According to Mahatma Gandhi, “Action expresses priorities.” Unfortunately, this is often lost in legal practice where our actions are rarely tied to priorities.
For better or worse, most days spent in corporate legal practice start off with good intentions and big plans about all the things we will accomplish that day. Then the train derails and we spend most of the day “putting out fires” and ignoring all of those best laid plans. While some of this may be the result of real client emergencies, more often than not, there is no real emergency.
No one’s life is on the line and no one’s business is going to implode if you don’t immediately respond to that email.
While this approach to practice can certainly be productive and earn some goodwill with important clients or powerful partners, it is not a zero sum game. Making every hysterical email or phone call from clients or partners a priority, will ultimately prevent you from focusing on the projects that are a priority, like that presentation you need to prepare for that conference next week.
In the end, the only one who pays for failing to set priorities and establish boundaries, is you, your career, and likely your clients.
Countless times, I allowed frantic emails from needy clients or intimidating partners derail my plans to focus on other, less exciting but important projects. Over time, I realized that there was part of me that was accomplishment driven. I craved the urge to please a partner or a client and I relished the opportunity to “make someone else’s life easier,” to be needed, to fix something, to alleviate someone’s stress, even if it was to my own detriment. I would spend an entire day running around with my hair on fire addressing every client emergency that showed up, all the while disregarding the new DOL regulations that sat on my desk. This was my job ,right, to help clients?! Not sit at my desk all day reading regulations? Then, inevitably, an important client or partner would ask me what I thought about the DOL’s new guidance and I would freeze, mentally abusing myself for not making time to read those damn regs.
We have all done this. Instead of doing the hard work (setting boundaries, reading those regulations, saying “no”) we choose the spotlight, we choose the emergency, we choose to pursue feelings of accomplishment driven by results. What we loose sight of when we do this are three critical lessons.
When you allow your client to dictate your priorities you create monsters.
There is such a skill as client management. Every client cannot be a priority and every client cannot expect you to drop everything for them all the time. Your time is limited and every single one of your clients deserves your focus and attention. Allowing the squeaky wheel to dictate your day is a disservice to your clients and creates unrealistic expectations. Once your client or partner is used to you being at their beck and call, they will expect it every time. They will never see you as a partner to them. You become much more like a high-priced pizza delivery driver—whatever they want, any hour of the day. That is exhausting.
Overtime, the enthusiasm that comes with pleasing that particular client or partner will wane and give way to passive aggression and shoddy legal work. So many times I saw young attorneys deliberately do crappy work just to get a certain partner off their back or to get a client to start using someone else.
In order to be a good lawyer (never mind an adult human) you need to be able to have open, honest and candid conversations with people, including the people who pay your bills.
By pretending you are comfortable with that imbalanced relationship and telling them you are able to help, when you really aren’t, is nothing more than manipulation. You are taking action in hopes of manipulating what they will think about you. You are hoping they will see you as reliable, dependable, responsive, smart, and necessary. You are acting dishonestly in hopes you can control what they think about you.
What would it be like to believe all of those things on your own? What would it be like to add honesty to that list?
In the long run, honesty will do more for the relationship than manipulation and bitterness. A good client relationship is not built around dishonesty and unwillingness to have the difficult conversations. It rarely ends well. Besides, if clients and partners see you as never busy and always able to jump on things for them, what message does that communicate to them about your value and skillset?
You are setting a dishonest precedent and setting your clients up for sub-par work.
When you are overwhelmed with work and that client or partner asks you Do you have a second or Can you get back to me on this later this afternoon or Can you get this back to me today and you say Yes…you are lying! Piling on more projects will not magically create more time to do the work. There are limits to what you can accomplish in a day. I’m not saying that you need to be rigid about your work schedule and refuse work left and right, my message is that you need to learn to be honest with those people who are depending upon you.
Be honest with yourself about your workload and your ability to meet all those expectations. Being honest with your clients and saying I have a conference call that is expected to take all afternoon, can I get it to you tomorrow morning is a perfectly reasonable response. Telling that partner I am on several deadlines today for XYZ client or ABC partner, I’m happy to reshuffle if they are okay with it but I would need to check is also an acceptable response.
Responding honestly, in this way shows your clients/partners that you are busy and in demand and are willing to problem solve to ensure they receive the best service.
So many times I agreed to do things that I didn’t have time for. When I showed up to the meeting or call, I was stressed, harried, distracted and bitter. That is not the appropriate space for providing great legal services.
Similarly, when I accepted too much work, the net result was that every project would get 60% of my effort and time because I didn’t have enough time to do it all 100%. The point is, if you don’t have time or it’s going to take some reshuffling to get things done, say so. By asking the question, you give your client the opportunity to regroup and reassess their own priorities. If you don’t ask, you end up providing hurried and frantic legal services to a client that believed you had adequate time to do it right. If it is rushed, they will know and your reputation will suffer accordingly.
I have heard so many clients and partners criticize associate work by saying They clearly rushed through this or They should never have accepted this project if they didn’t have time, which they evidently did not. This is not where you want to be. That trust is difficult to rebuild. Strive to be legal counsel that is honest and willing to troubleshoot with your clients to ensure they receive proper legal support. The best legal work does not occur at midnight after 10 cups of coffee; it happens when you give yourself space to be present and focused.
Consider whether you are using “emergencies” to distract yourself.
Many times when I was avoiding a particularly difficult project, I would catch myself creating emergencies and burying myself in more “important” things. If I was dreading those new regulations or delaying preparation of slides for a presentation, I would make anything else a priority. I would make ordering flowers for my secretary a priority – ANYTHING. I would take benign non-emergent client emails and dive into them as if they were multi-million dollar lawsuits instead of doing the work I had planned to do; the work I NEEDED to do but didn’t want to.
We all know the negative effects of procrastination so I won’t waste my key strokes, but here, the real issue is awareness. Are you even aware that you are manufacturing emergencies because you are avoiding something else?
As a grown human you are free to manage your workload however you see fit but don’t lie to yourself. If you are doing 1,000 other things because you are avoiding another project, be honest about it.
Don’t run around manufacturing fires, indulging in drama, and telling everyone how busy you are. Then when real projects stack up and the avoided project gets critical you fall apart bemoaning your workload and inability to meet your deadlines as you wallow in the mess that you created. Stop it. If you are deliberately avoiding something, own it and just know that you will probably regret it later. Don’t create drama around it and don’t act like you didn’t create this problem. Instead, consider what it would be like to flex that muscle that makes you sit down and do the hard things? I’m no soothsayer but I suspect that skill will get you much farther in life.
Instead of allowing each day’s emergencies to dictate your life, decide what projects or clients are a priority each day and stick to them.
When something else comes up, ask yourself: Is this going to impede my ability to focus on my priorities? Is this going to yield as great of results for me and the firm as my priorities? What will I have to sacrifice if I say yes to this project? What negative consequence am I signing up for if I disregard my established priorities? You may not always be in a place to control your workload but asking yourself these questions will help you to learn how to discern priorities from distractions so that when you do get the chance to control you desk, you will have honed that skill. It becomes even more essential as you grow to manage your practice as well as others.
In the end, the practice of law provides the opportunity to hone basic interpersonal skills. I support so many of my clients to hone these skills. Not only is setting and sticking to priorities a life-long asset but a byproduct of that skill is learning to be honest with your clients and coworkers and ultimately, yourself.
Need support setting boundaries and prioritizing? Schedule a free consultation with me and let’s start building that skill. Your mental health will thank you.