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Bar News - May 14, 2010

Do You Have the Time?


One often hears the phrase "work-life balance." Such balance is an issue that varies from lawyer to lawyer. In the short term there is really no such day-to-day phenomenon as balance – at any given moment the lawyer is doing just one thing: either working or engaging in personal pursuits. The broader perspective is how much cumulative time you devote to each, and what you value more [at the time].

Lawyers have time-management software, Outlook calendars, personal digital assistants and many other technological tools to help them manage their activities, but too often assigning the proper value to the day’s activities seems an impossible task.

Some while back, the Eversheds international law firm surveyed its clients as well as lawyers at other firms, and got some interesting responses on this issue. Of those surveyed, more than half of the partners in large law firms, and their clients, did not think that flexible work-time schedules would be a viable solution to work-life balance issues, especially in transactional areas. Yet, it is an issue that remains on the table and must be dealt with in order to satisfy the needs of the now sometimes four generations of lawyers working in the same office environment. Each group has its own time-management needs (younger lawyers with families, older lawyers with health issues, and so on). Recognizing these differing needs will become a practical firm-management necessity.

No matter what the priorities of any given generation are, time cannot be managed until priorities are set and the top priorities are systematically addressed. Most folks who claim they have too little time generally

  • fail to make a list of priorities,
  • hop around the list, or
  • allow themselves to be distracted by urgent, but not important, other tasks.
They then don’t get "back on the wagon," re-visiting the priority list to pick up where they left off.

In this context, is the pressure of billable hours the trap? Or is the desire for economic rewards after several years of economic and financial misery the real trap? Lawyers, like any other participants in the economy, want to earn a "reasonable" living. In fact, if asked, most lawyers would admit they would like to earn as much as is feasible. Lawyers work hard, though not necessarily harder than other people.

Having 2,000 or 2,500 or more billable hours is one indication of workload. But the billable hour is only a method of accounting; it is not the reason we work long hours. We work long hours because we love what we do; we love helping people; and we want to earn more money to take better care of our families. Billable hours merely provide a method of accountability to show clients the value of what we do.

The source of stress for many lawyers is a sense that their practice seems to be spinning out of control. Taking the time to prioritize is the equivalent of taking a deep breath that restores perspective. Trying to do everything at once often produces self-defeating fear and paralysis. A thousand-mile journey is nothing more than a series of steps; take them one at a time.

This article, from Lawyers USA, March, 2010, is reprinted with permission. Ed Poll is a nationally recognized expert in law practice management. He may be reached at

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