Managing Your Practice
Piloting Your Practice
14 steps toward more productivity
By Kelly Andersen
Dec. 12, 1953, sound barrier- breaker Chuck Yeager was testing the X-1A,
an experimental supersonic rocket. Dropped from a bomber at 13,000 feet,
Yeager's rocket soared to over 80,000 feet and then began to dive. When
he exceeded the previous speed record of 2.0 mach, Yeager accelerated
even more to test the limits of the craft. When he reached 2.4 mach the
nose yawed to the left and then the aircraft began careening, snapping,
rolling and pitching like a giant Frisbee hurling toward the earth.1
later recalled that in the next few fearful moments he called upon every
experience he had ever had in thousands of hours of flying. He doubted
he would have survived if he had flown even one half hour less.
Yeager's aircraft, our accelerated lives may on occasion seem to spin
widely out of control. At such times we must apply all we have ever learned
to stabilize and continue our flight.
the years I have made a studied observation of those attorneys who seem
to be in control of their practices and those who are not. I wonder at
the enormous gulf between the most and the least productive attorneys.
From my observation of others and examination of myself I have distilled
14 principles that are essential to the productive practice of law.
BE SELECTIVE IN THE CASES YOUR ACCEPT
years later I read of a business guru who claimed he could teach anyone
to read 10,000 words per minute or higher. Piqued by his claim - and sensing
a scam - I read on. He asserted that the only way to truly increase one's
reading speed was to rule out books and magazines not worth reading, so
that the worthy remainder could be savored and enjoyed. He proposed that
before any book is read, one should peruse its table of contents and carefully
study a few of its pages. Then, if the book is not as valuable as the
time it would take to read it, one should simply set it aside. By being
more selective in what one chooses to read, a person's practical reading
speed can be enormously increased.
same may be said of cases. Like a good meal, a good case should be savored
and digested unhurriedly. The most precious resource of time should not
be squandered upon unworthy cases. Be very careful taking cases with bad
facts. Even be careful taking cases having good facts owned by bad clients.
WHEN WORKING ON A CASE, DO EVERYTHING THEN POSSIBLE TO ADVANCE THE CASE
a new case comes into the office involving a tort claim against a public
body, why not immediately dictate the statutory tort claim notice, rather
than putting the matter on a 'to do' list, as though it will
be easier done later than now? If a case involves a complicated fact pattern,
spend the time and mental energy to fully comprehend the details now rather
than later, and then immediately dictate a file memo to preserve the understanding;
at the same time dictate letters and instructions to staff on what needs
to be done next. When a pleading is moved against, do the research and
dictate the reply when the motion is in hand, rather than setting it aside
and waiting until the deadline. Whatever needs to be done, so far as possible,
do it now.
like to think of work in vertical and horizontal paradigms. If I am working
vertically, I may work on only a few cases in a day, but I will accomplish
enormous things to advance those cases toward closure. If I am working
horizontally, I will consider it a good day if I have cleaned my desk
and kept up with the flow of paper. An attorney must work with both paradigms,
but the great time sapper and leach on productive output is the horizontal
paradigm. One may work ever so feverishly keeping a desk clean and keeping
paperwork flowing, and yet not advance a case toward resolution because
one is responding rather than acting.
HAVE A PASSION FOR CLOSURE
we are not careful we may find ourselves moving paper and working hard,
but not really advancing the case to closure. At every step of a case
it is appropriate to ask: 'What thing can I do now to justly close
this case?' Is there a document missing, which once obtained will
bring the case to a conclusion? Can a demand letter be done and thus initiate
settlement discussions? Are negotiations getting nowhere, such that it
is best to file the case, and thus move it a step closer to closure? Can
a trial date be set? Can depositions be set?
handling a document, making a call or dictating a letter, ask whether
what is being done is actually advancing the case to closure. If not,
is it worth doing? In World War II Gen. Douglas McArthur brilliantly out-thought
the Japanese military leaders by not attacking every Pacific Island held
by the Japanese. Instead, he carefully decided which islands he really
needed in order to reach Japan itself. He bypassed the rest. This
course saved thousands of lives and conserved allied strength for those
few islands that were essential. In many of our cases there are islands
upon which battles could be fought, but they are not necessary to achieve
the ultimate objective. We save time and money when we wisely bypass the
many unnecessary islands that abound in all cases.
BECOME A DICTATOR
HANDLE PAPER ONLY ONCE
obvious exception, of course, is when the action required will take substantial
blocks of time, or when a major decision must be weighed and pondered
and balanced over a maturing period of time.
attorney time is saved if staff carefully organize every file into sections,
and then subcategorize the sections. In our office, for example, all files
are in six-section expandable folders. Pleadings are in the first section,
numerically tabbed and indexed. Correspondence is in the second section
in chronological order. The third section is pre-indexed to cover such
things as police reports, depositions summaries, wage loss information
and other documentary evidence. The fourth section is reserved for memos
to the file. The fifth section is reserved for medical bills, and the
sixth section is for medical records, all carefully tabbed and indexed.
