are you choosing your should or MUST?

If your work life and the rest of your life align perfectly and you are blissful in your practice, then there is no need for you to read this. And congratulations!

However, if this isn’t the case … if you have any twinge of desire to do things differently, whether it’s a shift in how/what/where you practice [or maybe doing something altogether unrelated to the practice of law?!], then read this.

For those of us who allow ourselves to go there? We have a MUST. And most of us don’t pursue the must. We obediently follow the should. How sad.

Me? Lookout MUST! Here I come.

[Inspiredlawblog is written by Cat Moon, a lawyer + coach who is committed to living her MUST and loves helping others do the same.]

Illustration by Elle Luna.

is the practice of law killing your creativity?

Yes, creativity. And I’m not talking about your cast-aside attempts at pottery-throwing or watercolor.

I’m talking about your ability to be a good lawyer. A lawyer who thinks creatively to solve clients’ problems. Or avoid them in the first place.

A good lawyer is a creative lawyer.

But if you’re a lawyer who isn’t getting enough sleep or finding  (even a little) time to relax and release stress and anxiety? Then you’re more likely to suck at finding creative solutions for problems. Both your clients’ problems. And your own.

Why? There’s a perfectly logical, scientifically-based reason. Of course.

Our creative insights are more likely to come when when our brain is in a relaxed (RELAXED!) enough state to create new neural connections.

Seriously, it’s a wonder that lawyers have any creative thoughts at all, given our level of stress and anxiety depression. But I digress …

Here’s the deal: our brain has two separate pattern recognition systems: the explicit and the implicit.

In the explicit (rule-based, tied to conscious awareness), the neurons communicating with each other are typically in close proximity.

But not so in the implicit. This system, which relies on skill and experience, isn’t consciously accessible and can’t be described verbally. “When the implicit system is at work, far-flung corners of the brain are chit-chatting.” And this, my friends, is what creativity feeds on — your brain’s ability to put information together in new ways.

Before you can try out the hacks to work the implicit system to your advantage, you have to actually create the opportunity for your brain to relax. Yep.

Get enough sleep, e.g. > 6 hours (for most of us). Exercise. Meditate. Disconnect from the constant connection to work.

Not only will you find the brilliant, creative thoughts flowing, I predict. But you’ll also be happier. An added bonus!

[Inspiredlawblog is written by Cat Moon, a lawyer and coach who works with lawyers and other interesting folks who seek fulfilling, happy lives. Even at work. Especially at work?]

*quote by John Steinbeck

do you learn in your practice?

In my last post, I wrote about being a lifelong learner — why and how to do it. I challenged you to go learn something new — every day.

Today I challenge you to put this into practice in your practice. And I don’t mean solely by attending CLE seminars (more on CLEs in a moment).

I’m referring to a more self-directed learning process. Set the goal to learn something new, relevant to your practice, each and every day. Why? For all the reasons I wrote about yesterday. Oh, and there’s also the part about ethics and competence. An ever-learning lawyer is a competent lawyer.

It’s surprisingly easy.

Learn from the work of others. Reviewing another attorney’s document for a client? Get the work done for your client, then take a fresh look at the document (unless it’s a really crappy one). Look for any better ways to draft standard clauses or handle unique clauses. Periodically I come across some really well-drafted documents and always take time (non-billable) to review for purposes of improving my own drafting. Writing and drafting are matters of continuous improvement. This is time well spent.

Learn from clients. Other industries often have much better ways of doing things than we do. Pay attention to the differences and integrate those that make sense. An example from my practice: I work with many creative clients to create contracts. Taking my cue from clients’ keen sense of visual design, I’ve completely changed how I format and structure contracts. Paying attention to design results in a document that is more visually appealing, easier to read, easier to understand, and for all these reasons serves the client better. Design aesthetic has never been the domain of the legal profession, but is one example of something we should pay more attention to.

Learn from unexpected sources. This is similar to learning from clients. If you’re only reading legal sources (books, blogs, articles, etc.), I guarantee that you’re getting a limited perspective. Branch out and you’ll find that resources geared towards other industries offer incredibly rich resources. And if you focus on industries relevant to your clients, the value of what you learn likely will be compounded. An example from my practice: I work with software developers who use agile/lean/kanban methods in their work. I’ve been learning about these methods myself, and the benefit is at least two-fold: (1) I better understand the work that my clients do, which makes me more effective in the work I do for them, and (2) I’m integrating these methods into my own workflow, which is making me more effective in the work I do for all of my clients.

Learn in CLEs. Good CLE seminars have real value. But the proliferation of sub-par providers, in combination with the fact that many seminars are delivered by lawyers with no presentation training or skill (and who often hoard the really valuable information) make finding the good ones akin to locating the proverbial needle in a haystack. But they’re out there. And I encourage you to be thoughtful about the CLE you choose, instead of finding the cheapest online provider and paying attention only when the secret code prompt is given. Use CLE to stay current in your practice areas, of course, but also use it to expand. Go to CLEs on time management, technology, productivity. And commit to putting into practice at least one thing you learn in each seminar.

