How to finish a writing project when you’re stuck


Attorneys write a lot. At least we’re supposed to. We have deadlines to meet and bills to pay and we have to keep cranking. But sometimes, we get stuck. We may be half-way through a writing project and find ourselves unable to finish.

“7 Ways to Finish Difficult Writing Projects” is about how to finish a writing project when you’re stuck, and I’ve used most of the 7 ways. Reading my draft out loud and going for a walk to clear my head, for example, have helped me figure out where I am in the writing and where I want to go.

One of the suggestions is to make an outline, which I usually do, but sometimes my outline is the reason I’ve become stuck. Like a mis-calibrated GPS program, the outline took me to the wrong destination.

If I know what’s wrong, I’ll write a new outline. But sometimes, the piece isn’t working and I can’t figure out why.

When this happens, I write a outline of what I’ve already written. I may do this in a linear list with topics and sub-topics, or in a non-linear “mind map”. Reverse engineering the draft lets me see what’s missing or what I need to re-arrange to make things work. I then compare this outline to my original and from these two, create a third outline that allows me to move forward.

But sometimes, I’m still stuck. I know something is wrong but I can’t put my finger on it. What do I do? I go for a drive.

Once I’m on the road, I start talking and record myself. I pretend I’m speaking to my intended reader and I tell him what I want him to know. Speaking it out this way helps me get to the essence of the material. “I know I’ve got all these pages written, but here’s what I really want you to know. . .”.

In fact, sometimes, I do my first draft this way. I don’t write an outline, I just jot down a handful of topics I want to talk about, press record, and talk. Not only do I get the first draft done quickly, it’s often much better than what I might have written because the ideas flow naturally, instead of being forced to fit the structure of an outline.

If you ever find yourself stuck in a writing project, or you don’t know where to start, stop writing and start talking.

Earn more without working more. Here’s the formula.


Save time by not filing email; study proves search is quicker


Filing emails in folders, or adding labels to them, doesn’t make them quicker to find. According to a study by IBM Research, it’s quicker to find them by searches.

“Finding emails by searches took on average 17 seconds, versus 58 seconds finding the emails by folder,” the researchers concluded. “The likelihood of success – that is, finding the intended email – was no greater when it had been filed in a folder.”

The time spent filing email, in addition to the added time spent retrieving it, can add 20 minutes a day to your workload, the study concluded. A comment to the article questions whether this is true under real world conditions:

In the majority of scenarios, searching is more efficient, however if you forget. . . the metadata [key words]. . . related to the email, then your search efforts are going to be quite difficult. On the other hand, if you remember that you simply filed the email under the “important” folder, then odds are you may only be a few clicks away. In a black and white world, yes searching is more efficient, however there are still valid purposes to using folders.

My plan to achieve email inbox zero calls for me to get rid of all but one label and rely on Gmail’s search capability. I’m pretty sure I won’t miss having more labels since I don’t use the 50 I currently have. But my view is colored by my use of Evernote to file important emails and to manage tasks and projects.

In Evernote, I tag everything (and sometimes also add key words to the body of the note). The difference though is that I don’t “file” all my email this way, just the actionable or otherwise important ones which constitute less than 5%.

I found most interesting the researchers conclusion that most people don’t file emails in folders to make it easier to find them so much as to remove from view the overwhelming volume of email. They pare down the inbox so that they can use it for task management, which the study implied was not efficient.

If they used Evernote like I do, they wouldn’t have to spend as much time filing all of their email in the right folders, they could simply send the important ones to Evernote and archive the rest.


Evernote and my plan for achieving “Inbox Zero”


I have tens of thousands of emails in my Gmail inbox. At last count, 16, 503 are unread. I have over 50 labels set up. I don’t use any of them. It’s a mess

When I first learned about Inbox Zero I swooned. The idea is intoxicating. When your inbox is empty, you are no longer overwhelmed by email. You are in control. You enjoy a Zen-like feeling of tranquility. You process your email inbox once or twice a day, keeping it at zero. You have a “mind like water”.

I loved the idea, but the thought of going through tens of thousands of emails was about as appealing as a state bar complaint.

Email has long been the final frontier in my productivity makeover. I’ve resisted changing for a long time. But now, I have a plan.

My plan involves my favorite productivity tool, Evernote, which I use for collecting information and managing my projects and tasks. I use it all day long, in every part of my work flow, as my tool for Getting Things Done. Read my previous posts on how I use Evernote for getting things done.

Right now, when I get an email that requires action of any kind (a reply, a call, review, read, etc.) or that is related to a project I’m working on, or is something I want to keep for reference purposes (receipts, newsletter ideas, research, documents, etc.), or something I am waiting for, I forward that email to Evernote. I then tag it and incorporate it into my gtd system.

