Technology has increased the efficiency of our practices to such an extent that we’re willing to forgive its inefficiencies. We often ignore the burdens on our lives that technology has imposed. But, if we eliminate just a few of those inefficiencies and work to overcome some of the burdens, the quality of our practice life will be substantially enhanced.
We’ve developed 13 tips to improve the quality of our practice lives. The suggested improvements aren’t intended to be gray. We regard them as black and white—do them to make your life richer and happier.
1. Turn it Off
Chimes, beeps, pop ups and other interruptions that inform you about new incoming emails or texts. Really now, do we need to get these? We don’t. Turn off all of those notifications.
Here’s how: In Outlook, go to Home, then Options, then Mail. You’ll see the boxes to uncheck about notification of new emails.
2. Change Default View
Change the default view in Outlook to Calendar instead of Inbox. A default view in Calendar will help you make all meetings on time, without distracting you with incoming emails.
Here’s how: In Outlook, to shift to Inbox, hit Control + 1. To shift to Calendar, hit Control + 2.
3. Step Away from the Computer
It’s extremely difficult to concentrate with the devil that’s your computer right in front of you. You end up being mentally chained to your Inbox specifically and to your computer generally. Accordingly, you must have a desk in your office where you can lay out papers and do work, or a reserved spot down the hall, in another office or conference room, which doesn’t have a computer. Get there—away from the computer—as much as possible.
4. Turn Email Into Task
If an email looks too long to read now or respond to immediately, turn it into a task or appointment and delete it from the Inbox.
Here’s how: In Outlook, hit Control + Shift + G to put it in the Task List. The problem, of course, is that your Task List becomes, in and of itself, unmanageable, unless you attend to it often.
Alternatively, consider offloading the required work from the email immediately—send the email to a colleague to work on, and concurrently, calendar it for follow up by right clicking the email and dragging it into your calendar. And, it’s out of your Inbox. (Yay!)
5. Use Out of Office Assistant
This function is effective not only when you’re on vacation, but also when you have day trips out of the office, may be tied up for the day or you’re feeling like it will just be a nasty day of meetings. You have two options: “I have really important meetings that will keep me from responding to your requests for information, now or in the future.” Or, “I will be out of the office and not responding to emails until … For any emergency, please email my assistant, John Doe, or call me at . . .”
6. Avoid Immediate Replies
Don’t get in the habit of replying immediately to emails, even when you have the time to do so. This is tough. A reply within three hours is quite good; a reply in two minutes implies a level of responsiveness/precedent that will cost you quality of life.
For example, say a client asks you if a credit shelter trust set up by the first spouse at the first spouse’s passing should be treated as a grantor trust for income tax purposes, as the spouse is the trustee and a beneficiary with an ascertainable standard (relating to health, support and maintenance). An interesting question, a bit gray, but let’s assume you’ve answered it before. You immediately type a response, and 15 minutes later, you’re ready to hit send. Do you really want to indicate this level of accessibility and responsiveness to this kind of difficult inquiry? Alternatively, you can send, but hit delay delivery so the response isn’t sent immediately.
Here’s how: In Outlook, click on Options and then delay delivery to the time you want (“do not deliver before ___a.m.”).
7. Set Client Boundaries
Set reasonable parameters for the engagement. Don’t agree to meet on Saturday morning, unless it’s an emergency. Train your client to call you on your cell phone or home phone only in an emergency. Don’t apologize for responding to an email when you’ve responded within 24 hours. Also, don’t schedule too many meetings without preparation/decompression time in between.
8. Maximize Productivity
Lawyers sell expertise, advice and documents (collectively, mental “widgets”). If we can produce more quality widgets in less time, we’ll be happier, have happier clients and can make at least the same amount of money (for example, flat fee projects that work). To do this:
Identify and use peak brain time. Each person has peak time during the day when she’s at her best intellectually—some are morning people, some are evening people. Identify when you’re at your best, and reserve that time for your hardest work.
Identify and use low energy time. Each person has low energy time during the day. Identify that time, and schedule what requires less brain power or what might pick you up during that time—phone conferences, client meetings and staff meetings.
Set regular “no client meeting” days. Instead of working every weekend to catch up because your week was full of client meetings, set one day a week for no client meetings. Use that day to get work done or to catch up on drafting or reviews. Allow the staff to dress casually that day (they can even wear jeans) because no clients will see them.
Set a regular time for billing. Pick one day early each month, and block out sufficient time to get client bills reviewed and sent out.
Keep time contemporaneously. Don’t leave for the day if your time isn’t entered. It takes longer to recreate, and, invariably, time (and money) is lost if you enter your time after the fact.
Include an associate/paralegal in client meetings. Bring a junior person to meetings to take notes, follow up with clients on action items and summarize work to be done after the meeting.
Assign file preparation to staff. Implement a system in which a staff member is responsible for reviewing your calendar for client meetings, locating files, making sure all associated files and documents are there and having them ready for the client meeting.
9. Use PDFs
Regardless of your position on paper, if clients’ executed documents are scanned, you’ll be more efficient in responding to client inquiries.
For example, say a client calls and asks, “Who do I name as guardian for my children?” If the will is scanned, you can pull it up and answer the question while on the phone. If the will isn’t scanned, you may have to physically pull the file (or have someone else do it), look at the signed will and call the client back.
10. Plan Your Vacations
To have an effective vacation, and to even take one, define the type of vacation and plan early:
• If you’ll be emailing during your vacation, determine what Internet system the venue has (don’t assume) and determine when during the day you’ll be returning emails. Stick to that time only.
