Happy New Year everybody. 2020 is finally behind us, a COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed and the anticipation of a fresh start seems to be in the air. With that in mind, I present two challenges to myself and the readers that I hope will all encourage us to reconsider our practices. It’s 2021 folks. We live in the future and there is no time like in the present to act like that.
Less time for decisions, more time for tasks
Imagine Steve Jobs in your head. What do you see? A big tech guru who always wears a black turtleneck, jeans and trainers. Jobs was notorious for never deviating from his standard uniform. While stories differ about why he wore the same thing every day, what is certain is that for the last 20 years of his life, Steve Jobs didn’t have to think about what he wore tomorrow. He had automated that decision.
Jobs isn’t the only notable personality to have come down this path. Mark Zuckerberg wears a copy of the same gray T-shirt almost every day, a practice he has been shown to use to reduce the number of trivial decisions he has to make in a day. For the same reason, President Barack Obama wore either a gray or blue suit every day for most of his tenure.
I’m not here to advocate throwing your wardrobe away to start the new year, but I firmly believe that reducing the time we spend on trivial chores is a worthy goal. The most effective method for reducing trivial tasks in a law firm that I have found has been through automation.
Challenge 1: automate something
Everything you do on a regular basis, from getting dressed in the morning to attracting new customers, is a candidate for automation. There are almost always trivial decisions to be made or smaller tasks to be completed that frankly do not require all of the skills to be completed. We are highly skilled people in the information age who are well paid for the bespoke advice we provide to our clients. We shouldn’t spend more time than is absolutely necessary tinkering with Word documents, playing around with handheld computers, or otherwise offering our customers no real added value.
This is my professional challenge for you in 2021: automate something. Leisure. Find an area of your practice where you spend time that you don’t have to and reclaim that time for yourself.
It’s easier than you might think. The construction of legal forms that are automatically filled with the necessary information is a classic automation strategy for law firms, but we can think more broadly than just content-related legal issues. Highly networked attorneys may spend a lot of their non-billable time scouring their contacts to see who to contact next. Save space and time in the brain by implementing a system that allows you to keep track of your network and notify you when a contact has gone without a chat for a set period of time.
Even the seemingly smallest and simplest repetitive processes add up over time. If you could automate a process that took only a minute, you would have reclaimed a day of productive time in five years. If you can automate a 10 minute task a day, you can save almost two weeks in the same amount of time. This is time to put back in your day practicing law, building your book, seeing your kids, or enjoying your private life.
There is something in your work day that doesn’t have to be there. Find what it is and automate it.
Challenge 2: Create and Track a New Metric
Most of us know how many hours we billed and what dollars we raised last year, but for many our interest in numerical analysis ends here. This is a missed opportunity. The bills and dollars collected are important metrics, but they only reflect the bottom line, not the history of the game. It’s not good for us to know we made a million dollars if we don’t know how or why we did it.
So we need to be able to measure our performance better. Creating objective metrics gives us insight into our business, helps develop goals to strive for, and can start the conversation about where we want to go next. Sit down, figure out an area of your practice that you want to understand better, figure out how to measure it, and start collecting data. Just start and grow from there.
For example, do you know how many deals or cases you are working on as you read this? If you start keeping track of this number and updating it monthly, within a few quarters you will develop a rough but objective view of how your practice is doing, especially when compared to the hourly and dollar billing numbers that are already being recorded. For example, if your dollars remain stable as your number of matters dwindle over time, you have good evidence that the matters you are working on are individually larger and more valuable than they were before.
Some final thoughts
Technology can be intimidating, especially for lawyers, but you probably already have most of the tools you need on hand. Most general office software and lawyer programs have extensive automation and metrics tracking tools built into them. We just don’t use them to their full extent as a rule. Contact your customer service representative or do a bit of browsing the help files to find tools you didn’t even know you had.
After all, any of these challenges can be immensely relieved by working with your company’s IT department. These departments are usually filled with intelligent, hard-working employees who, above all, love interesting new challenges. Many IT teams enjoy the ability to create something new and useful instead of just resetting passwords and asking if the caller tried to turn them off and on again.
A generation ago lawyers didn’t even write their own brief. Now we can edit them at home on our smartphones between Zoom meetings and at the same time review the research results automatically generated by our new AI software. Technology has revolutionized the way we work, although more than a fraction of the technophobes are involved, and these changes are only just beginning. Data and technology can be your greatest asset as a lawyer. Let’s choose to use them this year.
If the thought of tech automation and tracking still overwhelms you, here is a link to a black turtleneck.
James Goodnow is the CEO and managing partner of NLJ 250 Fennemore Craig. At 36, he became the youngest known executive director of a major law firm in the United States. He has a JD from Harvard Law School and two corporate governance certificates from MIT. He is currently attending the Judge Business School at Cambridge University (UK), where he is working towards a Masters in Entrepreneurship. James is the co-author of Motivate millennials, which achieved number one on Amazon in the category “Business Management New Release”. As a practitioner, he and his colleagues founded and operated a technology-based one Practice of the plaintiff and business model. You can connect with James on Twitter (@JamesGoodnow) or by email at [email protected].