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I have a rule for some of my high-achieving coaching clients.  They are not allowed to say “yes” to any new project or task until they have thought about it for 24 hours.  In the context of business development, you might think this is a strange rule.  Normally, I encourage my coaching clients to be fully engaged in biz dev and to be diligent about implementing their marketing plans.  But I’ve noticed that many lawyers need permission to say no once in a while.  If you are constantly balancing (perhaps juggling is a more accurate word) billable hours, involvement in bar associations and other professional associations, practice group or firm commitments, and being mentored by or mentoring others, you may not have enough hours in the day for having a personal life, as well.  Your cup, as they say, may already runneth over.

Some of my clients think this is simply a “time management” issue.  If they plan to work more efficiently or work more hours each day, they feel certain that they can take on more tasks.  In theory, this is a fine idea.  However, most lawyers find that at some point, those additional hours may be productive for simpler tasks, but are not helpful in working through more complex matters.  Strategic thinking can’t be rushed.  If you are focused on completing smaller tasks as quickly as possible, you may have trouble shifting to quieter, more sustained concentration for large projects.

As I’ve written in the past, relationships are critical to client retention and business development. When you are distracted by having too many commitments, the quality of those relationships will suffer.  A major aspect to maintaining relationships is communication.  Can you have a conversation where it is possible to listen fully, without being distracted by everything else you need to accomplish today?  Constantly being overbooked can make it difficult to focus on your client’s issues and be fully present.

Setting Priorities

In law firms, like most organizations, busy people are asked to take on more tasks.  The thinking is that someone who gets things done has the capacity to get even more things done.  If you are one of those people, you have to anticipate requests and have a way to evaluate them.  As I’ve said many times, it is important to have a written marketing plan. If you know what you’re trying to accomplish with your practice, it becomes easier to make choices about where to spend your precious time.

If you don’t have a plan, it will be harder to know which requests will ultimately benefit your practice.  You can end up spending time on someone else’s pet project, and neglect your own biz dev priorities.  For example, if you are asked to join an association, your decision should be based on several questions.  Are the members of that association a network that is important to you?  Can you take on a leadership role?  Will you have opportunities to speak or be visible in other ways?  And finally, is the association meaningful to you in some way?  Before you commit, consider how much time and energy you can devote to a new association.

Responding to Requests

While you may not always have a choice about the “opportunities” within your firm, I’ll suggest that there are several ways for you to respond to requests for your involvement in outside associations or professional organizations.

  • An immediate yes, only if you truly have time and the commitment is meaningful to you.
  • A provisional yes. For example, serving on a bar association committee or board is something you want to do, but not this year.  New members are always needed, and you can be involved in the future.
  • You can provide a referral to someone else in your firm who could benefit from involvement.
  • Don’t hesitate to give a clear “no.” You don’t have to make someone else’s priority your priority, especially when it comes to your “free” time.

If you use your marketing plan to keep track of your commitments outside of work, you will know whether you have the capacity to do more, or whether you need to defer new commitments.