• If you’re not planning to return emails, set Out of Office Assistant to make that clear.
• As of Jan. 1 each year, segregate your calendar so that you have two weeks blocked off every quarter for a possible vacation. You can override this, but it’s nice to start with blocks of free time.
• Set up emergency contact information for phone calls or emails requiring immediate attention.
• Eliminate excuses that prevent you from taking a vacation:
“There’s never a good time to go.”
“Partners don’t take holidays.”
“I need to get caught up first.”
“I will take a day off and call that a holiday instead.”
“There’s no time.”
“Work is fun.”
“Planning for trips is too stressful.”
• Before vacation, make sure the last workday has no meetings. No exceptions. Block it off.
• Define who’s your back-up and what’s expected regarding handling matters, calling clients and reviewing emails.
• Don’t schedule any meetings for the first two days after you return from vacation.
• Ideally, return on a Saturday; allocate Sunday for clearing the backlog of emails.
• Have your staff sort your mail into categories:
o Office mail that needs attention: Have someone else in the office review it to make sure it gets taken care of.
o Other personal mail.
o All the junk mail. Throw it out.
11. Effectively Handle Referrals
The follow-up phone call to an inquiry should occur as soon after the initial contact as possible. The goal is to quickly get background information and set up a meeting. It’s easier to sell yourself in person than over the phone. Setting up a meeting allows you to do further due diligence. Be sure to get your prospect’s email address on that initial call.
Post call, do a bit of marketing.
For example, you can send an email that says something like this:
Before our initial meeting, how about if I send you an initial questionnaire to fill out, background on the firm and me, and background on estate planning. Let’s set a meeting for __________. At that meeting, we can talk about the project and costs.
On the call, be prepared to start your due diligence and your marketing. In a perfect world, a good client will be a 30-minute call prior to the actual in-office meeting and a bad one a 5-minute call prior to dismissal.
For example, consider the prototypical bad client. You usually know this in the first five minutes. The client may start off the call by saying, “I’ve been wronged, dad left me nothing under the will. I don’t understand why my siblings hate me. I’m currently unemployed, estranged from my family, living in my Buick Corvaire and need some money from dad’s estate. Let me tell you my life story.”
You want to be off the phone quickly. I’m always ready with the mute button and work in front of me, just in case the answer is “no” after five minutes, but the prospective client feels a need to burn 30 to 60 minutes of my time.
The protocol with any call back to a prospective client is to listen (85 percent), segue (10 percent) and schedule (5 percent).
12. Communicating with New Clients
After the phone call and before the initial meeting, consider a bit of marketing, through email and social media. Here are some suggestions:
Send emails. “Billy Bob, it was nice talking to you. Look forward to seeing you on the 29th. Attached is a questionnaire that I would appreciate your filling out and returning to me prior to the meeting.”
Check with colleagues. As you’re doing the conflicts check, make sure you ask your colleagues if anyone knows of Billy Bob or his business.
Use social media. (1) Go to Facebook or LinkedIn; you can get background information without becoming a friend or connection. Social media not only allows you to find out if your potential new client is Attila the Hun clothed as Mother Theresa, but also allows you to be intelligent at your first meeting. You can determine what’s important to the new client, demonstrate that you’re interested in his business and focus your business meeting on what’s important to him; and (2) Do a Google smart search. To do a smart search, type a name in quotation marks.
Follow up. Consider sending the client other materials pre-meeting, by email.
For example, you could say: “Attached is a fascinating article on how to avoid the implications of the reciprocal trust doctrine,” or “I thought you would find my CV of interest, as it lists many articles on planning I have authored that you may want to read.”
13. Avoid Bad Future Clients
Being willing to give away a few hours to prospective clients or non-clients is good. In fact, losing three to five hours per week on declined prospects may not be bad.
For example, assume each week you commit three hours to prospective clients you decide to decline to represent. On a discrete basis, you’ve lost a lot of money that year, correct? Three hours per week for 52 weeks for declined clients is 156 hours, times say $400/hour, is $60,000. Yikes. I could have had a Lexus 460. Be real though: If 20 percent of your clients are bad ones, you’ll be in the negotiation business, or lost-hour business, as you fight with these clients for collections or waste non-billable time on explaining positions, bills, non-estate-planning actions and non-rapid enough responses. Let’s look at the 20 percent scenario. You bill 1,800 hours. Twenty percent of these people are “angry young men.” Assume this correlates linearly to billable dollars—360 unpleasant hours. Say your average write off for these client hours is 50 percent. When you honestly factor in the anguish, whether it’s lost sleep, fighting with nasty letters or, the worst case, fending off an ethical or legal challenge, that 50 percent figure is probably low. That’s 180 hours at $400/hour, or $72,000 per year. In addition, bad clients cause us to do lesser jobs on good matters, such as making mistakes, slowing the completion of projects and creating bad will with valued clients. Bad clients result in wasted mental time, opportunity costs and negative marketing.
Prepare a standard form Declination letter. For example:
What a pleasure it was to meet with you and Abigail last week. Thank you so much for the time and for the opportunity to get to know you better.
After the meeting, I reviewed my current work list and calendar over the next few months, and regret that I will not be able to represent you in the many matters that we discussed. I recognize that you are high-energy and in need of good attention. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my practice has grown to an extent where, to be fair to my current clients, I must decline representation in certain new matters, and, specifically, for your matters.
I am returning, under separate cover, the materials (unopened) that you sent me.