Finally, it is all coming together. You’re licensed. You are ready to practice on your own, in a firm or in some other setting. You’ve networked; you have prospective clients; you are getting referrals. It’s all falling into place. But is it all too much? There are so many demands on your time—clients, the court, friends, family, your pet—everyone wants some of your time. You are constantly running, worried about getting behind, missing something, or not having time to see friends and family, a movie, binge-watch your favorite series, or just get a good night’s sleep.
Welcome to the balancing act. This is the challenge—how to build and grow your practice, provide great service to your clients, but allow yourself to have the life you’ve hoped a lucrative practice would provide. On the one hand, you don’t want to turn away clients or have them hire someone else. On the other hand, you are earning a decent income, would love to take a vacation, spend quality time with friends or family, or pursue the interests you set aside while you were in school and studying for the bar.
The solution is not easy, but it’s simple. It will take discipline and determination, but it’s doable. It’s not rocket science: you should set priorities for your professional and personal lives, and then prioritize tasks and effectively manage your time. Certainly, some factors will always be out of your control and will be challenging—court dates, deadlines, and the uncertainty that comes with dealing with other people and their own priorities. Nonetheless, imposing some order on the chaos is necessary if you are going to thrive personally and professionally in the marathon that is the successful practice of law.
So, how can you achieve balance? First, take a deep breath and focus. No one thinks best under stress. Now that you have cleared the chaos from your mind, at least temporarily, here are a few tips.
Learn—and then consistently use—a time management strategy.
There are as many books, theories, and guides to time management as there are days of the year. Not all of them work equally well for everyone, but they share some commonalities. “To do” lists tend to become repositories of all the tasks and goals you want to achieve; what you need is a “to finish” list.
Take some time daily—not a long time, perhaps 15 minutes at the beginning of the day—to prioritize the three to five things that you must finish that day. Not just start but finish. Now, how much time will each of those tasks require? Make sure to allot the time necessary. Initially, you may not be expert at estimating the time needed for each, and a task may roll over to the next day’s “to finish” list. But you’ll get better at it.
Set a specific day and time of the week for administrative tasks and then stick to it. By setting aside time that is sacrosanct, barring a true emergency—think volcano eruptions or an imminent meteor strike—you will be certain that these essential tasks are regularly done.
Admit that no one can multitask.
It’s not you, and you aren’t a failure. No one can effectively multitask. This myth that we can do multiple tasks at the same time with the same (high) level of attention and focus has led us to feel like failures when we must admit that we are unable to do that. What multitaskers really do, recent thought on this issue tells us, is either bounce relentlessly in minute periods of time or focus unequal attention to a broader range of simultaneous tasks. Either way, we are not doing a great job at any of them. So, turn off email notifications and put your phone on silent, vibrate, or even better, “do not disturb” while you are working on a task. Focus on one at a time, for a finite period, until it is done.
Set client boundaries and expectations for each representation.
No one is, or should be expected to be, available 24/7/365. No one can be all things to all clients, and certainly not always. An exhausted, over-stressed lawyer is the last thing even the neediest client needs or deserves. Make clear to clients the limitations of your availability. Maybe it is longer than the “traditional” 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. working day. But that doesn’t mean that you need to be available always.
Explain to clients what qualifies as an emergency and what does not. This will vary with practice area, so there’s no bright-line rule. It is reasonable, however, to let clients know that if they call after hours they will need to leave a voicemail message, and when they may expect a return call for true emergencies.
Do not give clients your personal phone number or your personal email address. You should have a separate office phone number and email address. Apps like Sideline allow you to get a second number for your smartphone so that you may decide whether to answer a call to your office number after hours. Virtual receptionist services, if that is financially viable for you, also allow you to better manage calls and your time. Remind yourself that you deserve a personal life, time to refresh and renew, and to enjoy family and friends.
Unplug from time to time.
You were not born with a smartphone in your hand—it’s optional (albeit very useful) equipment. You don’t have to check texts, emails, or social media every hour of every day. Give yourself a break occasionally; decide to have a technology-free day on a weekend. Too radical for you? Okay, just give yourself a technology break a couple of hours before bedtime. The glow of your electronic device in the hours before bed may make it more difficult to get to sleep or maintain a restful sleep.
Wisely invest in and use technology.
Technology isn’t always the answer, but when it comes to being efficient and not spending “lawyer time” on support functions, it is important. Invest in a good practice management product. Many offer a bit of everything you need and can minimize the time you spend on administrative tasks. Yes, you will still have to allot administrative time. But why not use these systems to minimize that time? Even on a shoestring budget, practice management software is a wise investment. If you are in a state with a practice management program, the practice management advisors can assist by guiding you to a solution that will work best for you.
Use checklists and written procedures.
These mechanisms will give help you be sure you aren’t missing any important steps, tasks or obligations. Having a checklist or written procedure will make time management simpler by memorializing the steps necessary for specific office tasks, like calendaring or docketing. Save time and mental energy—avoid reinventing the wheel when completing tasks that are not as commonly done. Why waste time wondering how you did it the last time when you could take a few minutes to create a checklist or document a procedure? Having written procedures also gives inherent value to your firm and will keep you organized.
Health and wellness.
You’ve heard a lot lately about lawyer well-being, mental and physical health, and mindfulness. These issues are vital to our competence as lawyers and to the success and longevity of our careers. Recent reports from national treatment centers and task forces highlighted what many have known for years—the physical and emotional toll of the practice of law can be extreme. Too many lawyers are burned out, stressed out, addicted, abusing alcohol, suffering anxiety and depression. Everyone has a different path to physical and emotional wellness. For some it may be physical activity, for some, it is yoga or meditation, for some… well, you get the hint. If you need help or think you may, don’t wait to ask or to check out the resources offered by your state or local bar association.
Find a practice buddy.
You may already know another lawyer with whom you feel comfortable. Find someone with whom you may exchange ideas, experiences, or just vent in your first years of practice. Of course, you’ll be mindful of client confidentiality, but having someone you talk with about your experiences and challenges, who is at the same stage of practice as you are, can provide a great outlet and resource.
It is possible to achieve balance.
You don’t have to have a life coach by your side; it’s not just those amazing people who never seem to need sleep who can achieve this balance. It does, however, take some planning, some discipline, and some thought, to be able to achieve balance. Take it a step at a time, reach out to the practice management program at your Bar association, or to someone who seems to have mastered this. And don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t come together all at one time. It’ll happen if you persist.
About the Author
Roberta Tepper is the director of Lawyer Assistance Programs for the State Bar of Arizona. Contact her at Roberta.Tepper@staff.azbar.org or 602.340.7332.