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A brief history of time management

1 June 03

By working smarter you can increase your firm’s profits significantly

by Mac Mackay

What? You don’t have enough time? A common enough plea from lawyers across the country but, sad to say, everyone has all the time there is. While we all have the same amount some people seem to have so much more than others. Why is this? This article aims to shift your thinking about time, help you achieve more and give you more of that precious commodity – time – to do what you want with it.

So, you want to know about time management. Unfortunately, there is no such thing.

Think about time… time passes at a set rhythm you can’t store time or use time faster, and you can’t change it; so, how can you manage it? You can’t. You can only change you.

Before going any further, look back and think about what you were doing five years ago – in the spring of 1997. Were you at college, in a training contract, an assistant or a senior partner? What have you achieved since then? Think about what has changed for the better for you. What is it that makes you feel more contented: earning more, driving a better car, living in a better house, improved relationships, family, friends, or having more time to do the things you want to do? A sobering thought, perhaps.

Very few people on their deathbed wish they had spent more time in the office.

Now turn round and look forward. Think about the future, say, ten years hence. What would you like to achieve by spring 2013? Retired, a second home in Provence, Partnership, or set up your own firm? What about life outside of work? OK, now think where are you going to be one year from now; what would you like to have achieved by then?

Having done that, how are you getting there? Any journey starts with that first step. And as George Harrison sang, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Have you planned your personal road forward? Are you on your way? It is important to think about this issue from time to time – after all, life is not a dress rehearsal.

Accept that there is only one chance to achieve what you want in life – so you’d better start now.

Time is lost in minutes. Like sand spread through a carpet, you won’t see it, and you can’t hope to make anything out of it unless you can pick it up, one grain at a time – minute by minute. Then you can do something with it.

If you are an assistant solicitor with a high billing target of chargeable time to meet then billable hours made up of six-minute units may be something that you think about while practice managers may focus on this month’s turnover target, a quarterly or annual figure. Even if you are handling a high caseload of fixed fee work, then perhaps a daily or weekly target is your benchmark. Whatever your position in the firm, how you manage your workload is crucial.

Black hole time

Lets us see what happens to a year of your life at work. Take 52 weeks; assume a five-day week and an eight-hour day and you would work 2080 hours a year. Like many, you probably work longer than 40 hours week. Take off five weeks holiday (5x 40 = 200 hrs) and two weeks sick or time spent training (2 x 40 = 80 hrs) and you are left with total time at work of 1800 hours. Now the average assistant solicitor charges 1245 billable hours a year (about 100 hours a month, 25 a week). For each working day let us assume this person does two hours a working day on marketing or administration accounting for a further 450 hours a year. What’s left is black hole time or a staggering 105 hours unaccounted for. That is two weeks, three days and one hour paid for by the firm – quite a time spent in the loo, having a smoke, or chatting about last night’s telly or footy. And that is not accounting for time getting in early, working late, or at weekends.

Hands up all those who might like to be doing something they enjoy for two extra weeks a year.

Increasing chargeable time

Have you ever calculated the effect on the firm’s profit if you increase the chargeable time achieved by your fee earners? Suppose for simplicity that there are ten fee-earners in your firm where each works 45 weeks a year and their charge-out rate is £100 per hour. Let’s suppose they charge just one hour extra a week. What is their collective extra profit, assuming that there is no increase in their overheads by charging that extra hour a week?

Now, what does an hour of chargeable time a week look like? Only six minutes before lunch and another six minutes before going home every day.

Here’s our first checklist of things to do:

  1. Analyse your day to see where the time goes. Look for “slack” that could be snatched back for you.
  2. Identify ways in which you would rather use your time.
  3. Make achievable resolutions to change the way you are going to spend your time.
  4. Every time you stop one task and start another (i.e. take a call, allow your self to be interrupted by the boss / a colleague / another client / your staff) you’ll “lose” a moment or two either side of that interruption as you finish one job and start another. If that happens every few minutes our studies show that you could lose a third of your total work time in small 20 or 30 second intervals.
  5. Just as you won’t be interrupted while you are face-to-face with a client or away from the office (mobile phones apart), especially if you are in court, don’t allow others to interrupt you so much.

Specific time bandits

There are many things that will steal time from you. While we have many ideas on how to deal with them, let us look at a few:

E-mail: We all get too many but what can we do about them?

  • Why not apply ‘rules’ from your Tools menu to auto-control. For example, e-mails to you and you alone probably need your direct and urgent attention. Those where you are one of several recipients need less urgent attention, while those where you are just copied to probably only need you to read them. Ask your IT people to show you how to apply ‘rules’.
  • Consider your e-mails from the point of view of addressing those that make most money first. Think about what are you trying to produce?
  • Come off-line when you are working. You don’t need the distraction of a ‘ping’ or flashing envelope icon as you are concentrating on another matter.
  • Finally, if you are going to send jokes on to your mates, put them in a separate inbox as you see them, then schedule to send them on once a week – perhaps on a Friday at 4 pm. to set you up for the weekend. You could find yourself spending too much time at work doing what you really shouldn’t.

Telephone:  An essential tool yet it is really invasive.

  • Use an answer-phone or voicemail when you do not want to be interrupted. If possible, delegate the job of answering to someone else.
  • If you regularly find yourself taking messages for someone else, explain politely the costs in time this involves for you. Suggest they use an answer-phone or voicemail.
  • Before making a call, set your own agenda and stick to it!
  • Identify time periods through the day when you will make calls and when you will receive them – if you have a secretary make sure he or she manages the interface with others for you.
  • Remember to block off your time in bite-sized chunks when you will not be available to deal with calls: just like the time when you are face-to-face with clients. Define when you will next be available. Use your answer machine effectively. Then, in this blocked off time you’ll be able to get on and focus on particular case matter and billable time much more efficiently.

Meetings:

One of the more effective communication tools yet so badly used most of the time. Tactics for downsizing meetings and the time you waste in them include:

  • Make everyone aware of the cost of meetings. Take the hourly average total employment cost of those attending, multiply it by the time spent annually at such events and circulate the total cost.
  • Alternatively, take the opportunity cost (attendee’s charge-out rate multiplied by the duration of the meeting) and add that to the agenda.
  • Chase the agenda to ensure it is set well beforehand (with clear outputs or objectives of each item) and circulated.
  • It is what happens before a meeting and after that counts – make sure everyone comes prepared and then does what they are supposed to afterwards.
  • Ensure that the meeting is properly chaired. If necessary, chair it yourself.
  • Use new technology to avoid face-to-face meetings wherever possible. Can the same results be gained by teleconferencing?

Can e-mail help to disseminate information?

  • Wherever possible, send a deputy to the slaughter.

Paper soaks up time:

If you spend 30 seconds every five minutes trying to find something in your cluttered office or on a cluttered desk, you’ll waste four hours a week. Get your paper organised and you could go home Friday lunchtime and still achieve just as much each week. There are, after all, only four types of paper on your desk. Things you have to read. Having read it you either action it, or file it. Anything else is rubbish. A bin-liner might be your best organisational tool your firm ever invested in!

Today’s fee earning time… pays for today

Today’s non-fee earning time… pays for tomorrow

Having read this article, when are you going to schedule some time to address some of the points raised? When are you going to speak to your IT people about e-mails or get a bin-liner to throw away all that rubbish in your office and send those completed cases to the archives where they belong? If you don’t schedule when you are going to do this to change the way you work, you have largely wasted the last twenty minutes reading this article as little will change to improve things for you. The choice is yours… good luck!