A while back, I wrote about how to handle downtime in your firm. Well, today, I’m going to write about the flip side of downtime: what to do when you are so busy you can’t even take a bathroom break, much less lunch; so busy you can’t hang up from one call before the phone starts ringing; so busy you forget what downtime even looks like.
So what do you do when all the marketing is paying off, when you are busier than you think you can handle. I know – what a great problem to have! But when you have that problem, it doesn’t feel so great.
At Big Law, this is not considered a problem at all, at least not for an associate. What do you do? Lock yourself in your office and bill away the hours! Bill bill bill! You have to do that when you are a solo, too, to some extent; but add to that all the administrative stuff for which you no longer have a staff, like processing payroll, running to the bank and the post office, marketing your services, managing your trust account and answering that phone that keeps ringing off the hook.
Nonetheless, first things first: you’ve got to do the client’s work if you ever hope to get another client, but you’ve only got so many hours in the day. This is more than a time management problem. It’s a client management problem.
Manage your clients and the work will get done… and all that other stuff will get done too (including writing that SPU column!) without losing your mind in the process.
The first thing you do, if you want to manage the client instead of letting the work manage you, is communicate with the client. Client’s can handle you running late on their project most of the time. But what they can’t handle is not knowing that you are in fact working on their project at all. Let them know you have not forgotten them and they will be much more forgiving of your tight schedule.
The second thing you do, and it is just barely second, is to set client expectations at a realistic level. Let them know that you are working on their project, yes, but that in order to give their project the attention that it deserves you will need a certain amount of time. Make sure that the time frame you give them is realistic, because they will hold you to it.
The time you give the client for when the work will be done must be based on your workflow, taking into account all the other work in the pipeline that you realistically need to get done in that same time frame. So the third thing you need to do is keep a To Do list just of client production that needs to get done. Mine is kept in Things software on my Mac, iPhone and iPad, so I have it everywhere I go. I can always look at that To Do list and know exactly what work is pending before I make a promise to a client about when their work will be done.
The next thing you have to do is keep a calendar of the work you are getting done. Whether you are doing transactional work like me or you are a litigator, ALL of your work should be on your calendar each day. This not only helps you track your time (if you bill by the hour) and keep your docket (if you are a litigator), but it helps you to make sure that you spend significant time each day on client production. It also ensures that, if you don’t get to this client’s work today, you will put it on the calendar for tomorrow so that it will get done. Take the time in the morning to plan what you will work on that day, and I promise you will get more done every day. (For details on how to do this, see Bill Jawitz’s Productivity Bootcamp.)
Next, you have to do the work that’s on your calendar each day. That means setting aside some time in the morning and afternoon to deal with email and voicemail, putting your phone on “Do Not Disturb,” and closing your office door. You need uninterrupted time to do the work. Do all your work as well as you can the first time. Then put it down and move on to the next scheduled task, whether you are done with it or not.
Next, read the work you’ve done. All of it. Out loud, preferably, since you catch more mistakes that way. Always run your word processor’s spelling and grammar check. Try your best to catch your typos, omissions and mistakes before the client does. Clients will forgive an occasional typo, but they hate sloppy work. Give them your best efforts, even if you have to take an extra day to do it. The time you spend doing this will more than make up for the time you will spend fixing mistakes later on.
Finally, communicate with the client again. Let the client know where you are at on their project if they were on your schedule for the day. Let them know if the work is in progress but not yet complete, or if you have a final draft that you will get to them in the morning (so you can review it one more time tonight). Like I said before, communicating with the client is the key to managing the client. And managing the client is the name of the game when you’re busy.
I am not perfect at doing all of this, I admit. I sometimes let the amount of work that needs my attention overwhelm me and I get off track. But I DO know that being busy is a blessing, not a curse. And I also know that if I get back on track with the basics of client management, I WILL get everything done that I promised.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.