple (availability by phone, ability to accommodate unscheduled appointments) to the more complex (meeting client deadlines).  The Professional Liability Fund (PLF) offers sample client brochures that explain office and billing practices.

Give yourself a break with this easy time management technique

Form a new habit for 2017.  Check your calendar first before making a time-related promise to a client.  If there is no “deadline” per se, determine when you can reasonably fit the project into your schedule.  You gain nothing by promising a quick turnaround if you can’t keep your word.

In a pickle? Triage!

If you’re in a pickle – a deadline is approaching and you know you can’t meet it – start triaging.  Call your client.  Call opposing counsel if necessary.  Negotiate a new due date.

I know facing up to deadlines is hard.  I also know many lawyers hesitate to call their clients or the other side because they fear being yelled at.  Know this: your clients and the other side are far more understanding than you give them credit for.  Everyone has been there.  They get it.  It turns out that waiting is not really that big of a problem ninety-nine percent of the time.  And if you need support making these kind of calls, just give a ring to the nice folks at the OAAP.

Get back in control

Getting help may be just the ticket to get your workflow back in control.  Consider temporary staff or a contract attorney.  Questions?  Call your friendly practice management advisor at the PLF for help.

Leaving early?  Good for you!

Last but not least, ditch the guilt of leaving early – it is your well-deserved reward for good planning and efficient work habits.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Postscript

Have I given this advice before?  Absolutely.  But a reminder never hurts.  Especially if you know, as I do, that we all feel discouraged from time to time.  Never forget: you can start over and you can make a change.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The Best Legal Blog Posts of 2016

2016-word-cloudIf you’ve followed my blog for a year or more, you know I generally publish a “Year in Review” post.  This December I thought I’d take a slightly different approach. Instead of a comprehensive list, I’m filtering it down to my personal favorites. And while it may be controversial, I’m calling this compilation The Best Legal Blog Posts of 2016.  There is plenty of good stuff out there, but this is the best that has appeared here.  Mostly my content, but also sourced from other great writers.

Client Relations

eCourt and court procedures

Finances

Marketing

Security

Staffing

Technology

Time Management

All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis

The Continuum of Client Communication

We communicate with clients along a continuum – using emails, texts, letters, phone calls, video conferences, and in-person meetings.  When selecting a communication medium, what drives your choice?

 

When Your Convenience Determines How You Communicate

Choosing a communication medium that is most convenient for you is understandable. Odds are you’re busy, maybe overwhelmed.  You have information to convey and want to pass it along to the client quickly and easily.  More likely than not, you’ll fire off an email, maybe a text, or post a document and notify the client to login to your secure client portal.

  • This is perfectly fine if the information you have to convey is cut and dried: not controversial, unexpected, upsetting, or likely to provoke a series of questions.
  • For best results, prime clients at the first client meeting. Let them know to expect emails, texts, etc. when you have routine information to convey.

When Client Convenience Rules Communication

Some might argue this should be the gold standard 100% of the time: choose the communication method the client prefers or finds most convenient.

While I understand the spirit behind this point of view, it ignores some important realities. Consider this typical scenario: Client sends you a question by email or text, but is unclear in what she is asking or leaves out key details.  In the name of letting the client control the means of communication, you can:

  • Begin an inefficient exchange of messages in an attempt to clarify the question.
  • Spend an inordinate amount of time “issue spotting,” then answer every conceivable variation of the client’s real question.

Have I made this mistake?  Yes, indeed.  But the goal here is to do better. Neither of these choices is a good way to go.

  • Client convenience/preference can rule when you have straightforward information to convey.  [Spot a theme here?]
  • If the client is being murky, don’t text or email.  Pick up the phone.  You’ll get to bottom of the real question far more quickly.  Send back a quick message: “Let me call you to discuss this.  Is 2:00 p.m. a good time?”