Intentionally seeking out learning opportunities in your daily work has many valuable benefits. I also believe it’s a way to stay fresh in your practice, staving off burnout, boredom and other negatives that come along with having done legal work for 15+ years (as I have). Give it a try.

No matter how much experience we have, there’s always something new to learn.

what lawyers can learn from maya angelou.

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At 86, Maya Angelou continued to be a force of nature. Teacher, writer, poet, friend, mentor, mother, activist, dancer, singer, avid reader. And so much more than we could possibly even know. Visit her Facebook page and it’s clear that she did all of these things, relished them, right until the very end.

Every single one of us should take a page from her inspiration. Lawyers, most especially. We need what Maya offered the world. And most of us are the last to see this connection between our lives and hers.

Let the brain go to work, let it meet the heart and you will be able to forgive. – Maya Angelou

Lawyers are trained to be rational appliers of reason, facts, precedence. We are told and taught in law school that our opinion doesn’t matter — that it’s all in the logic of our argument and the facts that support it. Our emotions, our hearts, are removed from the equation. Intentionally.

This is no way to go through life. Especially a life that for many of us is consumed by our profession. Let your brain meet your heart. You will do better work. You will do better for yourself. Because emotion has a place in the law, and it must have a place in our daily experience of life. To deny this is really to deny a fundamental part of the human experience.

And the “forgive” part — this is important. We lawyers tend to be perfectionists, type A personalities who expect a lot from our ourselves and from others. So much so that we give ourselves and our profession a bad name.

But here’s the thing. We’re not perfect. We screw up. We need to forgive ourselves, embrace the screw up, learn from it and move on. The same applies to others — especially the people we work with and who work for us. Don’t be the stereotypical lawyer who yells at anyone who gets anything the slightest bit not perfect. Rigidity in perfectionism does not serve us, our clients, or our profession well.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou

Ah, yes, how you made people feel. “Feel” is one of those words that doesn’t have a place in the lawyer’s vocabulary. Is it surprising that our profession is mostly hated? <It was hard to pick a link for this one because there are so many great articles on lawyer-hating. It’s a popular topic.>

Essentially, way too many of us don’t give a rat’s booty about how we make people feel. Not our coworkers, opposing counsel, even our clients. We’re arrogant, ego-centric, and don’t forget about that “show no emotion” mantra that’s drilled into us from law school on.

To wit: the word “client service” is an oxymoron in the legal profession. But our service to others — how we make them feel — goes to the heart of our connections. The very connections that make a life worth living, really.

Do you really want to do great work? And feel great about doing it? Then give a damn how you make other people feel. Yes, you may have to unlearn a lot, thanks to law school and the example set by others (unfortunately). But it will be worth it.

Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good. – Maya Angelou

Gratitude and its expression in our lives — such a simple concept that holds so much power. For those wanting proof of its power and importance in living a fulfilled life, it’s there. Hard science now supports what Maya Angelou knew:

  • Gratitude increases social connection – which studies show is essential for health and well-being
  • Gratitude increases altruism – which is a strong predictor of happiness
  • Gratitude decreases depression and improves optimism and positive emotions which in turn increase well-being, boost creativity, benefit relationships, and impact longevity

Grateful people are happy people. Do you really need any further encouragement?

I wager that lawyers, more than most, wield an incredibly strong negativity bias. First of all, we humans are hard-wired for it, unfortunately. Add to that a profession that keeps one mired in the negative (for the most part). What chance do we have?

Actually, we have a great chance at overcoming our negativity bias. By choosing and living with and in gratitude.

You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you. – Maya Angelou

I really can’t add much here. The legal profession is rife with examples of the very bad things that happen when you make money your goal.

If you love practicing law, then do it well. Do it in a way that supports the life you want to live. I have no idea if this will also provide the financial support you (think you) need. But why would you sacrifice a life lived well for a hellish existence that paid well? Working hard doesn’t solve the core problems faced by an unhappy lawyer. It just exacerbates them.

And if you aren’t finding purpose and some sort of happiness, or at least genuine satisfaction, in the practice of law, then leave it. I have a [recovering lawyer] friend who helps people. Talk to her.

Why? Because …

If you are going down a road and don’t like what’s in front of you and look behind you and don’t like what you see, get off the road. Create a new path! – Maya Angelou

a better question.

I’m an unabashed fan of mentoring and connecting. I build time for both into my schedule. And I urge others to, as well. Based on my constant experience that mentoring is as rich an experience for the mentor as mentee, if you put your heart into it. And you simply never know where connecting with others will lead — it’s often somewhere not really obvious, but surprisingly good.

So I’m facing a bit of a conundrum at the moment. Because I keep coming across people who ask a single question when faced with a mentoring or connecting opportunity. The question: WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?

The first time I encountered this question, I wrote it off as specific to that person, that situation.

The second time, I pondered …

Most recently, I was pretty much smacked in the face with it. A person I admire and respect professionally said: “I don’t respond to attempts at connecting or networking unless it benefits me.” This person went on to elaborate that if the benefit appeared to be one-way, favoring the other person, then the connection was ignored.

