tech, productivity, + an agile practice

The following post originally appeared on the MyCase blog, thanks to a kind invitation from Niki Black. It’s the first in a series that I’ll be publishing here about the ins-and-outs of an agile practice.

An inconvenient truth: technology doesn’t improve productivity. It won’t make you more efficient, successful, or happy. What it can do is help you create a workflow (or even a lifestyle) that enables your productivity, efficiency, success, and happiness.

It’s taken me 16 years in law practice to figure it out, but I’ve finally created a tech-rich workflow that really supports my productivity.

I call it my “agile practice,” in part because I’ve cherry-picked elements of agile methodology that fit into a modern-day law practice. Why agile? Because lawyers spend a lot of time putting out fires instead of working our to-do lists. Not me. Not anymore. An agile system accommodates the fires. Allowing me to stay on track, do more good work, in less time.

How? By following the core principles of productivity, and adding technology only if it supports the principles.  Start with these four:

Eat the frog. This simply means do the most important thing first, no matter how much you don’t want to, every day. If you do this, then it’s much less likely that you’ll be derailed by the unexpected or urgent. As well, it’s motivating to check that important thing off your list. Supporting tech: I currently use Workflowy, a simple and ubiquitous app, to manage my to-do list. The frog is always at the top.

Touch it once. When something (an email, a phone call, a task) appears in front of you, your goal is to touch it only once (or twice, at most). The order of action: (1) do it; or (2) file it away for doing at a specific time; or (3) delegate it. If (2) is the action, then touch it only once at the appointed time. Supporting tech: especially if you’re delegating tasks, a web-based app such as Trello or the collaboration features built into MyCase support this principle masterfully.

No multitasking. You can’t do two (or more) things concurrently and expect to do any of them well. In fact, trying to multitask can sap up to 40% of your productivity. So stop. At the end of each day, create your list of work to be done the following day, ideally arranged from most to least important. Then start doing the work, once step at a time. Supporting tech: here, the goal is to put down the tech while you focus on the work in front of you. But technology can also help you do this – try one of these 10 apps that fight distraction and support concentration.

Email management. Technology and principle are inextricably linked here. Managing email, instead of allowing it to manage you, is crucial for setting up a productive workflow. Simple steps: don’t work with your email open all day; check email only at set times during the day; reply immediately if doing so will take two minutes or less; get email out of the inbox once you’ve acted on it. Supporting tech: I use Boomerang to set automatic reminders for responding to email (or to remind me if someone has failed to respond to my email). Inbox zero is an unattainable myth, but with Boomerang I can keep my inbox under control.

Some final words of advice: If you spend more time trying to make the tech work, or fit in your desired workflow, ditch it. And don’t adopt new tech unless it truly solves a problem you’re having.

the practice of law and depression, in three parts.

Along with many others, I’ve written about lawyer depression, most recently here.

I just came across a series of three posts written by a law professor (who also has extensive practice experience) about his experience with depression, and being a law student, lawyer, and law professor.

In this series, the author lays out the cold, hard facts. And he calls on lawyers and law professors to act.

However, as lawyers and law professors, we must to do more. It is clear that our students need us to do more. When you are depressed, you feel so terribly alone. You feel different. You feel ashamed. You feel weak. You feel like you will never feel better and that you can never be the person you want to be.

If 40% of our students feel this way, we must do more. They look up to us. They see us as role models and mentors. They see us as strong and successful and confident. They need to see that suffering from depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder will not curse them for all time and destroy their lives. These are treatable diseases, not character flaws. They need us to be brave and be honest.

-Professor Brian Clarke

Not every lawyer struggles with these issues. But most I know do, to some degree. Some of them sit in my office and cry. (I am not exaggerating. More than once, a lawyer seeking my help ended up crying in our initial consultation.)

In my humble opinion, the failure of our profession to grapple meaningfully with these endemic issues is tragic. And unacceptable.

The law professor who speaks out so openly in these posts is a shining example of exactly what we all need to do: TALK ABOUT IT. Bravely and honestly.

Acknowledging what most of us view as “weakness” will not be easy, or popular. But it’s absolutely necessary.

I’ve spent many of my 16+ years as a lawyer seeking a way to be really good at my work while simultaneously not losing my mind, my family, my friends. It’s not easy, folks. It takes brutal honesty to reflect and act in a way that goes against the grain for our profession.