Purposely Choosing a Communication Method that is Inconvenient for the Client

If we’re being truthful, most lawyers have done this at one time or the other.  You leave a voicemail at home because you know the client is at work.  You send an email late at night when the client is likely to be sleeping.  You mail a letter instead of picking up the phone to talk.

Avoidance, much?

If you occasionally choose a means of communication that avoids contact with your clients, don’t worry about it.  You might legitimately go this route to simply get something done.  [Your convenience is driving how you communicate.]

But if you find yourself avoiding clients (plural) repeatedly (chronically), stop and reflect. Most lawyers who choose an “avoidance” means of communication are doing it because:

  • They anticipate the client will be unhappy about whatever information it is they have to convey – or –
  • The client is already unhappy [which could be reasonable or unreasonable]

Chronic avoidance can become chronic procrastination, which is a no-win for everyone. Lawyers who repeatedly procrastinate are anxious, stressed, and sometimes depressed. They find it impossible to break the self-perpetuating cycle of avoidance: as clients become more and more unhappy because the lawyer isn’t communicating, the lawyer retreats even more – not checking email, not opening postal mail, allowing voicemail to fill up, not reading texts.

If you see yourself going down this path, or if you are looking for resources and advice on how to communicate bad news to clients, help is only a phone call away.  Contact the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program.  Assistance is free, confidential, and non-judgmental. Outside Oregon? There are national hotlines and lawyer assistance programs in other states.

Communicating in a Way that Builds and Supports Client Relationships

At the risk of revealing my bias, this is the sweet spot where you should strive to be.  So before talking on the phone really does become a lost art, try to cultivate a “relationship” approach when you communicate.  Follow these guidelines:

  • Talk about communication at your initial client meeting.  Let the client know what to expect and set the tone.
    • My goal is to keep you informed at all times during your case.  I will email (upload) routine updates and documents.
    • If you have a question, feel free to call (text, or email) me.  I set aside (mornings) (afternoons) to return calls and messages.
    • If the answer to your question is complicated, or if I need more information to give you an answer, I may ask to set up a telephone or video conference.
    • I like to meet with clients in person to (talk about settlement offers, prepare for deposition, prepare for trial, etc.)  If you want to meet in person, feel free to (call my assistant or me) any time to set up an appointment.
    • You are welcome to drop off documents (any time, after 1:00 p.m.).  If you want to talk (leave me a note or speak to my assistant so we can schedule a time to meet).
  • Consider the information you need to convey and remember your goal in communicating:  you’re trying to build and support a better client relationship.
    • Convey bad news in person, by video conference, or over the phone.
    • Discussing something complicated?  Use the same approach.
    • Is your client prone to anxiety?  Do you anticipate the client will have a host of questions?  Ditto on the approach.

Potential Legal Malpractice

If you’re an Oregon lawyer, call the Professional Liability Fund at 1-800-452-1639 and ask to speak to an on-call claims attorney in any of the following circumstances:

  • You believe you committed malpractice
  • The client is threatening to sue or is asserting you malpracticed
  • You are served with a summons and complaint

Firing a Troublesome Client

Sometimes the communication issue really boils down to the fact that you need to fire your client.  Read more about firing clients here.  Carefully review “Withdrawal from Litigation: Client Confidences,” OSB Formal Opinion 2011-185, Scott Morrill, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: How to End a Relationship, Part II, and Helen Hierschbiel, Tying Up Loose Ends: How to End a Relationship.

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

Postscript

For another twist on the subject of client communication, see Linn Davis, Good Communications: Keeping Clients and Ethical Obligations Satisfied.

Get Organized by Visualizing Your Workflow

How can you be more productive?  One simple solution is to visualize your workflow by tracking to-dos and tasks in a way that keeps them front and center.

Kanban – inspired by lean and “just-in-time” manufacturing processes – is one way to get it done.  How can this work for lawyers?  Read this post to find out: How Lawyers Can Use Kanban to Visualize Workflow — NWSidebar.

Inspired to learn more?  Check out:

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]