One way to ensure you're consistently creating excellent work product is to create a routine that focuses on three key things: how to receive, prepare, and deliver projects. Many miscommunications and inefficiencies can be avoided simply by taking time to outline a work-product roadmap that you follow with every project you complete.
STEP 1: RECEIVING
Step 1 in this process is to properly receive a project: what things should you consider when new work comes to you and before you start working? In other words, create a checklist of items you should work through to prioritize planning and to make sure you completely understand what’s being asked of you.
Here are a few things you might put on your “receiving checklist":
1. Deliverable. Confirm you have a clear understanding of the final deliverable. What’s the scope of the work and what should the final project look like? Is this client-ready work product, a full-blown memo, research that can be communicated via email, or an oral report? Start by reviewing an exemplar and make sure you understand your role in this project.
2. Due Date. This is an easy one. Clearly it's important to complete things on time, but it’s also import to confirm due dates for planning purposes (see #4 below).
3. Time Budget. Identify a best estimate of how long this project will take, and whether there’s a time cap. When we charge head-first into work without giving ourselves a time budget, we’re likely to use our time inefficiently and make our projects drag on forever.
Never start a project without assigning an estimated time budget.
Instead of saying: "I'm going to work on this brief this afternoon,” instead say: "I'm going to work on this brief from 1pm to 3:30pm this afternoon." (Check out our post on Parkinson's Law and compressing time into budgets.)
4. Priority Level. Once the due date and time budget are clear—and before jumping headfirst into the work—this particular project should be compared to all of the other projects you have on your plate to make sure it’s the most important thing for you to work on next.
Here's the takeaway: ensure you're setting yourself up for success by working through a short routine each time you receive work. Even spending 5 minutes to plan in this way will make a significant difference.
Part 2 of this post, preparing work product, will publish later this week.
Do you ever get caught up in wanting everything you do to be perfect? There’s a certain allure to the idea of being perfect and doing things perfectly . . . but it turns out that can be a huge mindset trap for us.
When it comes to our career and moving forward, we should be focused on progress and not perfection. Small, incremental wins stacked up over time is what drives our success.
What are you doing TODAY to focus on progress?
Breakdowns in communication with clients--even small ones--can become a significant impediment to our ability to not only represent our clients, but also run our practice efficiently. Breakdowns can lead to ball-dropping, non-responsiveness, mix-ups, and ultimately frustrated clients and employees.
If you're experiencing breakdowns, rather than immediately turning your attention to what your clients may or may not be doing, take a close look first at the way YOU are communicating. Look at the substance and style of your communication from the perspective of the recipient and evaluate whether YOU are doing everything you can to address the shortcomings.
If you want to be a better communicator, ask these 4 simple questions:
1. Did the person have enough of the right information to take action?
In other words, are you as the communicator providing them with the who, what, where, why and when that they need to take the action that you want them to take? Are you explaining to them what you need, providing examples, due dates, and the preferred format?
Breakdowns of this kind often arise when we're collecting information from clients, like during discovery. If we don't do a good job up front of giving them the information they need to gather documents, respond to our questions, or collect information, then we can expect what they give us to be disorganized and incomplete.
If you need something from them, make the extra effort to give them all the information they need to do it successfully.
2. Was the communication clear enough for them to understand?
Maybe you are giving your client all the right information . . . but are you being CLEAR enough? Are you using words and terminology that your client can understand? Are you burying the lead in a paragraph of other information, or is it crystal clear what you're asking for? When writing emails, check out your headers and your call to action–are these elements clear enough to make them pay attention in the first place?
3. Was the communication delivered in the right way at the right time?
Did you use the right communication medium and did you deliver the communication far enough in advance for them to act on it? Sometimes we choose to use a method of communication that's ideal for US, but that’s not ideal for our clients. If we know our clients don't use email or are bombarded by email, consider picking up the phone. Think about the using the medium that's most likely to get you a response.
Also–and this is a big one–did we give our client enough time to take the action we're asking them to take, or did we fail to plan ahead (click HERE for more on the importance of planning).
4. Was the person properly motivated to respond?
The main question here is: did we provide enough information to motivate the recipient to take the action we want them to take? A lot of times we’re firing off emails asking for things that we need from clients, but we’re not taking the time to explain what’s in it for THEM and WHY they should respond.
Here's the truth: we all prioritize our responses based on what’s in it for US–so if we provide the proper motivation then the level of responsiveness will go up.
For example, explaining to your client not only that you need these documents, but that giving you these documents on time and in a certain format will help you help them solve their problem faster. Motivate them to respond by making an effort to explain WHY.
Charles Haanel pointed out the direct link between our intentions and our ability to see opportunities when he said that “The intention governs the attention.”
In other words, what we intend is at the root of our actions. If our intentions are clear, then our mind automatically shifts its focus toward those intentions and the actions we must take to achieve them.