The law part is not that hard (that was the fun part for me), but the business side of law is a bear. Finding clients, billing time, and collecting money, are just a few aspects of the business of law of which I was not a big fan. Keeping tasks and deadlines in dozens (or hundreds) of cases straight and getting everything done well and on time is a constant challenge. The fear of letting one of those balls drop can be terrifying, especially for the type A perfectionist who is always terrified of making a mistake or doing a less than perfect job. Forget work-life balance. Forget vacations. Every day out of the office is another day you are behind.

Professor Brian Clark

And it’s why I want to help other lawyers do it. It’s really the only reason I haven’t left the profession completely. Because really, when you pencil in the pros vs. cons, why would anyone stay? (I welcome challenges to this statement, by the way.)

As I wrote in a recent post, every lawyer I know as friend or client acknowledges the very same challenges and frustrations. I wager that every single one of them would leave the profession if the right opportunity presented itself.

Granted, my group of lawyer friends and clients is very self-selected. We are of a like mind. But I don’t think we’re the minority. Not anywhere close.

While I do not remember all of the details of my decent into the hole, it was certainly rooted in trying to do it all – perfectly. After my second child was born, I was trying to be all things to all people at all times. Superstar lawyer. Superstar citizen. Superstar husband. Superstar father. Of course, this was impossible. The feeling that began to dominate my life was guilt. A constant, crushing guilt. Guilt that I was not in the office enough because I was spending too much time with my family. Guilt that I was letting my family down because I was spending too much time at work. Guilt that I was letting my bosses down because I was not being the perfect lawyer to which they had become accustomed. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. The deeper I sunk into the hole, the more energy I put into maintaining my façade of super-ness and the less energy was left for either my family or my clients. And the guiltier I felt. It was a brutal downward spiral. Eventually, it took every ounce of energy I had to maintain the façade and go through the motions of the day.

Professor Brian Clark

Does this sound familiar???

I recommend this series of posts highly to anyone who cares about our profession and the people in it.

Law Professors, Law Students and Depression … A Story of Coming Out:

Part I

Part II

Part III

If you feel, even the slightest bit, that you need help — seek it NOW.*

Know someone who you feel, even the slightest bit, may need help? Help them NOW.

Accept Brian Clarke’s challenge. Be brave and honest.

*I searched for a really good national mental health resource for lawyers. I see a gap.

we all have the same problems.

Two conversations. Two very differently situated lawyers. One is a litigation partner at a large firm. The other has a transactional practice, and is a member of a three-person firm.

It’s as if they were both reading from the same exact script. That echoed similar sentiments of lawyers I’ve spoken with last week, and the week before, and six months ago …

"I don’t have time to do my actual work.”

"Between business development and administrative duties, I can’t sustain my billable hours."

"I have to wear too many hats."

Big law, small law. Litigator, transactional attorney. We all face the same dilemmas, don’t we?

We have to do our legal work, e.g. practice law. AND manage a business, e.g. manage people and processes. AND build the business, e.g. network and market.

What this looks like for each of us may vary, depending on how, where and what we practice. But the solution to our dilemma? The same.

Figure out where you can get the help and support to do the work that you don’t want to do, don’t have time to do, or aren’t good at.

You’ve (hopefully) figured out that a CPA is better-situated to handle your accounting and taxes. So you hire him to do these things.

So why are you writing content for your website or other digital assets? Or, even worse, you’re ignoring it. Along with many other opportunities to market yourself.

Or why are you constantly switching either (a) software/cloud applications (thinking that the next new thing will actually get the job done this time) or (b) staff (thinking that if you find just the right person, she can help you create and implement processes that will actually work this time).

For most lawyers, time is not well spent doing any of the above (along with a lot of other things).

I’m not suggesting that the same set of rules apply to all of us. A lawyer who is a really good writer (not legal writer — a writer writer) may actually do a better job of telling his or his firm’s story than a content writer with no legal background. But this is the exception, not the norm.

The solution is actually simple, though perhaps not easy: Figure out what you should be doing — and then find the resources to get the rest of the necessary stuff done by someone (or something) else.

It may be that technology and process can take over — for example, software that automates work, making it easier to convert from hourly to flat fee billing. You spend less time to produce a result that thrills your clients. Everyone is happy. Nice.

Or what about a system for soliciting feedback from happy clients, that gives you valuable information for improving client services and encourages and assists your clients in leaving positive feedback in places where it will have a measurable impact on your practice? This achieves a number of marketing and client development objectives, and can be completely automated.

The bottom line: no matter your practice area, there are many things you do — or should be doing — on a daily basis that can be delegated to another person, process, or technology.

The first steps are to perform a self-analysis, uncover the potential for delegation, and make the commitment to act.