If an email requires a reply that will take no more than two minutes, I do it. I may also send a bcc to Evernote.

Sometimes, I get emails requiring action that I don’t send to Evernote. An example is an email I got recently from someone I hadn’t spoken to in a long time. I didn’t want to dash off a quick reply, I wanted to give it some thought. In this case, I added a @Reply label and archived the email in Gmail. When I’m ready to reply, the label will help  me find it.

Yes, I could also send these to Evernote, but I like having the orignial email connected to my reply. And, if I do send it to Evernote, I want to do so after I’ve replied, so I have both the original email and my reply in one Evernote note.

So, here’s my plan for achieving email bliss using Evernote and Gmail:

First, when I have some quiet time, (this will probably require several sessions), I will go through my Gmail inbox, scanning (not reading) and quickly doing the following:

  1. Unsubscribing from newsletters I don’t read.
  2. Adding @Reply label to anything I need to reply to that will take more than two minutes but does not need to be tracked.
  3. Sending Action and Reference items to Evernote.
  4. Trashing or archiving everything else.

Once my email inbox is empty, as new emails come in, I will review and process them, as follows.

  • If it requires a response or action that will take two minutes or less, I will do it, then Archive it; if I want to, I can also send a bcc to my Evernote account.
  • If it will take more than two minutes but I don’t need to keep notes, add it to a project, or track it, I will label it @Reply and do it as soon as possible.
  • If I’m waiting for a reply or for something to occur, I will send it to Evernote (and add a @Waiting tag).
  • If it’s something I want to keep for reference, an important email, an exemple of a good sales letter, a receipt, or something I want to read later, I will send it to Evernote.
  • All other emails will go into Archive or get trashed. At day’s end, I will again have an empty Inbox and an empty mind.

The premise behind all of this is to identify emails that need action. That’s key. Everything else is reference and can be found through search.

Note, I will use just one label in Gmail, @Reply. I am open to adding others down the road, but only if they truly serve me. For example, I may find it easier to label emails @Read/Review in Gmail, rather than sending them to Evernote for that purpose. I may also add labels for specific projects, or use them temporarily (e.g., for promotions). But for now, one label will do.

Wish me luck. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Have you achieved “Inbox Zero”? What do you think of my plan?


How to keep your name in front of prospects all year long


My recent post on holiday greeting cards elicited a comment from Bruce Brightwell, an attorney who sends his list a magnetized refrigerator calendar. “People love the calendars, and I am in front of them for the whole year,” he said.

This is smart marketing. A practical gift that keeps your name and contact information in front of clients and prospects that is inexpensive and effective.

Calendars are a great year end gift. What can you do the rest of the year?

Do a search for “advertising specialties” or “ad specs”. That’s what they are called in the trade. You will find a mind numbing array of possible items you can offer:

  • Pens
  • Key chains
  • Calendars (wall, refrigerator, desk, wallet)
  • T-shirts
  • Baseball caps
  • Book bags
  • Book ends
  • Paper weights
  • Coffee mugs
  • Thermoses
  • Book bags
  • Mouse pads
  • Business card cases
  • Book marks

I like pens. You can get them in bulk for under .25 cents, and nice ones for under a dollar. People use pens and carry them, and if they lose one, someone else will pick it up.

I also like note pads. They are very inexpensive (any printer can make them for you) and you can get them in different sizes. Real estate agents send them pre-printed with lines for a grocery list. This is good for consumers. For businesses, I like a 4 by 5 1/2 size that can sit on a desk or next to a phone. While taking notes, your prospect looks at your name and smiling face at the top of the pad, draws a mustache and eye glasses and darkens your teeth. It’s a note pad and a game!

A disadvantage of note pads is that once they have been used, they’re gone. But this gives you an opportunity to get in front of clients and prospects several times a year to replenish their stock.

In choosing an item, keep in mind the amount of room available for printing. A pen has very limited space; a calendar has much more. More space lets you include an “advertising” message: your practice areas and/or an offer, e.g., “‘Free Report: How to save 20 to 50% on legal fees this year’ at”.

You can, of course, have more than one gift item. You could mail everyone a calendar at year end, give coffee mugs to visitors to your office, and give a more expensive item (e.g., Polo shirt) to new clients.

Have you used ad specs to market your practice? Did it bring you new business?


