A while back, Keith Lee wrote about lessons he learned from chopping down a tree with an ax. I will not deny that is a very impressive thing to do. But when I had two dogwood trees that needed to be cut down, I didn’t reach for an ax. I called my brother-in-law, who came over with his chainsaw, and we made relatively quick work of it. My reason for using a chainsaw in this situation is efficiency. I have an ax. I could have invoked my inner Paul Bunyan. But that was not the most efficient method of resolving my problem. Here are lessons I learned from a chainsaw that you can apply to your law practice.
Know What You’re Getting Yourself Into
Organization is a key to success, whatever the task. You’ve got to be in the right frame of mind and focused on the task at hand. You have to make sure to have the correct tools and know how to implement them. That said, my experience is that there’s a large percentage of time in litigation in which you can only be moderately prepared for what’s going to happen, and the rest is just thinking on your feet and responding.
One way to organize and prepare for what’s coming down the pike is to have a case management checklist. Most of my cases start off the same way with little variation, and I’d venture to guess that’s true of most civil litigation. So it’s easy to know what needs to happen in any one case, but when there are several dozen such cases in varying stages of litigation, managing all that information can get a little unwieldy. It’s important to be organized. Since I’m nerdy and like spreadsheets, I create them at every opportunity.
My spreadsheets enable me to handle a large volume of cases without getting lost in the quagmire … mostly. The hard part isn’t creating the spreadsheet and doing all the nifty color-coding, it’s keeping the thing updated. But when a partner or client comes calling and wants to know the status of the case, what’s been done, and what needs to be done next, I want to be in a position to provide answers.
But not only that, my case management checklist keeps me oriented and focused on the tasks ahead of me. It helps me to keep from having cases that get lost in the shuffle and sit untouched for months on end. I want to eliminate those poor, little orphaned cases that go forgotten until someone accidentally trips over the shuck and realizes that we exchanged written discovery four months ago, and no one has so much as inquired about dates for party depositions.
Even if spreadsheets aren’t your thing, have a system, be organized, and manage your cases effectively.
Sink Your Teeth into Your Work
[I want you to take a second to enjoy that pun]. This one’s easier than you might initially think. All it requires is mindfulness, attention, and caring. A large percentage of lawyers (like people in any number of other professions) show up to their job every day just to collect a paycheck. They’re not particularly interested or invested in their work, and as a result, they’re not very good lawyers.
Caring about your work has many facets. They include not only being attentive to your caseload but also putting in the extra work to continue your growth and education. Read about your practice area, read about business leaders, listen to podcasts that challenge your beliefs and expand your knowledge base. Refuse to accept contentment and stagnation. Doing these things takes effort and dedication, but it’s not difficult, especially once you get into the practice of it. The more you grow as a person, the more you’ll grow as a lawyer, and further distance yourself from the average lawyer, who really just isn’t that impressive.
Make Efficient and Effective Cuts
If you’ve been a reader of this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that efficiency is a point of emphasis for me. One way to efficiently manage your time is to have forms and templates. For much of civil litigation, the pleadings and discovery are fairly similar from case-to-case. There is no reason to start from scratch in drafting most documents. Once you’ve built up a good repository of templates for motions, pleadings, discovery, and objections to discovery, you’ve put yourself in place to capitalize on your efficiency.
Efficiency isn’t an end unto itself, but it rewards you by enabling you to focus on and spend valuable time developing those parts of the case that aren’t cookie-cutter. Those parts of the case that do require you to be crafty and analytical, that remind you of why you love litigation. Those parts of the case that engage you and bring out the best in your work-product.
But if you’re inefficiently whacking away at the giant discovery tree with your ax that’s dull from overuse, you never have the time to do the rewarding work. Instead, get out your chainsaw so you can get to the heart of the work that’s really important.
Since writing this post, I went ahead and used an ax to cut down a couple of smallish trees on my property. It only affirmed my belief in what I wrote in this post. I was standing awkwardly on a steep incline with the trees above me. Other trees were in close enough proximity that I could not get good swings in and had to strike from odd angles. I wondered if trees are sentient beings and we just haven’t discovered it yet. Then I drank some water because I was concerned that line of thought might be coming from me being dehydrated. Then I dragged the trees down the hill toward the bottom of the ravine where time and fungus could slowly eat away at them.
Here’s my recommendation: If you have trees that need cutting down, just use a chainsaw. Your hands and forearms will owe you a debt of gratitude.
Photo by Intensivtäteraggressor.