do you have “mindful awareness” of your practice? #mindfulwednesday

I spent some time last week with a few dozen attorneys, talking about law practice management, technology, and related ideas. When I give these talks, I tend to make them very interactive. As in, I ask lots of questions of the audience. How can I address their issues if I don’t know their issues? Thus, the questions.

Well, this wasn’t a very lively group. As in, radio silence when I would ask a question. But I didn’t relent. I kept asking. And eventually some bold souls accepted my challenge and started talking.

As the “conversation” (and I use this term loosely) progressed, I started to identify a core issue with this group: they weren’t answering my questions because they didn’t know how to answer them. I was asking questions about their practices that they couldn’t answer (for the most part) because they simply didn’t know.

They didn’t know why they handled time keeping/billing/whatever the way they did. They didn’t know why they did or didn’t have a process for intake or client communication or whatever. At least, they didn’t know the why well enough to share. Why? My educated guess is that it’s because they’ve been doing things they way they do them for so long that they’ve stopped wondering whether the way is a good way or not.

I was posing questions that forced my audience to start really thinking about the why and how of their practices. By the looks on many faces, this was both a novel and challenging experience.

The folks in that room were there because they seek a change. The first step: having a mindful awareness of the current state of your practice.

I’m borrowing the phrase “mindful awareness” from meditation, in which context it describes (loosely) a process of identifying a destructive thought pattern, labeling it, and letting it pass when it enters your mind.

In the context of a law practice, I conceptualize the meaning to get at the heart of the first step of change: identifying those processes (or lack thereof) that don’t work, that get in the way of a successful practice, that hold you back from being optimally happy in the way you work.

I’ve helped many folks through the process of changing how they work. Perhaps the sole truth I’ve witnessed: the best kind of change starts with a mindful awareness of the present.

It’s with that awareness that you’re able to truly focus on creating a practice that supports you and the life you want. Not the other way around.

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.

squirrels support the creative process!

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Questions I’ve pondered often: does technology really support me, my goals, my practice, my creative efforts? Or does it distract me more than support me?

As in: “Look! A squirrel!” I feel that’s often my reaction when I learn of a new app or digital toy I must play with. I get distracted, run off (and away from my present work), and chase it.

The perspective offered in this article  by Greg Satell helped me identify the context for answering these queries. Or maybe not even asking them anymore.

The answer: technology (aka my “squirrel”) does support me, my goals, my creativity. When used to do so. What’s important to understand is how technology functions to support what and how you create, no matter how defined.

Because we all create. Even lawyers stuck in rather dull, uninspired practices create. May I suggest that leveraging technology to handle the dull and uninspiring minutiae may even open up the wellspring of creativity in your practice? Yep.

The Creative Process. Satell offers the following three steps as key to this process:

1. Forming intent. You have a purpose, a problem to solve, a goal to reach. This process of forming an intent to create is inherently human.

2. Searching the domain. As a student of your craft, you search your domain — your toolbox of techniques, approaches and philosophies — to create solutions, combinations, purpose.

3. Tangling hierarchies. When you synthesize across domains [discovering and/or creating connections among the seemingly unrelated], creation rises to the level of innovation.

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So where does technology fit in? A few spots, actually.

Eliminating barriers to creative excellence. Access to new knowledge and information contributes to our creative toolbox. As Satell observes, “The sum total of human knowledge is merely a few clicks away.” Searching this technologically flat Earth makes it much easier, and more likely, that we’ll discover just the connection(s) we seek to create (and perhaps even innovate).

This applies to everything we do, really, but isn’t it absolutely apropos to the practice of law? With so many rich (and mostly free) legal resources online , barriers to discovery in the legal realm are almost non-existent. Not to mention the sheer volume of information about pretty much anything else you may need to know, floating about on the internet, just waiting for you to find it.

Simulating failure. Great work is the result of producing a lot of work. Because a lot of it isn’t going to be great. But the more work you do, the greater the chance you’ll do the great work. Lower the cost of producing the work? It’s easier (and cheaper) to produce lots of it. Lots of it will fail. But the cost to do so can be minimized, if not nearly eliminated, by using the right technology. So we’re encouraged to increase output, thereby leading to a greater likelihood of achieving greater creative success.

I think most every human has a natural aversion to failure. Us lawyers? Especially so. We’re programed (if not hardwired) to be right. All of the time. Technology gives us some breathing room. Using the right software, for example, we can analyze, project, predict. With ease and speed. We can work out options, test them, experience virtual failure. Before we create the bestcourse of action for the client. Whew, isn’t that a relief?

Rise of the creative class. Satell posits that creativity is becoming a daily part of work life for all of us: “The man in the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the hipster with spiky hair and tattoos.” How so? Because technology is taking over the rote, the mundane, the stuff that can be turned into a tech-driven process precisely because it doesn’t rely on the inherently human act of creativity. So what’s left? The work that does.

Yes, even in the staid, traditional legal profession. (Though the tattoos likely will remain concealed under the gray flannel.) Why? Because technology is taking over a lot of the rote stuff for us, too. And freeing up our time and mental energy to focus on the really creative part of solving legal problems. By automating documents, processes, internal and external systems, your brain is involved less in that and more in the part that only a trained human brain can do.

The dangers? I like that technology frees my brain. I know I do better work because I have the tools (and information they provide) at my disposal. But I know that technology can give us a false sense of security and confidence, too. Automate too much, make everything a process, remove yourself from it, and the creative opportunities start to flatten out. You may end up being less creative then you were before technology stepped in to help.

And we aren’t entirely free of the squirrel effect. Every day, some new app comes along, offering to help you do something better, faster, easier. That new app may be great. Maybe you should take the time and mental energy to explore it. Or maybe you should ask if the problem it solves is one that you need to fix? If the answer is not really, then ignore the squirrel. Stick with the one you have. The right squirrels are what you seek, not the shiny new ones.