Help for lawyers’ bad habits

A disturbing thought occurred to me while reading Coaching for Attorneys — after 15 years of practising law, I have become lazy about meeting deadlines and making it to appointments on time.

Oh, I try. Or, more accurately, I say I try. After making it to court just as my case is being called, I promise myself I'll leave earlier next time. But next time arrives and I have a stack of phone messages to answer, or I have to deal with a client who drops by unannounced, and the vicious cycle continues.

When I was younger and keener, I could always be counted on to get to court much earlier than everyone else. But over time I realized I didn't appear to be suffering any consequences for being late, and I grew complacent. In reality, I've risked creating the impression of a lawyer who is disorganized and untrustworthy.

So, that's my bad habit. I'm sure you have one of your own. And that's why you may find Coaching for Attorneys, scheduled for publication by the American Bar Association next month, as helpful as I did.

Authors Cami McLaren and Stephanie Finelli say their mission is to help lawyers take control of their practice, instead of succumbing to the cultural “draft” that carries along most law firms.

“In order to make change, you must stand for what you want. If you say you want something to be different, but you do not take a stand for the change, the drift will carry you along, and nothing will change,” they wrote.

Their book contains dozens of very helpful suggestions for making your practice more efficient, effective, and trustworthy. My “personal drift” is being late. Yours might be difficulty concentrating on particular assignments, inability to delegate tasks to associates or support staff, or taking on all potential clients, despite clear warning signs.  

McLaren and Finelli encourage the reader to clearly define his or her goal in becoming a lawyer. For some, it may involve a change to another area of practice or even leaving the profession altogether. They also emphasize the importance of self-care — making sure you are keeping yourself physically healthy and not overwhelmed mentally. Their analogy for making sure you take care of yourself, even when it seems like you should be concentrating on others, is striking:
“One of our favorite metaphors for personal maintenance is that of the oxygen mask on the plane. After you get on the plane and sit down to read, the flight attendants tell you that should there be a loss in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop out of the overhead compartment. They state that if you are traveling with small children you must put on your oxygen mask first before assisting your children.

Here is the problem: most parents are unlikely to put the oxygen mask on themselves before helping their kids. But what will happen in this type of situation if you do not take care of yourself first? You have a minute or two before you pass out. You go with your instinct to save this person you love — and in the process you lose consciousness. But if you put the mask on yourself first, then you maintain consciousness and are thus able to help your child . . . and other people.

Why do we have to be told this? Because frequently we do not, as a natural response, take care of ourselves first. We often see taking care of ourselves as selfish. What we do not seem to fully appreciate is that we are of little use to anyone else if we have not taken care of ourselves first. We may appreciate it logically, but we often do not really believe it in a way that affects our behavior.”
Wherever you practise law and whatever area you specialize in, I guarantee you have an issue with managing your time and making sure you can get everything done in the time required. So it’s probably no accident that the chapter on time management is by far the longest in the book, and probably the most helpful.

The authors argue that we have a choice as to what work we take on at any given time, even when it seems like we have no choice. If you have a looming deadline for filing a brief, you can choose to start preparing early or to keep it until the last minute. If you have emails and phone calls constantly coming in, you can choose to save them for later or take them as they come, interrupting your other work.

Of course, messages and calls should be answered within a reasonable time. But if you get into the habit of taking them right away, you create the impression that you’re available on demand and your client can expect you to drop everything and deal with them immediately. In reality, no busy practice can work that way.

Instead, the authors suggest taking two or three times per day to check your e-mail and return calls. For larger or more pressing projects, they propose that you slightly overestimate the time required to complete them and mark down time on your calendar when you will work on each part of the project. By overestimating the time required, you should be able to leave yourself with some downtime to handle smaller, less immediate tasks.

Coaching for Attorneys contains a lot of material taken from other self-help books — Stephen Covey, in particular, is name-checked frequently — but it’s nice to have these ideas applied toward the specific needs of the busy lawyer.

The book came just at the right time for me, and I look forward to putting its activities and exercises into practice. In fact, I've already started — after months of making my editor resigned to constant requests for extensions, I made sure this column was submitted right on time.

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