The surprising truth about written goals


I was at a presentation last night. The speaker cited the now infamous 1953 Yale University goal setting study which conclusively proved that having written goals dramatically increases the likelihood of achieving them. I was familiar with the study and made a note to post it on this blog:

In 1953, researchers surveyed Yale’s graduating seniors to determine how many of them had specific, written goals for their future. The answer: 3%. Twenty years later, researchers polled the surviving members of the Class of 1953 — and found that the 3% with goals had accumulated more personal financial wealth than the other 97% of the class combined.

Amazing, isn’t it? The only problem is it’s not true. The study never took place.

Okay, that’s disappointing but it doesn’t matter, everyone knows that written goals are important, right?

A few minutes with my Uncle Google found a different study that purports to prove the hypothesis of the fictional one. In this study, the researcher found that,

. . .people who wrote down their goals, shared this information with a friend, and sent weekly updates to that friend were on average 33% more successful in accomplishing their stated goals than those who merely formulated goals.

I’m no scientist, but I don’t think this is dispositive of the issue. For one thing, they didn’t test a group who agreed to be accountable to a friend and provide weekly updates but who did not have written goals.

In the early 1920s, Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich, et. al.) conducted exhaustive interviews with 500 of the most successful men of his day. Hill concluded unequivocally that written goals were a key factor in their success and articulated a six-step process for creating them. These include putting them in writing and reading them aloud twice a day. But was it the writing of their goals that made their achievement more likely or was this simply a common trait among these highly driven individuals who would have achieved their goals anyway?

Here’s what I think. I think the value of a written goal isn’t in the written document itself (or in the continual reading of it) but in the process of thinking about and choosing the goal. As you spend time thinking about what you want and what you don’t want, as you winnow down the multitude of possible goals, you go through a process that leads to clarity. Clarity leads to focus, and focus leads to making decisions and engaging in activities that are consistent with achieving the goal.

Simply put, if you know what you want and you continually focus on it, you are more likely to get it. Putting the goal in writing isn’t necessary.

In fact, putting a goal in writing might actually make it harder to achieve.

How often have you chosen a goal only to later realize that it was not what you really wanted. It might have been your parents’ goal or a goal you thought you should be aiming for, but in reality, it wasn’t what you really wanted. If you write and stay focused on a goal that you don’t really want, you’ll either achieve it and be unsatisfied, or not achieve it and wonder why goal setting doesn’t work for you.

Goals should be flexible, not engraved in stone (or on paper). They are a starting point; only sometimes are they your true destination. Feel free to change your goals, written or otherwise, if they no longer serve you.

How do you know if you chose the right goal? That’s simple. When you think about it, how do you feel? Your feelings will tell you, unfailingly, whether it is or is not something you really want.

Be honest with yourself about how you feel and trust your feelings. If you don’t feel good when you think about a goal, or if you don’t feel good enough, don’t try to change how you feel, change the goal. It might need only a small change–the due date perhaps or the amount of money sought–or you might need to choose a completely different goal–but choose a goal that feels good when you think about it.

The answer is inside you. Put it on paper if you want.


Steve Jobs’ greatest marketing lesson for lawyers


No doubt Steve Jobs’ career will long be studied in business schools. His vision and iconoclastic style changed everything in the world of technology and business. Jobs urged the world to “Think Different” and his accomplishments proved this to be good advice.

His career also provided several lessons in marketing for lawyers, as Larry Bodine ably points out. I believe Jobs’ greatest lesson, however, was in the way he lived his life.

Well before illness reminded him of his mortality, Jobs’ philosophy for living drove him to take risks. In his address to the 2005 Stanford graduating class, he described it this way:

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Of course this is not, per se, a marketing lesson, nor is it confined to lawyers. But I believe that more than anyone, lawyers need to hear this message.

Lawyers are among the most risk adverse creatures on Earth. Protecting our clients from risk is one of our strengths. Paradoxically, it is also one of our weaknesses.

In the world of business, lawyers are known as “deal breakers”. To protect our clients, (and ourselves), we often overstate the likelihood and potential consequences of perceived risks, often to the detriment of our clients’ business interests. A deal not struck cannot result in loss but neither can it result in gain.

In marketing their services, many lawyers are also deal breakers. They don’t want to appear weak or unprofessional or make a mistake that embarrasses them or gets flagged as an ethics violation, and so too often, they do nothing. Or they do something that is so watered down, so colorless, the results aren’t even worth mentioning.

Steve Jobs was successful because he took chances. He defied convention. He stuck his neck out and challenged the world to a duel. He had many defeats and many detractors but he accomplished great things because he didn’t worry about what others thought.

