As a solo, your time is money. But many solos spend so much time “putting out fires” that they don’t actually get any real work done.
We have so much to balance- marketing, bookkeeping, our caseload, and having a life outside of work- that these setbacks can result in missed deadlines, long hours, and attorney burn out.
This is bad for your business and your health.
While there will always be emergencies in a law practice, you can help manage some of the chaos by learning to be proactive instead of reactive in your solo practice.
Tactics For Being Proactive In Your Solo Practice
Schedule Time To Get Real Work Done
The best way to keep your practice under control is to schedule time to get things done. This means scheduling time in your calendar where you are off-limits to everyone and you can focus on your most important tasks.
During this time, get out of the office if you need to. Let your receptionist take calls, turn your cell on airplane mode, and turn off email notifications.
Don’t make excuses, very rarely should you have to drop everything to deal with a problem. It only happens because you let it. Just because it’s an emergency to your client, opposing counsel, or anyone else, does not mean it is an emergency for you. Most things can wait an hour or two until you are ready to deal with it.
It’s all about managing expectations about your accessibility. My clients know I am often in court and they know their call will be returned as soon as I am available. They never expect an immediate response because I let them know that it’s not always possible.
You can also change your voicemail and set an email responder stating when you will be available that day or have calls screened by an answering service or virtual receptionist for true emergencies.
Know What Needs To Be Done
Many solos spend time putting out little fires because they don’t have a structured plan for actually needs to be done that day.
If you know what your priorities are for the week, it’s easier to determine what can wait. I tackle this issue by setting aside an hour every week (usually Friday) to plan what I need to do next week.
I go through my case list and note next steps for each case, double check my calendar, and clean out my briefcase and inbox. Then I list my priorities for the week and schedule time to complete them on my calendar.
By knowing what must be done now, you can prevent “fires” later.
Predict & Prevent
Another way to be proactive is to predict and prevent. Learn to anticipate problems and issues that regularly occur in your practice.
This is easier to do if you are on top of what is going on in your cases.
For example, some of my clients will call daily if we are waiting to hear back about a settlement proposal. Instead of taking these calls throughout the day, I’ll contact them on Monday and let them know that I’ll follow up again on Thursday if I don’t hear anything.
They know exactly when they will hear from me and I don’t have to deal with constant calls and emails requesting an update.
If an adversary mentions they plan to file a motion, I discuss the possibility with my client in advance and come up with a strategy so we are prepared when we are served. No freaked out phone calls from my client, and we already have a plan in place on how to respond.
Have systems in place
Having systems in place keeps you organized and eliminates mistakes. Often the fires we have to put out are created by forgetting a step and having to scramble at the last minute to complete it.
Having systems or checklists will help ensure that every task is completed to the standard you set and, if your system is documented well, you can easily delegate the task and get consistent results.
I have checklists in place for everything; client intake, filing a motion, even what to do with mail. When I’m overwhelmed and frazzled, I know I won’t miss anything. And when I delegate tasks to a virtual assistant or paralegal, I know it will be completed to my standard.
I like to do this with email and phone calls. If possible, return phone calls and emails at specific intervals throughout the day. Not only will it keep you from being interrupted constantly, if you do it at the same time every day your clients will come to expect it and try to communicate with you during those time frames.
I also find this tactic useful for other administrative tasks. Blocking off time to get it all done at once makes my the rest of my day or week easier since I don’t have to keep stopping to do the small stuff.
The number one complaint clients have about attorneys is their failure to communicate. One way to be proactive is to give your clients regular case updates. I do this monthly with my invoices, and depending on the client, I’ll send weekly updates.
If you are doing a weekly review, you can just copy and past those notes in an email to your client or in the notes section on your invoice. It only takes a few minutes and can save you from phone calls and emails from a client who wants to know what’s going on.
Do the work
One of the benefits of being self-employed is the ability to set your own schedule and basically, do what you want. When you’re the boss, it’s easy to put things on the backburner to do something more enjoyable. But if you don’t do the work, you’ll always be trying to catch up. If you are always behind, you’ll never have time to be proactive.
Planning and systems don’t work unless you do.
When Things Are Already Out of Control
The tips above work to keep order, but what if your practice is already out of control? Here what to do to tame the flames:
Stop Everything & Get Organized
Take a day to get things under control. Turn off the phone and gather your calendar, files, mail, and whatever you use to capture to do’s.
Step One: Brain Dump
Add everything you can think of that you need to get done in the next 30 days to you to do list. Give it a deadline or put it directly on your calendar if you have to.
Step 2: Go through paper & Emails
Go through all papers on your desk, in your briefcase or in your inbox. Either put it on your to do list, shred it, scan it or file it.
Do the same for emails; add to your to do list, delete, or file away.
Step 3: Review Your Calendar
Review your meeting and events for the current week and add any follow-up task you may have forgotten to your to do-list. Next review your calendar events for the next two weeks and add any related tasks or deadlines to your to do list.
There are certain routine tasks such as my weekly review, planning social media, blogging, and bookkeeping that I like to block off on my calendar once I have my court appearances and meetings filled in. This is how I ensure these tasks don’t slip through the cracks.
Step 4: Prioritize
Look at that master to do list and determine what needs to be done this week. Can you delegate anything? Is there anything you don’t really have to do? Add the things you need to do to your to do list for next week, or even better, add them to your calendar.
Taking the time to be proactive will save you from hours of reactive setbacks. If you want to take your practice to the next level, productivity is key.