Management May 6, 2014 Last updated September 18th, 2018 2,280 Reads share

The Secret To Productivity For Lawyers And Real People!

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Ok, right out of the gate, in the interests of full disclosure: my name is Flor and I’m a lawyer.

So let’s get the jokes out of the way first: How do you tell if I’m lying? What do you call a bus full of me and my friends going off a cliff? What’s the difference between a dead skunk and a dead lawyer on the roadway? (And in case you haven’t heard any of these old chestnuts, I’ll enlighten you as we go.)

I get the fact that not everyone holds lawyers in the highest esteem, but if you’re still reading, I would like to share with you some of the things that I have learned from others and applied successfully in my business that just happens to be a legal practice. It’s about getting the right stuff done. So while the context that I am working from is a legal one I believe that these ideas have universal application.

Success is a process not an event

One of my favourite thinkers of all time is Earl Nightingale and he gave me the best definition of success that I have come across. (Earl may have not been the first one to come up with it but it was from him that I first heard it.)

It is that success is the progressive realisation of a worthy goal. Success is a process not an event.

Earl also said that there are two types of people, goal people and river people. I’ll come back to goal people in a moment, but let’s get river people out of the way first.

River people

River people are people who have a river of interest in which they are content to be absolutely consumed and in which they extraordinarily talented. River people are often musicians, artists or scientists. And river people who perform useful functions do so so well that they are generally very well rewarded. They are happiest working away in their river of interest and society repays them very well for that work as a result of the unique benefits that they provide.

In fact many of the best lawyers are river people. People of outstanding talent, who achieve exceptional results and are compensated accordingly. If you’re lucky enough to be a river person and you are being rewarded to a level that reflects your contribution, you probably don’t need to worry about any of the ideas I am going to share with you.

The rest of us are goal people. And for us the pursuit of our goals is fundamental to that process we know as success.

Define your goals

But before you can go in pursuit of anything you must know what it is. As sports go, blind archery is unproductive and dangerous for both participants and spectators.

Defining your goals clearly is important; as is having a clear understanding of the types of things that are not helpful as goals in this context. For instance, happiness is not a goal and the legally enshrined “pursuit of happiness” will rarely lead to that state.

Happiness is a by-product of satisfying productive activity. Successful people tend to be happy but success will not necessarily lead to happiness. To think so makes the fatal error of confusing correlation with causation and to hope for happiness in the future with this mind-set will rarely end well.

Zig Ziglar said that you can get anything that you want in life if you will just help enough people to get what they want. For this reason, the most universally beneficial goals will be those that legitimately advance your own self-interest because in going after what you want, the only honest way in which you can get it is to provide great benefit to others.

Balancing the scales

Earl provides one of my favourite illustrations of this concept which is made by way of the old apothecary’s scales. You know the type: two bowls suspended on either side of a balance to weigh things. In fact, to give this a legal flavour, it’s exactly like the scales of justice you will see held by the statue of Justitia that stands above many old courthouses.

Well, the deal is this: one of the bowls is marked service and the other bowl is marked rewards. And the rule is simple: the two bowls will always eventually come into balance.

This is a fundamental rule of the world; it cannot be gotten around. The scales may go out of alignment at times as they swing into balance, but eventually they will settle level. Nothing can be surer.

The Secret To Productivity For Lawyers And Real People!

The entitlement mentality

There is an entitlement mentality that you encounter in a depressingly large number of different areas in life. In professionals, the entitlement internal dialogue tends to go something like this:

  • I’ve worked hard to get where I am today.
  • I’ve got a degree, a post graduate qualification and a professional qualification.
  • I’ve put in years of hard work in my chosen field.
  • I deserve an income that is commensurate with the position that I have achieved for myself.

This type of entitlement thinking is doomed. That position, those qualifications and that experience count for nothing in terms of what the world will be prepared to give you other than in terms of what you can give it. Therefore you must continually think only in terms of how you can leverage your skills and experience to provide value to others through your service; rather than in terms of what you think you might be entitled to just because of who or what you have become.

Focus on service not reward

The problem most people have is that they are obsessed with the bowl marked rewards and focus only on it. They want to continue to draw from that bowl all of the time and they often feel that their service is not recognised and rewarded enough. “Why should I care?” they say, “I’m not getting paid enough to worry about that.” NMP to coin an acronym.

And of course, if you are only delivering the amount of service that is equal to or less than what you are being rewarded, you can never advance. In that case, you are receiving all or more than you’re entitled to and that will not change.

The key is to concentrate only on the bowl marked service. Continue to add to that all of the time. Think only in terms of how you can be of better and more effective service to more people.

If you do, and you then just keep on doing so, you need have no worry about the rewards as that bowl will take care of itself. It must do and it always will.

But to maximise the effectiveness of this service it must be done in pursuit of a very specific clear goal defined in terms of something you want. So, things like world peace and an end to hunger are really no good as personal goals, despite the fact that they are perfectly laudable aspirations.

Rather think in terms of precisely what you want and when you want it. Don’t worry about being selfish; remember that the legitimate pursuit of your own self-interests is what it’s all about, as it’s only through helping others that you will achieve the goals that are important to you.

Define your goals clearly. Then write them down.

These are the four most important words you are going to read here.

  • You must write down your goals.
  • And you must state precisely what you want in terms of a tangible item, amount of money or occurrence.
  • It has to be concrete.
  • You have to be able to visualise it clearly in your mind.
  • You have to be able to measure it and say with objective certainty whether it has been achieved.
  • And then you have to set a deadline. A definite date in time by which the goal must be achieved.

