Time–or Process–Management for Lawyers


(Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

The practice of law is full of deadlines. In fact, a large part of managing a law practice is managing time and prioritizing tasks. Some tasks you know about weeks in advance, while others are suddenly and unexpectedly added to your long list of to-dos when opposing counsel files a last minute motion.

Because of these last minute changes, staying on top of your to-do list and meeting all of your deadlines isn’t easy. In fact, it can be extraordinarily frustrating at times, especially if organization isn’t your strong suit. For many lawyers, effective time management is a constant struggle.

That’s why time management is so often discussed in online legal forums, on law blogs, and during CLEs. The thinking is that maybe if you just find the right time management system–the system that works for you–then you’ll finally have everything under control.

But what if the solution isn’t to better manage your time, but instead to create more streamlined processes within your law firm? In other words, if you have better processes in place, your practice will run more smoothly, efficiently, and profitably.

Allison Shields addresses this idea in a recent post at the Legal Ease Blog, where she explains that your goal should be to manage your activities, not your “time.” This is because, time is a nebulous concept and for that reason, is nearly impossible to control:

(T)he only thing you can control is what you do with your time; you’re really managing your activities, not your time.

This may seem like a silly distinction, but this small shift in thinking can profoundly and positively affect your productivity.

So what Allison is really suggesting is that your ensure that your day-to-day activities are an efficient use of the time that you have available. In other words, if your workflow is streamlined, then you will avoid wasting time by repeating unnecessary steps or reinventing the wheel every time you encounter the same issue.

Allison isn’t the only one who thinks shifting the focus from time management to more effective processes is the best way to increase law firm productivity and profitablility.  Toby Brown at 3 Geeks and a Law Blog posits that increased competition is forcing lawyers to provide the same services, but at a lower cost. As a result, law firms have no other choice but to improve the efficiency of their processes in order to maintain a profit:

(T)he market is setting lower prices and now firms are trying to reduce the cost of their services, which translates in to productivity growth…Real productivity growth comes when you change the system, which leads us to process improvement. This is where most businesses gain a competitive edge. They employ long-term process improvement techniques…

Of course, using new tools to increase productivity isn’t exactly a novel concept for the legal field. While our profession may be somewhat slow to adapt to new technologies compared to more progressive professions, such as medicine, as Ron Friedmann acknowledges at the Strategic Legal Technology Blog, we’re not exactly Luddites. In the past, lawyers have successfully adapted new tools into their processes, thus increasing productivity:

In the legal market, word processing and e-mail were probably the biggest and most ubiquitous productivity boosters over the last two decades…More recently, predictive coding in e-discovery has significantly boosted lawyer productivity, though it remains controversial. I expect that legal project management and process improvement will have a bigger impact but (is in its) early days.

The difference now is that technology is advancing so rapidly that lawyers no longer have the luxury of adapting to these changes at their leisure. The ailing economy, increased competition from non-traditional sources (such as LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, and legal technicians), and client expectations and demands are causing lawyers to reevaluate the ways in which they deliver legal services. According to Ron, lawyers will have to acclimate quickly and increase productivity or else face the consequences of inaction:

Can we expect to see the regular introduction of new processes, techniques, business models, and technology in law that we see in many other economic sectors? As clients continue demand higher value from outside counsel, law firms that improve productivity will win market and mind share.

So the lesson to be learned is that focusing on improving your law firm’s processes, by implementing new tools such as law practice management software and putting more effective processes in place, will not only help you to stay on top of your tasks and to-dos, but will also increase your firm’s efficiency and profitability. It’s no longer a choice–to stay competitive you need to focus on managing your activities and streamlining your processes. The good news is that your efforts will undoubtedly pay off in the long run, in more ways than one.

-Niki Black

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