When life throws you a curveball…

Life has a way of throwing curve-balls.  Sometimes they come in the form of emergencies that demand attention, sometimes they’re staff departures (planned or otherwise), and sometimes they’re opportunities that you just can’t pass up, even though jumping in will eat every bit of time and energy you have.

How do you cope with those curve-balls?  You can implement three strategies now so that you can deal with curve-balls as they come your way.

  1. Create an “operations manual”.  Those of you working in large firms may have access to some sort of manual that defines how certain tasks are to be completed.  However, whether you’re in a large firm or working as a sole practitioner, you must have a document that explains how we do things around here.  How should an assistant answer your telephone, when should he schedule appointments for you, and what should he tell callers who need to reach you urgently?  What needs to be accomplished every day without fail?  It’s daunting to imagine creating such a document from scratch.  Start today.  Document every task that you complete and request your assistant to do the same.  (No assistant?  No excuse!  If everything is in your head, the need is even greater.)  The manual that you build will allow you to cut down on the time necessary to train a new employee, and if you are called out of the office without notice, the manual gives a roadmap to keep things running without you.
  2. Use technology well. Most lawyers now use some sort of electronic calendar and docketing system.  Who else has access to your professional calendar?  Even if you choose not to allow anyone access to that information on a day-to-day basis, you should consider creating a login that you can provide on an as needed basis to an assistant.  If you are currently working without an assistant, you should create a way for a temporary assistant to have access to your calendar so that she can contact your clients and reschedule appointments if necessary.  (In fact, it may be incumbent upon you to do so, depending on the ethics rules in place in your jurisdiction.)  Let’s hope than you’re reachable in the case of curveball – but if you’re hit by a bus, some mechanism must exist to meet your clients’ needs.
  3. Maintain a comprehensive “to do” list. Many of us go through our days tucking “to do” items into our memory.  This approach creates stress, as you’ve experienced if you’ve ever been lying in bed, just about to drift off, when you’re suddenly jolted to full consciousness with the question, did I send that email/make that call??  For purposes of the “what if” conversation, however, if you maintain your task list in your head and get pulled away by a curveball, there’s little chance that you’ll be able to sort tasks effectively to be sure every task is covered.  If the curveball should take you suddenly out of commission, you’ll have no opportunity to pause and download all of the tasks in your head onto paper.  Instead, use a Word document, a spreadsheet, or task management application to keep track of every task (of any magnitude), and be sure you can sort those tasks by due date, importance, client, and project.

If you use these strategies, you’ll be able to handle the curve-balls that come your way.   Remember that curve-balls generally come with no notice, so assess your preparations today and begin to fill the holes you discover now.

Or maybe your brain is working against you.

In recent weeks, this newsletter has asked how committed you are to business development and how being busy does and should affect your business development activity. Both important questions, but…
What if your brain is working against you? Prompting you to focus on urgent but less important tasks while shelving important but not urgent tasks — those with no concrete deadline, like most business development activity? I’ve discussed important vs. urgent in the context of productivity, but here’s a new article that takes a fresh look at this phenomenon.
Whether you’re facing low commitment, being “too busy,” or letting unproductive brain habits run the show, knowing what’s getting in the way of your business development efforts is step one to solving it. If you need help, let’s talk. In August, I’ll be offering just a few limited engagements designed to identify what’s getting in your way (whether it’s behavioral, a skills deficit, or poor strategy) and get you back on the right road. To see if I can help you, please click this link to schedule a complimentary consultation.

“But I don’t have time!”

Have you ever complained about business development activity because you just don’t have the time?  Might as well admit it: this is one of the top objections I hear and observe. I’ve even had this complaint myself.

But here’s the sad truth: it doesn’t matter. You know that already. If you don’t have time to develop business, it hurts no one but you. And make no mistake: it will hurt you.

Sometimes a lack of time is a legitimate objection. If you’re working on a discovery deadline or deep in negotiations to close a deal—in other words, if your lack of time has a clear horizon—then your complaint has both validity and an end in sight. What do you have in place to carry you through the busy period? While far short of full activity, having a newsletter (remember, you can recycle evergreen content) or even sending email check-ins to keep in touch with high-priority contacts can get you through until you can resume your normal business development work.

But what if you’re always busy? On the one hand, it’s a good problem to have if your busy-ness is due to billable work. You (or someone else who’s feeding you work) are busy serving clients, which is the goal. However, without a reliable pipeline of new work, your busy period might lead you into the feast/famine cycle.

Ask first whether you’re genuinely busy or whether something else is going on. I don’t like balancing my checkbook, and it’s amazing how often I find that I’m “too busy” to do it. Do you dislike business development activity? Do you resent that you can’t just focus your time on practicing? If so, you may find that you’re not as busy as you think, but that you’re great at rationalizing why other tasks take priority.

If you’re truly always busy, check out this article to figure out how to find your minimum effective business development activity. 