Think about this simple example: Let's say you've been walking down a city street for 30 minutes and eventually start to feel hungry. Your brain automatically shifts to a single intention: must find food, now! When that happens, it's like putting a lens over all of the information you process that filters out anything that doesn't involve your current intention. You may have passed 20 restaurants in the last 30 minutes and not noticed any of them, but now that your intention to find food is clear, your attention shifts to looking for restaurants--and you start to notice them all around you.
This connection between our intention and attention applies to our professional development, too.
If you're clear on your intentions and Why you want to make changes or improvements, then that allows you to clearly see opportunities that you may not have noticed before--and will lead you directly to the ability to define and set goals with precision and specificity. And with precise and well-defined goals that align with your “Why,” you're able to direct your attention and energy toward their achievement.
For example, it's not good enough to say that you want to not work as much, have more free time, or be a better lawyer. You have to get specific about your intention and the reason why it's important:
Getting clear on your intention will shift your attention toward that end--like achieving an hours goal, being more efficient, learning a new skill--and reveal opportunities that were there all along but that you hadn't clearly defined before. You'll see, for example, ways to bill more time, cut out inefficiencies, and take advantage of opportunities to practice speaking in public.
Here's the takeaway: When you align your thoughts with something you desire, the motivation and actions needed to achieve the goal reveal themselves. If you want to improve your practice, it starts with getting specific about your intentions. That will allow you to view opportunities with a heightened level of clarity, which will then allow you to take action with confidence and purpose.
If you're looking for ways to improve your relationship with your clients and the overall client service your firm provides, consider the benefits of creating a client video database.
We know that people are turning more and more to videos (as opposed to written materials) to get their information. One way to capitalize on this trend is to prepare short, informative videos that the firm’s clients can use to learn information about the firm, become educated on aspects of their case or matter, or learn how to perform the actions you need them to perform to help their case.
In other words: Instead of giving them directions in real time, or providing them with a written handout, consider whether it makes sense to communicate the same information through a series of videos or through a video database.
There are LOTS of opportunities to educate clients using videos:
Some firms have video databases that contain over 100 videos that their clients have access to on a whole range of topics. When an issue comes up on a call or in person, the firm sends the client a short video that provides some background information to explain and help the client better understand the issue.
Note that these videos generally are short–somewhere in the range of 3-5 minutes. If you have a complicated issue or complex directions, consider breaking it up into several parts. Also note that you can shoot a great video on an iPhone or a digital camera--there’s absolutely no need to go high-tech, and your videos can be low budget.
You can also use screen-sharing and recording software like Snaggit to capture and record videos on your computer or laptop. So if you want, for example, to walk your client through filling out a form or explaining an online resource to them, Snaggit is a great way to accomplish it.
Here's the Takeaway: Videos like this can be a great resource for clients and a supplement to verbal or other written information you provide them. Building a solid client video library is an excellent way to keep pace with the way the firm’s clients are processing information.
Interruptions from staff and other team members can break up the flow of your work day and seriously interfere with your ability to get your most important work done.
Experts have estimated that we can spend upwards of 40% of our day dealing with--and getting back on track after--unwanted interruptions.
Most law firm settings do require a certain amount of interruption to move at the speed of your clients and their matters--but that doesn't mean you can't set up some simple rules to reduce at least some of the burden that interruptions are causing you.
If you feel like your office is a revolving door, here are a few ways to address it:
1. Educate your staff on the purpose of establishing new communication routines.
Reducing interruptions starts with educating your team on why you're establishing new communication rules. Make it clear that the goal is to help the office run smoothly by bucketing certain questions and communications together and creating more uninterrupted time for everyone to concentrate on individual work.
2. Create rules and define an "emergency".
Identify rules your team can follow when it comes to communicating with one another. For example, if you want the hours between 10:00am-11:30am and 1:30pm-3:00pm to be uninterrupted work time, create a rule that no one interrupts you unless X, Y, or Z happens. Define what's not important enough for you to be interrupted , and also define circumstances where you do want them to communicate with you immediately--for example, client calls, potential new matters, or emergencies (and define what counts as an emergency).
3. Establish times for questions.
If you're going to have periods with no interruptions, then also establish well-defined periods for questions and work-related discussions. Some attorneys who supervise others hold open "office hours" at specific times throughout the day, others will ask that questions are held until the top of the hour. Experiment to see what works best for you and your team.
4. Define what kinds of issues are good for weekly meetings.
Some questions don't even warrant discussion on a daily basis, and are better suited for weekly meetings with the whole team present. So also make it a point to define the kinds of questions and issues that are better covered at your next staff meeting. For example, breakdowns in processes and firm systems, or matters that relate to the entire office, for example.