Don’t be tempted to go easy on yourself here. You have to commit to goals that will challenge you and push you out of your comfort zone. Many highly successful people find that their only regret is that that they didn’t set their sights for their goals much higher at the outset.

Of course, you can have goals in every area of your life; and you should. But right now for the purposes of what we’re going to consider here let’s focus on your business and the goals that you set for it.


Achieving anything in your business starts with focus: focus on the clear, measurable, written goals (with deadlines) that you have set for yourself.

And to get anywhere in the direction of those goals you need to focus on what you get done every day. Every hour of that day. Every minute of that day.

This idea of focus is not new, speaking in 1885, Andrew Carnegie said:

“And here is the prime condition of success, the great secret – concentrate your energy, thought and capital exclusively upon the business in which you are engaged. Having begun on one line, resolve to fight it out on that line, to lead in it, adopt every improvement, have the best machinery, and know the most about it. The concerns which fail are those which have scattered their capital, which means that they have scattered their brains also. They have investments in this, or that, or the other, here, there and everywhere. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is all wrong. I tell you “put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket.” Look round you and take notice; men who do that do not often fail. It is easy to watch and carry the one basket. It is trying to carry too many baskets that breaks most eggs in this country.”

The Secret To Productivity For Lawyers And Real People!

Time is the most valuable asset

And in this context time is the most valuable asset that you possess. The eternal present. Right now! You can’t save it or stockpile it and this moment once gone will be gone forever.

Therefore, how you use time and what you get done in the time you make available for your business (time which of course you take from the other things in your life, like your family) is probably the most critical factor in your success.

So, you need to focus on that time and what you get done in it; to the ruthless exclusion of all else.

Time management as it’s traditionally understood seems to me a bogus concept. Managing your time well to get through all of the things that are screaming at you to be done all day is utterly meaningless if many of those things don’t need to be done in the first place or should not be done by you.

Prioritise and eliminate interruption

Therefore, the first thing you need to do is prioritise. Then eliminate interruption to enable you to focus exclusively and unmercifully on the top priority tasks until they are done. That’s it really.

Mark Twain took the spirit of Carnegie’s sentiment and expressed it like this:

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret to getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks and then starting the first one.”

In order to make that start list all of the things you need to do. All of them. Take some time on this. There may be hundreds. Don’t worry about that. Get them all down no matter how trivial or how long you’ve been meaning to get around to doing them.

Do your A, B, C’s

Now prioritise them. Assign them A, B and C status in order of importance. Take a step back while you do this and think in terms of those goals we were talking about at the outset. What are the most important things that need to be done to get you to those goals? These are the A tasks. It may not be (and very likely isn’t) what you feel are the most pressing tasks or the ones screaming loudest to be done; that’s a really important realisation to make.

Once you’ve identified the A tasks you may discover more A tasks as part of that process.

  • For instance engaging in this exercise in the first place is an A task you may not have done before or for a while. By its nature it’s the most important thing you can ever do.
  • A second A task that you may not have thought about previously might be to develop systems and procedures to enable you to have others do B tasks for you effectively. This may take time to set up properly so that you can depend on it, but taking this time to set this up will increase the long-term effectiveness of your time exponentially.
  • The C tasks will just have to wait until you either have all A’s and B’s underway satisfactorily or may have to be transferred to another area of your life if you wish to do them for some reason unconnected with your business.

In fact, it is interesting to see what happens when most C’s just don’t get done at all; absolutely nothing most of the time. They don’t make any difference to anyone either way. But keep them on the list for now so that mentally you know where they are in the order of priorities: you haven’t completely ignored them you just have more important things that you have to get done first.

Review your list

Now review your A’s and set them in order of priority among themselves. Assess how long it will take to get each one done and their relative urgency. Think carefully about the urgency bit: whose agenda makes them urgent?

If it’s something that just has to get done by or on a particular time; like the statute of limitations expiring on a case; showing up for a court appearance; filing something for a deadline; or making sure there’s money in the account to meet the payments; then you better make sure that these things get done by the time they have to. These are extremely high priorities and completing these tasks satisfactorily makes the difference between continuing in practice or not.

But many other urgent things are not really that urgent at all or the urgency flows from someone else’s agenda. Test this and see what happens if things don’t get done as promptly as they seem to be demanding; you’d be amazed at how some things have a way of resolving themselves, waiting their turn or just not being that pressing after all.

Getting the right stuff done

So, now you’ve got your most important tasks in the right order. Take the top seven, write them down on a piece of paper numbered from 1 to 7 in the order in which they need to be done. You’ve just got your plan for tomorrow.

First thing tomorrow morning start on number 1 and do not do anything else until you either finish it or you get to a point where you can’t proceed further without input from someone else or something else to be done that you can’t do there and then. When, and only when, you get to this point (i.e. finished or in need of external input) move on to number 2 and so on and so forth.

This may seem uncomfortable at first. There may be so many things to do or some of the tasks may seem so large as to be insurmountable. But you have broken the tasks down and thought carefully about their relative order of priority. There is only so much that you can get done in any day and the one thing you now know for certain is that you are working with extreme focus on the most important one.

What better use could you possibly be making of your time?

Oh, and the answers to the three questions posed at the opening: My lips are moving; a good start; and there are skid marks in front of the skunk!

Check back in a fortnight for part 2 in this productivity series.

Images: “business, technology, internet and networking concept – businessman pressing productivity button on virtual screens /   Statue of Lady Justice “Justitia” ; in front of the Romer in Frankfurt – Germany/Collage with clock and calendar, time concept /


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Flor McCarthy

Flor McCarthy

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