|Managing Your Time|
By Peter Balsino and Robin Baade
Take a fresh look at how you manage your law practice.
Do you dread walking through the door and seeing what messages and faxes
await? Do you spend the day putting out fires instead of doing the work
you planned to do? Do you end your week wishing you had spent more time
enjoying your personal life?
Consider how a few simple changes can free up more time in your work week and make your hours in the office both more productive and more enjoyable:
1. Create 'office hours' which are different from employee work hours. Even though you and your employees work from 8:00 to 5:00, that doesn't mean you have to keep your doors open and answer the telephone during those same hours. You probably don't receive many calls during the first and last hour of your workday anyway. More important, you don't need to begin or end your day with a crisis.
This alternative schedule creates a productive first hour for you and your employees, without interruptions. The receptionist can do other work (such as copying, filing, etc.), or your firm can reduce staffing so you don't need someone during those hours. The answering machine or service can alert your clients and others about your office hours. It is up to you whether you want to schedule emergency appointments during the first hour as a special service to certain clients. You can be reached by family members or receive other important calls by keeping one direct line open that will always be answered when someone is in the office.
2. Create 'Saturday hours.' Why do you get more work done on Saturday? There are no phone calls, no employees asking questions, no interruptions. To create that atmosphere during the week, schedule the first two hours of some or most of your mornings as 'do not disturb' hours. Have the receptionist take messages for you, and ask that your employees save administrative matters until later in the day. In our office, we have actually gone further by creating 'Saturday hours' from 8:00 to 10:00 for the entire office. No employee takes calls or works on matters that require interaction with other employees. This allows everyone to tackle the work on their desks first thing in the morning without distraction.
The receptionist can tell callers that everyone is in a staff meeting. A good receptionist will be able to tell which calls can't wait. If you are waiting for a particular call, you can alert the receptionist. Everyone will need to be flexible - especially in the beginning when the policy is new - but eventually you will be able to tailor your own version of 'Saturday hours.'
3. Create 'fax machine hours.' Get into the habit of turning on the fax machine when you get to work, and turning it off when you leave. No, really. We know it is a form of blasphemy in today's technologically advanced office, but think about it. The purpose of the fax machine, as with other technology, is to make your practice simpler and more efficient, not to control you. A fax machine is useful in many situations, but it can create a sense of false urgency. It can also allow opposing attorneys to accomplish untimely notifications. How many times have you received paperwork at the end of the day - or worse, during the night - before a morning hearing?
Attorneys who fax after or before work hours get to control your workday: There are the papers, waiting for you first thing in the morning, defining how you are going to spend the next few hours.
Not only do you not have a duty to keep your fax machine on, you do not even have a duty to own one. Radical, huh? We have a fax machine because it makes it easier and less expensive to communicate with others in certain situations. But we bought it, so we get to decide how to use it. We turn it on at 8:00 and off at 5:00.
4. Schedule your time off. If you've ever had the flu for a week or experienced a family emergency that required your immediate attention, you know that things at work aren't always as urgent as you think. Your experiences have probably shown you that when you need to get away from work, you can. But once the emergency disappears, we slip into the same old pattern of being overwhelmed with work.
You do have the time to take off, but you have to recognize it and protect it. We all waste time at work (surfing the Internet, organizing and re-organizing our desks and doing even less productive activities). We also labor under the misconception that there is a value to being in the office, even if we aren't working. Someone may call you, something may need to be done, so you'd better be there.
If you scheduled yourself out of the office every Thursday afternoon for a networking meeting or a standing client appointment, your practice would survive without you - right? Test this. At the end of each day for a week, write down how much time you actually worked. You should notice at the end of the week a surplus of time. So why not use that time for something more satisfying? Pick up your children from school and go to a movie. Go home and garden. Take a class. Do something for yourself. But you have to plan it and do it.
Start slowly by picking one day a week to leave early or come in late. Or start even smaller: Do not work on the weekend for three weeks in a row. Train yourself to get all of your work done in five days, rather than in seven. If you are like us, you will discover that the more time you take off, the more productive you are at work, which in turn allows you to take more time off.
5. Create 'summer hours' and 'December hours.' Summer and December are great times to reduce your work hours because most attorneys and courts are on vacation, and things slow down. Instituting reduced hours in summer and December would be a great benefit for you and your employees - and it doesn't cost anything.
In our office, summer hours run from Memorial Day to Labor Day. December hours run from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. Normally, employees work from 8:00 to 5:00, with a one-hour lunch break. During the summer and December, we reduce the lunch break to one-half hour Tuesday through Friday. (The one-hour lunch on Mondays still allows employees one day during the week to run any personal errands that would take longer than half an hour.) This two-hour surplus allows employees to start their weekend on Fridays at 3:00 rather than 5:00.
Although federal law does not regulate employee breaks or lunch hours, you need to consult your individual state law to make sure you tailor your summer and December hours programs to comply. However, even if your state prohibits you from reducing lunch hours, you can still let employees go early on Fridays. The two-hour loss will be more than offset by the gain in employee morale and loyalty.
The summer and December programs have several benefits. For one, it's great for morale. Employees tend to schedule their personal appointments on Friday afternoons, so there is less time away from work than during the rest of the year. There is a feeling of teamwork in getting the work done earlier in the week and knowing that the weekend will begin sooner and last longer.
Additionally, there is something magical about everyone else going home - it makes it easier psychologically for you as the boss to leave (even though you can really leave any time). If your practice is like ours, you probably don't get that many calls late Friday afternoon anyway. However, if you're worried about closing early, put a message on your answering machine or give your answering service a prepared message about your shortened hours. You'll be surprised how many of your clients are supportive of the idea. Just warn your clients ahead of time; it actually retrains them to call you earlier in the week and earlier on Friday - so no more 4:30 Friday emergencies.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Peter Balsino and Robin Baade are freelance writers and attorneys in Arizona. They continue to strive for the perfect balance between work and family life. This article first appeared in the May 2002 issue of California Lawyer Magazine.
© Copyright 2002 Baade & Balsino