5. Work the system.
It will take some time to get the rules in place and train your staff, and you will need to be vigilant about following the system you've set up. But the benefits that are on the other side of working the system are well worth the effort.
One of the ways supervisors and law firm owners get bogged down is by trying to make themselves a part of every single process, procedure, and system that happens at the firm or on their team.
But as we know, the problem with micromanaging is that it not only becomes ultra time consuming, it misses an opportunity to empower your team members to exhibit leadership.
The next time a new staff member or attorney joins your team, or you decide to implement a new systems, workflow, or procedure, consider delegating some of the training responsibility to your associates.
The most obvious benefit is the time saving that comes from delegating.
But more importantly, if your associate is the one on the front line working with staff and other associates on matters, it makes sense to have them give at least some of the training—not only to build a rapport but also to work through the nuances that you aren't a part of on a day-to-day basis anyway.
But here’s the MOST important reason: Affirmatively giving your team permission to block off time in their week to teach one another how to improve the firm’s work and systems is critically important. If you don’t provide the time and space to train, then training ends up getting rushed, fit in here and there, or more likely it doesn’t happen at all.
HERE'S HOW TO DO IT
So if you want to start empowering your associate to handle some of the training at the firm, here’s the way to get started:
1. Outline training expectations + materials. Start by giving your associate a clear picture of what the training should look like in terms of scope, content, and time. In other words, spend some time “training the trainer” so that you feel confident in what they’re going to cover and they feel prepared. Have them prepare an outline of what they intend to cover so you can comment, add, and subtract.
2. Set weekly time blocks. Work with your team to establish weekly time blocks that are specifically dedicated to learning. I’m sure you could come up with a list of 50 things you’d like your team to learn or improve—so give them the time to do it by working to establish a weekly “training time.” Everyone can find at least 30 minutes a week to spend on learning.
3. Review what was covered during the training. At your next weekly office or team meeting, spend a few minutes going over how it went, what was covered, and the takeaways from the training. This will allow you to keep your finger on the pulse of their progress but also reinforce that you believe training is important.
REMEMBER THIS: Will the training be done exactly the way you would have done it? Probably not, but the benefits that come from giving your team the space to train is well worth letting go of some control.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: you sit down at your desk at 9am to start drafting a brief or reviewing a contract, and someone knocks on your door. You chat about something non-work related and they hang around until the phone rings a few minutes later.
As soon as you finish the call, you turn back to your screen and out of the corner of your eye you see you've gotten a new email--the subject line is ambiguous enough to make you curious about the content, so you open it. You quickly decide it's something you don't need to respond to now, and instinctually you take a quick glance at your phone--no new text messages--before finally turning back to the brief.
It's now fifteen minutes later and you've made no progress on the brief, and can't remember where you left off.
We can all relate to this pattern of events--intending to do "real work" but being interrupted by a series of distractions that take us away the work we set out to do.
If you're serious about building a work day that's focused on completing your most important projects, consider building time into your day that’s dedicated to doing Deep Work.
The concept of Deep Work comes from an excellent book written by author Cal Newport, and here’s the central idea: in order to get our most important work done, we must create time periods and a work environment that’s distraction free. If we don't create a completely distraction-free environment, we get pulled out of the state of pure concentration that we need to complete cognitively demand work, and instead become consumed with surface-level interruptions.
Not only does our work suffer from this lack of concentration, but we can end up spending a large chunk of our day simply transitioning back and forth between tasks.
Some studies conducted on the effects of this "task-switching" suggest that we can spend anywhere from 10% to 40% of our productive work time in a day switching among tasks--in other words, several HOURS of our day.
How To Get Started
If you're serious about getting things done, here are the four things you need to do to get started:
1. Choose a time of day and set a time frame. Start by choosing a time of day when you think you'll be the most productive--morning or afternoon--and when you'll have the least amount of interruptions to eliminate. Consider starting with an hour of deep work time and working up to 1-3 hours per day. If you can't go for 3 hours without interruptions, break it up into two or three smaller chunks.
2. Create a distraction-free environment. Shut your door, turn your cell phone on silent (or even better, put it outside your office), have your assistant hold your calls, turn your email notifications off, and put a "Please do not disturb" sign on your door.
3. Train your staff and colleagues. Most of the interruptions we have can be limited/eliminated by simply training those around us on our Deep Work routines. Let your colleagues and staff know what you're up to: that this is your most focused drafting time and to not interrupt you for the next hour unless there’s an emergency. Define what an emergency is and set a time right after you finish with your deep work to check back in with them, if necessary.
4. Remain disciplined. We saved the hardest part for last. At this point we're hard-wired to check our phone and our email all day long, so sticking with your plan initially will be challenging. But if you can push through that urge and fully engage in deep work, the amount of clarity and productivity you'll experience on the other side will be well worth it.
One of the ways we can create space in our day is by automating certain aspects of our practice.