So … GO! Do it. Analyze. And tell me what the first act of delegation is that you’re going to perform.

tech tip tuesday: unlocking a locked pdf file

Today’s dilemma inspired today’s post. I have a locked PDF file that I need to edit for a client, which I received via an email attachment.

I don’t have the password so I can’t unlock it. I can’t copy and paste it into a Word doc (my default method for creating a Word doc from a PDF), nor will PDF2Office convert to Word due to the password protection (my backup conversion method).

I tried converting to Google Docs for editing, which often works for PDFs that I can’t copy and paste into Word. But not this one. Docs reads much of the text as an image, which I can’t edit.

The solution: open the PDF in Chrome and print it to PDF (or open PDF in Preview if using a Mac). The new PDF created is unlocked.

I’m now able to copy and paste into Word, to my heart’s content.

It truly is the little things. :)

links i like.

What’s not here?

Want to surf the ‘net in stealth mode? Check out this fast and secure way to search privately.

It’s finally here. And here are five things you need to know about Microsoft Office for iPad.

Use Gmail? Worried about the NSA snooping through your emails? Here’s what Google is doing to thwart the snooping.

For anyone who stares at a computer screen much of the day (like many lawyers I know, myself included), consider using this app (for both Mac and Windows) designed to ease the eye strain.

No matter where you buy e-books, it’s possible to read them in one place. Here’s how. Very helpful for e-book addicts like me.

I’ve ditched Box for Google Drive, perhaps for good. I’m currently exploring the many things I can do with Drive, that I couldn’t with Box.

Try this one-minute hack to grow your Twitter following organically.

Your website copy probably needs reworking. (Mine does.) Schedule some time to rewrite. (I am.) Read this first. It will help you turn bland text into sparkling content.

get moving.

image

Want to be a happy, healthy, successful lawyer [or anything else]? Then get moving.

I mean it — literally get moving. Get up, get out, and work out. 

How, when, and how much [to some extent] matter much less than the fact that you’re just doing it.

I’m sharing this because we lawyers need the benefits of exercise as much (if not more than) any group of people I know. Too many of us suffer from depression, stress, anxiety, and other health problems.

But we don’t have to. A powerful antidote is not complicated, expensive, or very time-consuming. It’s EXERCISE.

You likely already know this, but it bears repeating that regular exercise does all of the following and more:

In addition to all of this external, scientific proof, I know from personal experience that exercise can be the single most effective way to improve both your mood and your health. It really is that simple.

I guarantee the following: commit to a regular exercise routine — focusing less on the exact exercise or level of effort, and more on simple consistency — and your overall well-being will improve measurably. You will feel better. You will sleep better. You will think more clearly. You will be happier.

In many ways, I am the poster child for this guarantee. When I’m not in a regular exercise routine, I feel different. In a not good way. When I’m in it, everything else in my life is easier. And the exercise itself? It’s not hard. I just have to do it.

Ready to get started? It’s a simple as using an app such as DailyBurn, finding some exercises appropriate for your fitness level and ability, and just doing it.

If you need motivation, get a buddy to hold you accountable.Two years ago I was in a real exercise slump. So my sister (who lives 2,300 miles away) and I agreed to do the Insanity workout “together.” We held each other accountable, talked each day about it, and even blogged about our experience. Nothing like this kind of accountability to keep you going. I’m still doing this workout when I need a real exercise-induced endorphin boost.

Or sign up for a series of classes — pay in full, in advance, and you’ll be more likely to follow through. 

The key? Be consistent, but not militant. Life happens. Plan to workout. Do you best to make it happen. If it doesn’t, start again tomorrow. Do it regularly and the habit of exercise will follow. And you’ll reap the immeasurable benefits.

but what do our clients want?

Since 2009, I’ve offered some form of an extranet to clients for sharing documents, communicating, and general collaboration. In fact, the moment I learned about extranets, I was mildly obsessed. The concept seemed to solve so many problems: no deleted emails or lost attachments, a clear chain of communication, and security. One place for everything!

The security point was (and still is) really important to me, especially when it comes to sharing sensitive documents and communication. Email is not the place for this. Even if you use encryption on your end, never lose sight of the fact that the minute you hit send, you have completely lost control. Even encrypted email, once decrypted, is subject to the recipient’s whims. I live by this golden rule: don’t put it in (or attach it to) an email unless you’re okay with the content appearing on page one of the New York Times.

My extranet journey started with an investigation into VLOTech, the predecessor of the Total Attorneys Suite that includes a client-facing portal. I ultimately opted for an extranet product by PBWorks that predated its current offering, PBWorks Legal Hub.

