Everyone knows Goldilocks and her relentless pursuit of porridge, pillows and other worldly pleasures that were “just right.” Well, lawyers (especially associates) face a similar challenge in managing their workload. If you have gone from feeling completely overwhelmed with too much work to worrying that you don’t have enough work, all in the course of a month, or even a week, you are not alone. To an extent workload volatility is an inherent part of practicing law. But there are a number of ways you can manage the ebb and flow, and more importantly the stress that it causes, so your workload is “not too much, not too little, but just right.”
1) It’s Usually Okay to Overcommit
My experience is that approximately 50% of the assignments we agree to take on either happen later than the initial projected time or don’t ever happen. So, it helps to keep this in mind when you are doing the mental math in deciding whether you have time to take on a new assignment and when you are stressing out about whether you will be able to keep up with all the work you have agreed to do. As lawyers, our tendency is to plan for the “worst case scenario”. That type of thinking benefits your clients when you are thinking through an issue the client faces, but it can significantly increase your stress level when you apply it to your own life. So, while we all have those days where it seems like everyone needs everything from us at once, most times we actually wind up having more time and capacity than we would expect due to delays, cancellations and other factors that are typical in the law field. Keeping this “50% rule” in mind will allow you to take on additional work without feeling the stress that you are not going to be able to get it all done on time.
2) It’s Okay to Say “No”
There is nothing most associates want more than to impress the people they are working for. And saying “no” to new work in the big law culture is often viewed either as a sign of weakness or not even really an option. I don’t advocate taking saying “no” to new work lightly, as it is important to build a reputation as dependable and ready, willing and able to help. But, if you truly are beyond your capacity with work, declining a new assignment can show your maturity in knowing your limits and better serve your long term goals, as no one gains if the quality of your work suffers as a result of being pulled in too many directions.
3) When You Are Not Busy, Be Proactive. . . and Don’t Worry
Being slow at work can actually be more stressful than being too busy. We have all had times where we worry whether we will have enough work to meet our billable hours. When you are not busy, the best thing you can do is take positive action. When you’re proactive, there is less idle time to worry. Also, if you’re taking steps to get yourself busy or increase your substantive knowledge realize that worrying serves no useful purpose. Here are some basic steps to take when you’re not busy with billable work.
A) Do all the work you have today.
Don’t save some work tomorrow because you are afraid you won’t have anything to do. If a new assignment comes in tomorrow, you may not be able to get it all done if you have work hanging around from the day before. More fundamentally, this is scarcity thinking. The more you conserve and ration what you have, the more “lack” you tend to attract. On the other hand, when you focus on doing the work you have, more work has a way of finding its way to you.
B) Internal Marketing.
Call or go visit (don’t email) attorneys you have done work with before or introduce yourself to an attorney in the firm whose practice area interests you. It’s okay to be upfront with them that you need work. It shows initiative and your willingness to get involved.
C) External Marketing.
Call existing clients to see how they are doing and if they have any business needs. It’s amazing how many times opportunities for new work present themselves when you are making a conscious effort to put yourself out there and connect with people instead of staying silently behind your desk. Also, you are never too junior to begin business development. Pick an event or organization that interests you and attend. If you’re interested in the organization you will continue to attend and it will show through that you are interested in the subject matter. This in turn may very well lead to new client opportunities even if you are not sure exactly how.
D) Let Go of Worry and Guilt.
If you are actively following the other steps, there is no reason you should feel anxious, worried or guilty about not meeting your billable hours. First of all you need to have faith that following a structured plan on a regular basis in the long run, will give you the results you want. Second, worry and guilt are counterproductive emotions and by themselves don’t serve any useful purpose. Once you are conscious of this and have taken steps to resolve the problem, let go of the worried feeling. You will be amazed how when you let go of your worries, the things you were worried about go away.