The concept is simple: identify the tasks or processes you handle repeatedly and regularly, and create a system that removes you from the decision-making process as much as possible.
Every lawyer can work on implementing automation in at least three areas of their practice: documents, tasks, and scheduling.
Think about documents, emails or forms that generally contain the same information and that you frequently use within the office or with clients. Things like client forms, email templates, inbound discovery or discovery responses, letters, contracts, or any other documents that are part of your practice that you have to create or write consistently but that generally contain the same components, terms or language.
Look closely at your day. How many of the emails you send, directions you give to staff or clients, or documents your draft could be be simplified by creating a template or a system?
The goal is to eliminate as much of the decision-making and review process as possible. Every decision you make drains your willpower and takes up time, so if you can come up with a template or a form that you’ve already vetted, then that’s several less decisions to be made every day.
A second easy target for automation are tasks that you currently are a part of that either (1) don’t really require your attention, or (2) your response could be reduced to a set of rules that, if followed, require LITTLE IF ANY of your input or attention.
In other words, you remove yourself from the equation by setting up a procedure, a system, or set of rules so that you no longer have to be a part of the process. You no longer become the bottleneck that prevents projects or tasks from moving forward.
Here's a few examples:
If you examine these areas of your practice closely, you’ll find that a lot of decisions you are making that could be systematized. Empower your staff with directions for how to take action so that you’re not involved in these kinds of decisions.
Identify the tasks or processes you handle repeatedly and regularly, and create a system that removes you from the decision-making process as much as possible.
Scheduling is one of the easiest and most effective candidates for automation.
Let’s say part of what your secretary handles is scheduling appointments for you or client meetings (and you should have someone else in charge of your scheduling). Instead of having to tell your assistant every time a meeting gets scheduled when you want it, where to have it, what to send to the client, what times you’re available, and how long the meeting should be, you can automate that process by working with him or her to establish a set of rules.
For example, you can set times in your day that are blocked off specifically for client meetings, client calls, or calls with opposing counsel. Your assistant could also know that a certain kind of meeting with a client—maybe one before a hearing, for example—should automatically get scheduled for 1 hour, while a routine update call gets 15 minutes. If you’ve made a GUIDE OR AN FAQ SHEET that gets sent to the client ahead of a certain kind of meeting, then the secretary knows to send that, too.
Taking this example further, maybe one of the things you always do is schedule a call with a client before their first court appearance to explain the process and what to expect. And maybe in advance you send A ONE PAGE FAQ SHEET with the meeting invitation that lays out things you want them to know before you get on the call with them.
You can easily automate this process with your assistant. Not only will it save you mounds of time, it’s a great way to add value to your client relationship–because the communication is timely, uniform, and provides them with helpful information in advance of the meeting.
HERE'S THE MAIN TAKEAWAY: By taking yourself out of the process as much as possible, you eliminate the bottlenecks that stall routine tasks from moving forward, save yourself the time and energy it takes to make countless administrative decisions, and empower your team with the tools to make a decision on their own without your input.
How often do you start your day with a plan and great expectations, only to have it foiled by the arrival of the Unexpected?
Client emergencies, urgent work, unplanned meetings, other people leaning on us: these things consistently find a way to insert themselves into our day, yet we're still surprised when they arrive and disappointed that they've interrupted our plans.
When the Unexpected shows up, it’s challenging from both a scheduling and a mindset perspective. Not only do we have to account for work and time that we didn’t budget for, but more importantly we have to get over the poor mindset the Unexpected puts us in.
So what do we do about it?
Instead of meticulously filling your day from start to finish with things to do, build chunks of time into your schedule that are reserved for things you can't currently account for, but that you can logically say are going to happen based on experience.
For example, schedule a 1- or 2-hour slot of time (treat it the same way you would treat a client appointment or a court appearance) that’s dedicated to dealing with overflow work or meetings. Schedule a time block on your calendar called "The Unexpected" from 1pm to 2:30pm everyday. This practice management trick will give you the physical space to deal with what you can't account for at 9am.
MOST IMPORTANTLY: When the Unexpected arrives, it's less of a blow to our mindset because we’re already expecting it and have planned for it—so it’s not a surprise, we’re not as frustrated, and our expectations about how the day would go aren’t completely upended.
AND, if we’ve blocked off time for the Unexpected but it never shows up, then we feel like we just found a few hours of free time. It’s like that meeting or hearing that you’ve been dreading to go to that gets cancelled at the last minute. It’s found time, and can be a great mindset shift.
Build chunks of time into your schedule that are reserved for the things you can't current account for, but that you can logically say are going to happen based on experience.
HERE'S THE BOTTOM LINE: the key to dealing with the Unexpected is as much about managing your expectations as it is about time management. If you don't fill your time cup at the start of the day, you're less likely to have it overflowing at the end.