Most lawyers don’t like marketing, not because they feel it is beneath them, although that sentiment also exists, but because they are afraid to fail. They can sell their ideas to a jury, risking everything on behalf of their client, and when they lose, shrug it off and bounce right back. But when it comes to selling themselves, many lawyers freeze in their tracks.

Learning how to market ones services helps to reduce the fear, but in the end, lawyers need to just go for it. As Los Angeles Dodgers great Maury Wills, who stole 104 bases in one season once said, “You can’t steal second base while keeping one foot on first base.”

While many baseball fans know about Wills’ record setting base stealing, they may not know that he also set a record for being thrown out while attempting to steal a base–31 times during the 1965 season.

Nobody ever achieved great success by playing it safe. All great achievements have come from taking great risks. Steve Jobs took risks every day and lived every day like it was his last. He had many losses and many wins but, I am sure, few regrets.


Ten ways attorneys can use a newsletter to grow their practice


For many attorneys and law firms, newsletters bring in a lot of business. If you don’t have a newsletter, here are ten reasons you should:

  1. To get more business from current clients. A newsletter is an effective way to let clients know about your other services and show them how they can benefit from those services, without being “salesy”.
  2. To get repeat business from former clients. People who hired you once will hire you again–when they’re ready. A newsletter is a great way to stay in touch with them until they are.
  3. To add value to your services. A newsletter can provide an added benefit for clients. Give clients “subscriptions”. Put a price tag on the newsletter but send it free to current clients.
  4. To educate prospects. A newsletter that provides prospective clients with valuable information helps them make better decisions, allows you to demonstrate your expertise, and provides a mechanism for staying in touch with them until they are ready to hire you.
  5. To generate word-of-mouth referrals. Newsletters have pass-along value. A good newsletter will be shared with an average of three other people, even more online.
  6. To build your contact list. You can offer visitors to your web site a subscription to your newsletter in return for providing their email (and other contact information). When speaking or networking, you can offer to send your newsletter to people who provide you with their business card.
  7. To establish expertise and credibility. Your writing helps prospects, publishers, reporters, meeting planners, and referral sources see you as the expert you are.
  8. To provide content for, and traffic to, your web site. Your newsletter can drive traffic to your web site or blog. Your newsletter content can be re-used as content on your web site or blog, generating additional traffic from search engines and social media.
  9. To shorten the sales process. People who respond to your newsletter are better informed about what you do and pre-sold on your ability to do it, in contrast to people who come to you via advertising.
  10. To serve as a networking tool. Your newsletter is a tool to reach out to other professionals. You can interview them for an article, conduct a survey, ask them to write an article, or ask permission to put them on your mailing list.

A newsletter requires an investment of time, and possibly some capital, but the return on that investment can be substantial. If you want to grow your practice, a newsletter is one of the most highly leveraged marketing activities you can do.


Can you imagine a world without lawyers? I’ll bet Amanda Knox can’t.


Lawyers are routinely vilified. Epithets abound. We are the subject of the cruelest jokes.

And yet, where do people turn when they are in trouble? Whom do they go to for advice when they want to protect their rights? Who defends the indefensible?

Amanda Knox was just released from an Italian prison after a four year nightmare. Without lawyers, she would still be languishing in her cell.

Without lawyers fighting the good fight, our rights, our entire way of life, would devolve and anarchy would ensue. We must never forget how important we are, not just to the individuals we serve, but to the society we live in.

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Dick the Butcher says, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”. This is often quoted as a denouncement of lawyers but it is a misreading. Dick was referring to ways a rebellion in the planning might be successful. He recognized that to succeed, they must get rid of those who know and enforce a system of laws. It is, in a roundabout way, an endorsement of lawyers.

Lawyers, be proud of what you do. Defend not just your clients but your profession. Educate your clients and your friends about what you do, but also why it matters.

But don’t stop there. When you see a colleague behaving in a way that belies the dignity of our profession, call him on it. Counsel him. And, if necessary, report him.

Be a champion of the high standards our oath demands and exemplify those standards in your words and deeds. Our profession must police itself. The alternative is a Bar that does it for us, but too often, they go too far.

In a victory for common sense, a Florida court just struck down as vague one of its Bar Association’s limits on lawyer advertising. A bar association should enact rules of professional conduct that define standards of behavior and it should provide redress for the most egregious transgressions of those standards. But when a bar association imposes vague, arbitrary, and unreasonable standards upon its members, as Florida has long been criticized for doing, it says to the world, “We don’t trust our members and neither should you.”

Bar associations can improve the image of lawyers not by policing them more but by trusting them more.


Attorneys: Will you be sending holiday greeting cards again this year? (Read this before you do)


‘Tis the season. . .

