In Pursuit Of Priorities - Time Management: Not An Impossible Dream In Law Firms
A coaching client called me, frustrated because she was afraid of
missing critical litigation dates. In fact, she even awoke in the middle
of the night on more than one occasion, wondering whether a
document had been filed timely. She had explored case management
software programs, but found them too expensive and cumbersome.
She also didn’t have sufficient staff for complicated record-keeping notations.
Does this sound familiar? I recognized her frustration because
I had heard it many times before. More important, I recognized
that she had tried to find a solution on her own, and that her past
experience would make her more open to experimentation.
Lawyers – and the firm managers and administrators with whom
they work – must realize that while time cannot be technically
“managed,” priorities can be set, and then systematically addressed.
Most folks who claim they have too little time generally 1) fail to
make a list of priorities, 2) hop around the list, or 3) allow themselves
to be distracted by “urgent”, but not “important,” other tasks. They
then fail to get “back on the wagon,” revisiting the priority list to
pick up where they left off.
CREATING A FORM, AND USING IT
I suggested to my client that she create a form – one that I outlined
for her – and that she use this form not only to track tasks to be
done, but also as a tool to develop the strategy for each case, step
by step. For each new matter, a strategy is created for it. By doing
this, you then can set forth each task, one basic next step after the
other, as you envision the matter’s progress. When you do this, you achieve several things:
A copy of this form can be used not only for each matter/case,
detailing all of the known tasks into the future. But, it can also be
used as a summary of all of your matters, with only two or three
of the next tasks listed so as to have one sheet(s) to check on any given case/matter when you are in doubt or need
confirmation that a given task is being handled by
someone in your office.
Having all of your steps and activities documented
as suggested has additional advantages. Many
firms find it difficult, if not impossible, for
example, to send detailed status reports and timely
billings to clients, to develop accurate budgets for
a matter, and to analyze the firm’s cost structure.
Documented task/time management techniques
described in this article make each of these
essential activities possible. They force lawyers to
think through and visualize their work processes, with better analysis as the result.
Take, as our first example, the task of sending
regular updates to clients, showing what is being
done on their matters and what the next steps
will be. Status reports can be particularly valuable
because they demonstrate that you are on top of
your job and are actively working to accomplish
what the client wants. The goal is to show clients
what you are working on now, which is exactly
what time management forms can facilitate.
The reports need not be any more detailed than
this management form. (See Figure 1: Time
Management – Strategic Planning Delegation Plan)
For instance, a litigation status report could have
boxes to be checked showing current activities
(case evaluation, research, pleadings, motions,
etc.), what you might need from clients, and
what your next steps will be, including how much
money the client owes.
INVOICES AND BUDGETS
The time management form, when combined
with the information contained in periodic status
reports, also makes it much easier to construct
detailed invoices that itemize exactly what services
clients have received for their money. Because
legal services are often intangible, the more
information you can provide about your work
and accomplishments, the more likely the client
will be to perceive the bill as fair and to pay it
promptly. Rather than just billing, for example,
“work on motion for summary judgment, 20
hours,” detailed task records make it possible to
break any such charge into its basic elements,
with the amount of time needed for each: review
key documents and deposition testimony, draft
statement of uncontested facts as required by
court procedure, research precedents in four
similar cases, and so on. Such itemization
does not try clients’ patience – it helps them to
understand just how much you did on their behalf, particularly if you have kept them in the workflow
loop during the engagement.
Detailed invoices are particularly powerful
when they reflect a budget that a lawyer and
client agreed to before the matter began. A
budget may be only an estimate of what’s going
to happen, but it still can provide a framework
to anticipate the events, time, and money an
engagement can be expected to require.
In estimating time, use common sense, be
realistic, and communicate accurately about the
amount of time it will take to complete any work.
Err on the side of caution, and be sure to build in
more than adequate time. Except when you are
dealing with statutory or deal-making deadlines,
the client is less concerned with exact time and
more concerned about surprises. If you’ve done
time management reports for similar matters,
it makes the estimating process much easier.
As every legal professional knows, past results
are no guarantee of future performance. But
an informed guess, which time management
recording allows, is always better than a wild one.
LONG-TERM STRATEGIC VALUE
Ultimately, a law firm that has detailed all the
tasks that make up matters has the means to
analyze the firm’s entire cost structure. This is
vital for many reasons, from providing a roadmap
for creating budgets and reducing expenses, to
making it easier to address client requests for
alternative billing arrangements. The challenge for
most firms in doing such analyses is that lawyers,
generally, don’t know their costs of operation.
Thus, they often must bill a “by guess, by golly”
fee, not one based on a cost/benefit analysis.
Your firm cannot aspire to set budgets and fees
unless you understand the firm’s operational
processes and how each attorney determines firm
profitability by his or her activities. Such detailed
knowledge of the interaction between costs and
fees makes it easier for clients to accept the value
that the fees represent.
Time management forms and the activities
they facilitate – status reports, detailed invoices,
budgets, and cost analysis – may cause some
discomfort at first. Lawyers tend to believe that
providing their services depends on too many
variables that can’t be anticipated (for example,
what motions opposing counsel will file, or what
problems might turn up when performing due
diligence) to allow for ongoing documentation
and tracking. However, individual time sheets
(whether paper or electronic) already do this on a day-by-day basis.
The beauty of the time management approach
outlined here is that there is a central repository
of information for analysis. This is a very powerful
tool that delivers peace of mind – and great
defense against malpractice!
© Copyright 2010 Edward Poll. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from Ed Poll.
- Creating the strategy when you first receive the matter helps you
to envision the successful outcome of your representation.
- As the tasks are each listed, and assignments to staff are made,
you have a mechanism to know when each task is to be done and
- Greater peace of mind is achieved ... as is a defense against
negligent omission of dates/tasks required for the protection of
- Generally, the cost of legal services to your client will be lower.
About The Author
Edward Poll is America’s leading coach to the legal profession; he writes and speaks extensively on law practice management issues. Ed is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management; and recently inducted into The Million Dollar Consultant(tm) Hall of Fame. He is also President of the National Speakers Association, Los Angeles chapter. He can be reached at www.lawbiz.com, www.lawbizblog.com and www.lawbiztips.com; (800) 837-5880.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.
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