Mining Time by 10ths: How to Increase Productivity and Bill More Time
No matter how many hours you work, it’s the ones that are billed to clients that serve as the productivity measure in law firms. In addition to the attendant financial rewards, more billed time generally means better performance for the individual lawyer. The goal, then, is to bill more time.
There are three ways to increase the billables attributed to you: (1) improved legal skills, (2) increased leverage of others, and (3) better use and capture of the hours you’re working. The first and second come with experience. The third will immediately produce results in hours gained, one 10th at a time. Here’s the math:
0.1 (hours) x 5 (days/week) x 44 (workweeks/year) = 23 extra billable hours
Here are ways to gain more billable hours in the day, six minutes at a time.
The killer application that ushered in the Internet era can be a huge time sink. To gain valuable minutes throughout the day, fine-tune your use of e-mail by taking the following steps.
- Turn off new message notifications.These notifications are a huge distraction because they create internal noise: “What am I missing?” or “Oh, not another thing to do!” Or worse, you instantly stop to look at the new message and lose focus on whatever else you’re doing. E-mail is an asynchronous communication tool. You do not need to know every time a message hits your inbox. It isn’t going anywhere! Simply triage your e-mail regularly (twice an hour or so) to stay abreast of what’s happening.
- Remove your work address from personal lists.Keep your inbox tidy and uncluttered to reduce the time wasted culling through it. Get rid of automatic feeds about the local weather report, the special of the day at your favorite online retailer, and the scores in the day’s sports events.
- Get off unnecessary professional and interoffice lists.These also represent a distraction from your work. Draft a polite, professional e-mail to the list manager asking to be removed if it’s not imperative that you receive certain e-mails. Likewise, unsubscribe from e-publications you don’t read. Most professional purveyors provide a simple Unsubscribe mechanism for this. Take advantage of it. You can always resubscribe.
- Spot review your inbox from home.Yes, you’re working away from the office after hours, but this is the new professional landscape. If you can quickly reply to simple requests and handle just a few small items in the evening, they’ll be on someone else’s desk—and not yours—in the morning.
- Bill all e-mail correspondence.Forward a copy of all billable e-mails to yourself or your assistant with the client, matter and billable time in the Subject line. This trail will ensure that your billable work on those messages actually gets billed. Why do the work if you’re not getting “credit” for it?
It’s not just for juries, you know. The idea is to find a place or process that provides you with uninterrupted time to get top-priority work done. This doesn’t mean holing up all day, or leaving the country. You’re looking for a defined period each day—say one to two hours—when you are able to focus on the tasks of highest concern.
- Privatize your office.Close your door and put your phone on “Do Not Disturb.” If people continue to interrupt you, put a DND sign on your door. You can make it light—“Great Mind at Work, Please Don’t Knock” or “Out to Work, Back at X:XX O’Clock” —but make it clear.
- Establish a secondary workplace.If your firm has a library, go there. If the firm or office building has a small conference or caucus room, go there. Even an empty office will do. Take only the things you’re going to work on, and sit down and do them.
- Try some one-hour telecommuting.Consider coming in late or going home early to gain quiet work time one day a week. But remember, if you’re going to do this, you must genuinely commit to getting the work done. Any temptation to dally will undermine your objective of increasing performance, so be very careful.
- Learn how to say no.Inevitably, you will still be hunted down or interrupted on many occasions. This is when it is imperative that you politely but unmistakably explain that you’re not currently available and you’ll get back to the person posthaste when you are. It’s an opportunity to retrain those you work with—you are enlisting their help to increase your productivity.
Capturing All Billable Time
This is the never-ending nag about consistently writing down your time. The statistics are overwhelming: You can lose 20 percent of your billable time if you don’t write it down immediately upon completing the work. So track it constantly through the day!
- Get client/matter numbers at inception.When you’re handed a file or you engage in a case-related discussion with another lawyer, ask for the client/matter number up front. This will do two things: (1) make it clear that you’re going to bill the time you work and (2) eliminate the need for you to chase down the number later, which, of course, wastes billable time!
- Copy yourself or your assistant on all e-mails.I’ll say it again: Here’s your track record of what work you’ve done in e-mail. If necessary, you can print out the messages—including client/matter number and time spent—and have them transferred to the firm’s billing program. You did the work, so make sure that it’s captured.
- Complete your daily timesheets by day’s end.The best practice is to keep a running log of time (software-based or otherwise) of everything you do as you do it. If you’re a scrap-of-paper person, then you need to aggregate and compile the list for your billing program before leaving the office that day. Even if your memory rivals that of the elephant, you will miss things if you don’t do this every single day. Recall our earlier math—one missed 10th of an hour each day translates to 23 lost hours a year.
Implementing some or all of these suggestions will definitely increase your productivity. Better productivity will improve your compensation and sense of accomplishment. In turn, your increased accomplishment will produce greater career satisfaction. And the extra cash you gain in the process won’t hurt either.
About the Author
Paul Burton is a former corporate finance attorney and software executive. He works exclusively with lawyers and law firms, providing practice management consulting, training and coaching.