Yep, the holidays are right around the corner. Will you be sending cards this year?

If you are, this excellent 13-step holiday greeting card guide for law firms will help you create a plan and a timetable.

You don’t want to wait until the last minute. Not with so many decisions to make. Remember last year? You spent way too much time looking through catalogs to find just the right card (mustn’t offend anyone) and then spent way too much money because you didn’t want your clients to think you couldn’t afford a nicer card. . .

I’d like to propose an alternative to this annual ritual of pain.

Don’t misunderstand me, I do recommend communicating with your clients and professional contacts and the holidays are an especially good time to do that. Communication is the sine qua non of relationship building, after all. What I don’t recommend is sending the same commercial greeting cards everyone else sends.

Why? Because a mass market, commercial greeting card that your client reads for three seconds before placing on the fireplace mantle sends an unwritten message:

We’re sending this to you because it is expected of us and we didn’t want to take a chance that you would notice if we didn’t. We couldn’t be bothered to put any thought into it, so we spent some money instead. We want to remind you that we still exist and we hope you will remember us if you need an attorney or know someone who does.”

Commercial holiday cards, the same cards sent by every insurance agent and dentist, are nothing more than advertising, and everyone knows it.

Look, you know these people and you do appreciate them, and they you. You helped them through a tough time or you helped them achieve something important. You met their family or their employees. You really do care about them as individuals, but your holiday card says they are just names on a mailing list.

So, what do I advise instead?

A letter. Send a personal letter to your clients that says what you really want to say.

Tell them what you would tell them if you were sitting with them in person.

Tell them that you appreciate knowing them and you are proud that you have been able to help them. Share news about what happened this year in your practice and personal life and your thoughts about next year. Share a story about a remarkable case, a client who opened a new business, or a new hire in your firm.

Write about the economy and offer solace and advice. Write about books that changed your thinking, and quotes that inspired you. And, because it’s a personal letter, you can write about your kids, your hobbies, or your vacation. Whatever you write about, make sure you tell your clients how grateful you are to know them and have them as clients.

When your clients receive these annual missives, they will read every word. They will tell their friends and families about their attorney’s letter. And because they know you didn’t have to do it, they will call you and send you emails thanking you for taking the time to write a personal message.

My wife and I have friends who send out a family newsletter every year. It’s written by the husband and reads like a newspaper, with headlines, photos with captions, and “news” stories. Very funny news stories. Humor is not easy to pull off, but my friend does it like a pro. My wife and I read it cover to cover, laughing all the way. Our friends moved to the Midwest a few years ago, so we don’t see them much (they visited recently) but their newsletter keeps us informed about what’s going on in their lives and makes us feel like we are still a part of it.

Send your clients and others you care about a year-end personal letter. If not a complete letter, at least add a note inside the card. If you really want to make an impact, add a personal, hand written P.S., something that lets your client know you know who they are.

You don’t need much, just something personal. “Tell Michael I wished him good luck in his soccer tournament!” will be appreciated and long remembered, and so will you.


The Big Idea: Taking a Quantum Leap in the Growth of Your Law Practice


Donny Deutsch’s cable program, “The Big Idea,” features interviews with entrepreneurs who scored big (or are trying to) in the world of business. The guests discuss their “big idea,” the one that makes their company or product different from all the rest.

In the crowded, competitive world of business, a big idea can propel a company from the depths of obscurity to the heights of financial success. But the big idea isn’t necessarily a new invention or a revolutionary concept. More often, it is a new spin on an old idea that capitalizes on a current trend (e.g., “fast food” restaurants that serve nothing but breakfast cereal).

Allstate Insurance company is running ads that promise to pay cash rebates for every six months of good driving. That’s nothing more than a new way of offering a good driver discount but in my view, it qualifies as a big idea because instead of a discount, the customer gets paid. Getting a check from your insurance company every six months re-sells you on staying with that company because you don’t want to lose “your” check. (It also reminds you to drive safely.)

Amazon’s latest big idea is low priced tablets. They don’t do everything an iPad does but they will probably appeal to a big segment of the market that will pay $200 (or less) but not $500 (or more).

How could you create a big idea in your practice? It might be as simple as taking something every attorney in your market does (e.g., house calls), and re-positioning it (e.g., “We’ll send a limo to pick you up”). It might be something few attorneys do, like the radio spot I just heard by an estate planning firm that prepares living trusts. Their big idea: “free lifetime updates”.

Take some time to brainstorm ideas with your employees or mastermind group. What do you do that everyone else does that you could promote as “your big idea”? Or, what do you do (or could you do) that nobody else does that could be an even bigger big idea?