Any staff member can open a file and find whatever is needed within a
SET ASIDE CHUNKS OF UNINTERRUPTED TIME
of undisturbed time are vitally needed to be creative and to feed opportunities.
If we sacrifice these golden hours and entangle ourselves too much in
the consuming web of wheeling and dealing, we will soon be dealing in
shadows instead of substance.
just as there is a need for some uninterrupted time, there is also a countervailing
need for periods of complete availability, when we take as many phone
calls as necessary, have impromptu meetings with staff and deal quickly
and decisively with an invading host of miscellaneous matters. But these
baths in total availability must be tempered and seasoned by creative
solitude. Otherwise we are only responding to problems, rather than creating
opportunities; we are working horizontally and not vertically.
THINK CAREFULLY BEFORE YOU FILE, BUT NOT TOO LONG
all too often these and other steps of litigation really do not change
the essential nature of a case; they only consume time and add costs.
Therefore, instead of rushing to file a lawsuit, ask whether some informal
discovery can now be done to resolve the case, before costs mount. If
the other side wants a document, why not produce it, especially since
its production can be compelled later on? If the other side wants a recorded
statement and is willing to make a fair exchange for such cooperation,
why not allow it, since a deposition can be compelled later on? Worried
about inconsistencies between the informally recorded statement and a
deposition? This can be avoided by stipulating that pre-filing statements
may not be used in court. (They can still be used to evaluate facts and
can be invaluable in understanding the other side's case, even if the
statements are inadmissible in court.)
not filing a lawsuit often increases case efficiency, it is not
always so. If matters are not moving informally, or if the case is unlikely
ever to resolve without substantial formal discovery, then the most efficient
step is to bypass informal discovery entirely. Under these circumstances
filing a lawsuit will get the matter on a clock ticking toward resolution
and will save time.
when not to file and when to file is one of the marks of
a seasoned, skilled attorney.
'STICK TO THE KNITTING'
Peters and Waterman do not advocate doing only one thing, they do caution
that successful businesses stay close to their core skills, and do not
'test new waters with both feet.'5
INVEST IN TECHNOLOGY
legal research can be done in a fraction of the time written indexes and
digests used to require. A case read months or even years ago can usually
be retrieved, if only a few key words can be remembered. In doing computer
research an attorney who happily stumbles onto cases or statutes that
will be of use in another case, can easily copy and paste a relevant sentence
or paragraph (and the case citation) into the appropriate client's electronic
file, all without interrupting the primary research in progress. A few
older attorneys claim they can research as fast using digests and books.
I do not think it possible.
extremely worthwhile technological investment is a phone system with both
external and internal voice messaging. With this technology an attorney
can leave instructions for staff while in the midst of a project, rather
than having to wait until both staff and attorney are available.
'PLAN YOUR WORK, THEN WORK YOUR PLAN'
HIRE COMPETENT HELP AND PAY WELL
this was her first job and that she might not understand legal style,
I flexed my knuckles, leaned back in my chair, and began to slowly dictate
my first letter, inserting instructions and punctuation so that it would
all be perfectly clear.
that day my very inexpensive secretary brought to me a typed yellow page,
without any indentations or set-offs to mark dates, addresses, salutations
or paragraphs. Beginning in the upper left-hand corner and running across
the width of the page and then continuing down the page in one long running
paragraph, I read:
amount of positive attitude or self-esteem enhancement would ever turn
her into a Della Street. That she was a nice person I do not deny. That
she may have had other skills, I can readily admit. But she was not a
born legal talent, and the false economy in hiring her because she only
required half of minimum wage was a costly mistake. Day after day I slaved
over multiple drafts of her letters, correcting spelling, punctuation
and style errors.
a contrast from that experience is my happy state now, surrounded by an
incredibly capable staff who correct my errors, offer suggestions on my
work, remind me of things undone and in countless ways transform me from
a slack jawed yokel to a real life attorney. I cannot say enough good
about them. I hope I pay them fairly and it thrills me when I am able
to distribute quarterly profit sharing bonuses.
Chuck Yeager could pull his supersonic Frisbee out of a centrifugal black
hole and live to fly another day, we too can stabilize our practices and
learn to work another day, more effective than ever before. I hope a balanced
and diligent application of these principles will aid other attorneys
as much as they have aided me. +
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelly Andersen is is a 1979 graduate of the Brigham Young University School of Law at Provo, Utah. His practice emphasizes serious injury, wrongful death, product liability and professional malpractice claims.