If it feels like you can’t even hit the minimum you identify, it’s time for more drastic action. Try one of these pattern-interrupts.

  • Drop something that isn’t a high priority. Take a critical look at your schedule and see where you might eliminate a time suck or how you might be more effective. If you tend to record your time on a weekly or monthly basis rather than daily, that’s a good place to start. Reconstructing your time is far slower (and less accurate, leading to potential financial loss and even ethical problems) than recording it as you work.
  • Consider how you might combine activities. This isn’t a slam-dunk, but check to see if you could combine non-billables in some way. For example, could you do necessary reading while you’re on the treadmill? Could you create your task list while you’re commuting?
  • Look for pockets of time. Yes, you might be more effective with big chunks of time. You might prefer to work a task to completion. If that isn’t happening, though, it’s time to look for an alternative. Find and use pockets of time, leaving trails so that you know where to pick up next time. If you can find 5 or 10 minutes a day and you use that time both consistently and effectively, you’ll make more headway than you will if you wait until conditions are ideal.
  • Not as in “retreat from your objectives,” but plan your own business development retreat. If you’re always busy, you may need to take massive action to get tasks done. Try taking one day (or even a half-day) a month to make real progress on your biz dev work, and you may be surprised what you can accomplish. This may mean giving up something else that’s valuable to you, so it might be a quarterly action rather than weekly or monthly. 

Finally, check your goals. In a very (very) few instances, you may not need to focus on business development after all. If you’re the beneficiary of a rainmaker’s new work, and if you’re willing to accept the gamble that nothing will change, so be it. If you decide that you want to leave practice, it may not make sense to spend your time building a book of business. Just be careful as you make this evaluation, since things can change on a dime and deciding not to build your own practice could come back to bite you. Hard.


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How committed are you?

Be committed.  What’s the first thing you think when you think of commitment in the context of your business?  Without commitment in three particular areas of business, success is unlikely.

  • Commitment to succeeding in the business. What’s your backup plan if your business doesn’t prosper?  Some professionals (especially the risk-averse, like lawyers) need to have a backup plan to feel secure, but having an acceptable fallback can in some instances be a sign of serious trouble.I recently spoke with a lawyer who commented that she was excited about opening her own practice and determined to make it work, but that if things didn’t go well, she was could always go back to the job she’d left.  Plan B so permeated our conversation that I virtually guarantee she’ll be back at the job within a year.  And that’s ok, except that she’ll return with a feeling of failure if she doesn’t recognize that she was never really committed to building her own business.

    I don’t know a single person (especially over the last couple of years) who hasn’t wondered at least occasionally what if this doesn’t work… But having a clear fallback position makes it too easy to put that plan into action instead of executing the plan to make the business work.  The reason is often simple: Plan B is familiar and safe, which may not be the case with one’s own business or practice, especially during the start-up phase.

    Let me be clear: sometimes a business doesn’t work or a practice lacks the clients to survive, and you still have to pay the mortgage.  If that happens, adjust course.  You may need to take on some part-time work or even throw in the towel on the business.  But if you’re starting every week (or every day or every project) with Plan B in mind, you’ll end up with Plan B before you know it.

  • Commitment to business development. To get consistent results, you must be consistent with your business development efforts.When I consult with a potential client who wants to bring in more business, I always ask questions to uncover not just what business development activities they’ve tried, but how consistently – and when a business is underperforming, consistency is always lacking.

    Create a schedule of your activities, divided into daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly activity.  Otherwise, you’re leaving it up to chance.  Even when you’ve developed a habit, a change in outside circumstances can undermine that habit, and you’ll never even notice unless you have a system in place.

    One client wrote articles for publication every other month, but when the journal that published those articles went out of business, he neglected to put writing for publication on his task list, and guess what?  It just didn’t happen.  He searched out a couple of journals eager to publish his articles and added writing to his quarterly task list so it wouldn’t slip through the cracks again, and his stalled list of publications began growing again.  Checklists and schedules will help to keep activity consistent.

  • Commitment to clients. I have observed professionals who are so committed to growing their businesses that they focus almost solely on getting the next new client, leaving behind current clients.  Some professions mandate a minimum level of client service, but when’s the last time you felt good about receiving adequate service?To succeed in business, make it part of your habit to deliver exceptional client service.  That means providing the substantive service the client needs, plus providing it in a way that surpasses need.  For example, one of the top complaints about lawyers is that telephone calls go unreturned.  (I haven’t seen statistics, but I imagine unanswered emails are a growing area of dissatisfaction as well.)  Of course, you must respond in some way to your clients’ communications to provide adequate service.  Take adequate to excellent by setting a policy that you or someone on your staff will respond to every client communication within X amount of time, and then stick to that policy.

    For ideas on crafting service that will delight your clients, read Seth Godin’s excellent book Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable. 

How committed are you?  Are you willing to do what it takes to grow your business or your practice, applying a “no excuses” approach?