I suppressed the urge to ask some rhetorical questions of this person. The person is a professional. In a position to “connect” with a lot of people. Perhaps this person truly is just too busy to deal with such connections that don’t have an obvious benefit.

But if everyone is following this path, then I fear the undoing of a culture that should be encouraged rather than destroyed. A culture of helping those who are following in our footsteps. This is especially so in the legal profession, where well-developed mentoring programs are scarce, even in larger firms. They’re nonexistent for most of the attorneys who most need them – solos and those in small firms.

I’ve been on the receiving end of a mentoring relationship. And for the past few years, I’ve been on the giving end. I can’t imagine how I would’ve gotten through some pretty sticky situations but for the generosity of others who were willing to share their time and wisdom. And the words of thanks I’ve received from mentees makes it clear that I’ve made a tremendous difference for them, even if only by taking five minutes to offer an opinion.

Our time is precious and limited. But we’re not so precious — and let’s not be so limited — to seek connections only when there’s a tangible benefit to be had.

If you’re too busy or view your time as too important, then I must suggest that your priorities and time management skills may be a bit askew.

Let’s try this question instead: “How can I help?”

it’s all in the presentation.

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I’m going to assume that you know the law. You know what you need to know, to perform the legal work that your clients need you to perform. You, and likely many hundreds — if not thousands — of other lawyers who could also serve your clients.

So why does a client choose you, and not one of the other hundreds or thousands?

It’s all in the presentation.

I know, I’ve probably lost you at this point. Didn’t take long. Because we lawyers spend little if any time thinking about this.

And by this, I mean all of the little things that make the difference for clients. You’re a superlawyer? Well, so are a lot of other lawyers. You’ve been doing this for X [insert impressive number of] years? Ditto. You have a high Avvo or Martindale Hubbell rating? Again, ditto.

None of these things set you apart. Now, they might appeal to another attorney who’s looking for someone to refer a client to, but to your ideal potential client? Not so much.

This is why someone hires YOU instead of another attorney: HOW YOU PRESENT YOURSELF.

So, how do you present yourself? What is the first impression of a potential client who …

visits your website?

calls your office?

sends you an email?

meets you at a networking event?

asks for your card?

has an initial consultation in your office?

You have one and only one opportunity to make a great first impression.

Spend some time answering the above questions. Really think about how you present to the people who you most want to work with. What can you do to present well to these folks?

I’d love to know what you come up with. And I’ll be sharing a few thoughts of my own in the next post …

tech, productivity, + an agile practice

The following post originally appeared on the MyCase blog, thanks to a kind invitation from Niki Black. It’s the first in a series that I’ll be publishing here about the ins-and-outs of an agile practice.

An inconvenient truth: technology doesn’t improve productivity. It won’t make you more efficient, successful, or happy. What it can do is help you create a workflow (or even a lifestyle) that enables your productivity, efficiency, success, and happiness.

It’s taken me 16 years in law practice to figure it out, but I’ve finally created a tech-rich workflow that really supports my productivity.

I call it my “agile practice,” in part because I’ve cherry-picked elements of agile methodology that fit into a modern-day law practice. Why agile? Because lawyers spend a lot of time putting out fires instead of working our to-do lists. Not me. Not anymore. An agile system accommodates the fires. Allowing me to stay on track, do more good work, in less time.

How? By following the core principles of productivity, and adding technology only if it supports the principles.  Start with these four:

Eat the frog. This simply means do the most important thing first, no matter how much you don’t want to, every day. If you do this, then it’s much less likely that you’ll be derailed by the unexpected or urgent. As well, it’s motivating to check that important thing off your list. Supporting tech: I currently use Workflowy, a simple and ubiquitous app, to manage my to-do list. The frog is always at the top.

Touch it once. When something (an email, a phone call, a task) appears in front of you, your goal is to touch it only once (or twice, at most). The order of action: (1) do it; or (2) file it away for doing at a specific time; or (3) delegate it. If (2) is the action, then touch it only once at the appointed time. Supporting tech: especially if you’re delegating tasks, a web-based app such as Trello or the collaboration features built into MyCase support this principle masterfully.

No multitasking. You can’t do two (or more) things concurrently and expect to do any of them well. In fact, trying to multitask can sap up to 40% of your productivity. So stop. At the end of each day, create your list of work to be done the following day, ideally arranged from most to least important. Then start doing the work, once step at a time. Supporting tech: here, the goal is to put down the tech while you focus on the work in front of you. But technology can also help you do this – try one of these 10 apps that fight distraction and support concentration.

Email management. Technology and principle are inextricably linked here. Managing email, instead of allowing it to manage you, is crucial for setting up a productive workflow. Simple steps: don’t work with your email open all day; check email only at set times during the day; reply immediately if doing so will take two minutes or less; get email out of the inbox once you’ve acted on it. Supporting tech: I use Boomerang to set automatic reminders for responding to email (or to remind me if someone has failed to respond to my email). Inbox zero is an unattainable myth, but with Boomerang I can keep my inbox under control.

Some final words of advice: If you spend more time trying to make the tech work, or fit in your desired workflow, ditch it. And don’t adopt new tech unless it truly solves a problem you’re having.