Sunday, October 7, 2012

Tips from a former BigLaw partner on how to work more efficiently

This article from today's New York Times, They Work Long Hours, but What About Results?, by a former BigLaw Partner who now teachers at Harvard Business School, argues that measuring employee value by hours worked rather than results achieved makes no sense in today's knowledge based economy.  Law firms, of course, are wedded to the billable hour because it shifts risk to the client should the matter take longer than estimated. But the author points out this encourages inefficiencies by undermining the incentive to get work done quickly (when was the last time you saw someone who is paid by the hour rush to finish the job?).  Why not bill based on the value added to the client matter thereby freeing-up attorneys to spread their skills among several more client matters over the course of the day (ed. note: Doesn't the practice of "premium" billing already do this?).

The author acknowledges that research shows that the impression an employee makes upon the boss is influenced by the amount of "face-time" she puts in at the office. So any new employee trying to prove herself is going to find it difficult, if not career defeating, to avoid late nights and weekends.  It's also the unavoidable nature of law practice. But putting aside for the moment boss perception issues, the author serves up some tips for working more efficiently insofar as you can leave early without damaging your career. Some of these are obvious and others might be more difficult to implement because of the aforementioned need for face-time but, hey, if even one of them helps you, our work here is done.

  • It's not just your perception, those long meetings truly are a waste of time. Try avoiding them altogether if you can but if not, commit to attending for no more than an hour. The author offers some diplomatic excuses you can use such as blaming your absence on those phantom "impending deadlines;"
  • Don't try to read everything that comes across your desk; read only what's important to your job and skim the rest (in defense of more reading and less skimming, query whether you sacrifice the development of the kind of creative problem solving skills that only come from the serendipitous practices that the author counsel's against).
  • Follow the OHIO email principle - "Only Handle It Once."  Decide whether you really need to respond to emails and if so, do it right then and there. Otherwise, delete and forget it.
  • Learn to write more efficiently by starting with an outline, then create a rough draft and finally polish it later. Trying to perfect your sentences as you write them is terribly inefficient and you'll likely find yourself endlessly revising without making much forward progress
  • Learn to distinguish the writing projects that have to be "A" calibre work and those where "good enough for government work" is enough.

Of course most of these tips boil down to recognizing you can't possibly do it all within the confines of the workday and must instead begin to develop some professional judgment about when to cut corners and when to bring your "A" game. In some form or another, we all have to be developing such strategies in the face of information overload that will overtake our lives if we don't learn to work more efficiently.

If you'd like to read more, please click here.


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