Starting Out Fresh: Don’t let the hours set you

October 24, 2012

Solo Practitioner(Editor’s note: “Starting Out Fresh” is a five-part series on common questions tackled by new solo and small practitioners that will appear weekly on WestlawInsider throughout the month of October.)

Week 1: Hourly billing or flat-fee?

Week 2: What can (and should) I charge for as an attorney?

Week 3: Just because you’re “solo” doesn’t mean that you have to do it alone

Yesterday, Westlaw Insider posted a piece by Connie Hall about how to use your downtime productively as a new solo practitioner.

The article had some great advice, but it didn’t address a related – and important – topic: how to determine how much downtime you have.

Let me put it differently: how do you determine how much of your time is committed to your practice and how much is reserved for your personal life?

I’m using “downtime” here a little differently than in Hall’s piece, where it was used to refer to free time that you have within the time already allotted to your practice.

Here, I’m using it in the more literal sense: your time when you aren’t working.

As I’ve discovered firsthand, solo practitioners are particularly susceptible to having their professional time devour their personal time.

Here’s a common example of how this happens:

When you first start out, you’ll likely have very few clients.

As such, you’ll probably end up committing quite a bit of your time to those few clients.

This isn’t really that big of a deal when your client number is low.

But what happens when you get more clients?

If you have been in the habit of spending a lot of time on individual cases, you’ll find your free time rapidly dwindling until there is no delineation between your “work life” and “home life.”

Additionally, the fact that solo practitioners essentially set their own hours makes this outcome even more likely.

So how do you prevent it?

I alluded to the solution two sentences ago: set your own hours.

Meaning, set a schedule for yourself that explicitly separates the “work” time from the “home” time.

However much you decide to allot for each is up to you, as long as you leave yourself sufficient time for yourself and your family; the point is to set up a schedule of some kind.

This is primarily for two reasons.

The first, as I’ve already mentioned, is to protect your personal time.

Beyond the desirability of personal and family time in and of itself, having a sufficient amount of downtime will make you more well rested and effective during your “work time.”

As a solo or small practitioner, your work day isn’t based on being in the office for eight hours; it’s based around projects and deadlines.

This, coupled with the “make your own hours” element can have the unwelcome result of having your workday continue as long as there is still work to be done.

Unfortunately, once you reach a certain threshold of clients, there is always more work to be done.

In addition, if you, like many other solo and small lawyers, give out your mobile phone number to your clients, chances are that you have received phone calls from clients during evenings or on weekends.

Unless it’s an emergency, you should only be answering those calls during your scheduled work hours since (again, unless it’s an emergency) it’s nothing that can’t wait until Monday morning.

Will this approach hurt your practice?

No, it’s actually the opposite; which brings us to the second of the reasons to impose a schedule: to streamline your practice.

When you feel as though you have all of your waking hours to complete a project, your efficiency suffers.

Maybe you’ll think that you have some time to go on Facebook for a few minutes; or to check the news; or take care of some bills.

Aside from how much of a waste of time those things can add up to, every interruption can (and usually does) interrupt your train of thought on what you were working on.

By contrast, if you have a deadline set – even a self-imposed one – the impending elapse of that deadline serves as an effective motivator to stay on task.

There are plenty of time-management tips out there to get a lot of work done in a limited amount of time, so I won’t get into that here.

But my point remains that setting structured work schedules will only improve your work efficiency, while, at the same time, preserving your sanity by protecting your personal and family time.

And sanity is something that is easy to lose in the practice of law.