A common theme among some of my lawyer clients is the frustrating and stressful feeling that much of what goes on at work is out of their control.

For example, new or young associates are often given assignments verbally and quickly by partners who need to put out a fire on their way to the next fire. They aren’t given clear instructions or enough facts to create a context to properly research the legal question and anticipate related questions and issues. Yet the partners are too busy to properly organize their thoughts before giving the assignment or they later change their mind about what they want researched.

Mid-level or senior associates are so busy billing hours on client matters assigned to them that they have no time to develop a book of business. They are told not to worry about developing a book and that it will come with staying in touch with people and doing good work. Yet they also know that to become a partner, they must have a book of business of at least a certain dollar amount.

Non-equity or “service” partners are called upon by their equity partners for their expertise but aren’t given the authority and/or respect to make the final recommendation and decision on the best course of action under the law to serve the client’s interests. Or the service partners are called upon too late and are used to put out fires, rather than to prevent fires.

Some equity partners feel subject to every whim of their largest clients and so dependent on those clients’ business that they can’t create balance in their work week, have time to develop a more diversified client base or have any peace of mind.

If any of these scenarios resonate with you, know that you are not alone. Here is a very basic outline of what some of my clients have done and are doing to have and feel more in control of their days and their careers.

  1. Accept that you can’t control other people.
  2. Identify what you can control. ie. How you respond to others, how you react in situations, how you communicate, what you can do proactively, how you deal with distractions, etc.
  3. Make a plan. Write down what actions you can take, and when you will take them, to have more effective control over the things you can control.

For example, stop ceding control over your time management to other people when they interrupt your concentration and commandeer your time by coming into your office while you are working. I have a sense this happens to a lot of lawyers, regardless of the stage of their career. Keeping your door shut all day is one technique but it doesn’t stop everyone and it can be isolating and not as pleasant. So try something else. Instead of stopping your work every time someone steps in without asking if you are busy and/or without waiting for an answer, have an answer or question ready.

  • “Yes, I’m working on something right now. Can we talk [in 30 minutes, at 11:30, this afternoon at 1:00?]”
  • “Can this wait until this afternoon? I want to finish what I am working on.”
  • “Yes, I would like to work with you on this project and we should talk about when you need me so that we allocate enough time. I have four matters to finish by Wednesday and I don’t want to hold up your project if you need it sooner.”

If you wish that an assigning lawyer would give you clearer instructions about a research project or motion and brief so that you don’t spin your wheels or head off in the wrong direction, or the assigning lawyer doesn’t change course on you, consider what you can do to get clarification without asking the assigning lawyer to do more work. How about summarizing the assignment in an email, even like a question presented, and asking for confirmation to make sure that you understand and don’t waste time or the client’s money?

If you wish to be involved in matters from the start, or you want to handle cases in a more organized way as you move through pleading, discovery, motion and pre-trial stages, consider whether and how to define and communicate what your role will be on the team. Instead of simply reacting to others, think about where and how you can be proactive to create order and have more control over what you do and your role in the bigger picture.

If you would like coaching to start having more control over your work day, practice and career, please contact me.