For a couple of years I diligently created PBWorks workspaces for business and estate planning clients in my transactional practice. Configuring the workspaces was somewhat cumbersome, which made me feel all the more invested in having clients use them. (Note: I’ve tooled around in a free PBWorks LegalHub account and configuring a workspace is no longer so cumbersome).

I loved my extranets. My clients did not. Well, for the most part. Those who did like it, like my developer and my creative clients, were already accustomed to using a cloud-based collaboration tool. Everyone else? They would log in to the workspace, but they didn’t use it to communicate. They sent me emails. They didn’t use it to share documents; they sent them as email attachments.

Why? Because my clients want me to meet them where they are: email. I even had clients who would respond to a message I posted in our workspace by sending me an email instead of leaving a message in the workspace.

And this behavior applied no matter the extranet platform I used. I eventually abandoned the original PBWorks platform because (a) it was so cumbersome to use, and (b) it was expensive, especially for something that clients didn’t view as a value add. I found more intuitive (and less expensive) platforms, but the underlying problem continued. No one but me (and some other like-minded lawyers I collaborated with) really wanted to use them.

What I’ve realized is that client extranets can be a fantastic tool for lawyers and firms, especially when part of an integrated platform that ties it directly into case management and billing. Relying on too many different platforms and software programs is a leading cause of inefficiency in any practice. Consolidating functions and tying them tightly together promotes efficiency, productivity, and sanity.

But this is a benefit to the lawyers.

Our clients aren’t interested in our integrated platform. Our clients want us to meet them where they are. They already have to log into too many accounts. When we ask them to add another, they ask, “Why?”

Well, there are very good reasons — which I explain to my clients:

  • Transparency: locating everything (documents, communication, calendars, billing records) in a single place online makes it easy for everyone to know where things stand in a matter.
  • Efficiency: clients have access 24/7 to their case/project information, and don’t have to spend time looking through email chains or attachments.
  • Improved communication: by locating all “discussions” (whether via an IM or email-type interface) in a single spot, clients are far less likely to ask the same question twice, and are able to find the relevant information when they need it.
  • Customization: designing and using the workspace in ways that best fit the client’s (and the matter’s) needs should improve the client’s overall experience.

Even knowing these things, clients generally don’t use the extranet. They prefer to use their own email for everything. (Surprise!) So for most clients I bypass the extranet, and honor their request to use email (while still following my golden rule, above). But I’ve tweaked the process a bit: for example, I use links (with expiration dates) to secure cloud platforms for sharing documents instead of attaching documents to email messages.

Despite all of this, I’m certain that others are having a different experience with extranets in their practices.  A survey conducted by ILTA in 2010 reports on client extranet use by the 49 firms surveyed. The results describe the value add to clients and suggest client satisfaction with extranets. Worth noting: all but one of the firms surveyed (PDF) has 50+ attorneys, and 16 have more than 700.

But I wonder if these results are widely indicative. A current consulting client (a firm recently started by three ex-large firm attorneys) responded this way when I suggested that they consider a client extranet for sharing the voluminous number of document revisions with one particular (corporate) client: “The company already has its own extranet. The last thing our clients want to do is log into someone else’s. They prefer email. So we use email.”

Anecdotal, yes. But telling.

Which leads me to a conclusion: cloud platforms that offer client extranet features (integrated with other practice management features) are a potential boon to all attorneys. Solo and smaller firms, who likely work with individuals as opposed to large entities, can benefit internally from the efficiency and productivity features of such platforms. But they may find their clients are less likely to use the extranet, preferring the platforms they’re already using (like email). And big firms may find that their corporate clients don’t want yet another place to log into, either. Why? They, too, just may prefer to be met where they are.

I don’t discourage anyone from considering an extranet, though, especially one that’s part of a larger practice management platform. Individual success will depend heavily on the type of practice as well as clients served. My experience may not at all be predictive of another attorney’s or firm’s. Although I do hope that firms consider the lessons I’ve learned when planning for the adoption and integration of an extranet into the workflow, and take clients’ preferences and needs into account.

And perhaps some of the extranet platform designers may start considering what our clients want, as well.

Here’s some solid advice for anyone wanting to sell a service or a product in the 21st century: “Build something just for the people who matter. Relevance is the new remarkable.”

Which leads to a suggested query: how can we meet clients where they are and make the extranet relevant to the client’s experience?

This post first appeared on the ABA’s Law Technology Today Blog.

Most of us don’t know …
[source]

Most of us don’t know …

[source]