Reba McEntire: “To succeed in life, you need three things. . .”

In the “I wish I said it” category comes this quote from singer, song writer, and actress, Reba McEntire:

“To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone.”

Good advice for everyone, but especially lawyers.

We need to dream big to make it big. You can’t “play” at this profession, you have to go for it. Make big plans and take bold action. Another quote, author unknown, sums it up: “Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting, ‘Holy shit… what a ride!'”

We need a backbone to survive and thrive. Competition is tough, clients are demanding, and the ponderous rules we swore to abide by often make us want to bitch slap someone. Practicing law may be worth all the blood, sweat, and tears, but only if you can hang in there long enough to reap the rewards.

Most of all, we need to lighten up. If you don’t have a sense of humor, if you can’t laugh at the world and have some fun on this journey, you’re doomed. Bob Newhart said, “Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.” Robert Frost said, “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” Groucho Marx said, “Anyone who says he can see through women is missing a lot.” C’mon now, that’s funny!

Make better decisions by making fewer decisions

I’ve heard it said that successful people make decisions quickly and change their mind slowly, if at all. One advantage this confers is that it helps the decision-maker avoid “decision fatigue,” a phenomenon that refers to the “deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making.”

One study of judges reviewing parole applications found that judges were more lenient earlier in the day than they were after a long session of decision making:

What the researchers found was that at the beginning of the day, a judge was likely to give a favorable ruling about 65 percent of the time. However, as the morning wore on and the judge became drained from making more and more decisions, the likelihood of a criminal getting a favorable ruling steadily dropped to zero.

After taking a lunch break, however, the judge would return to the courtroom refreshed and the likelihood of a favorable ruling would immediately jump back up to 65 percent. And then, as the hours moved on, the percentage of favorable rulings would fall back down to zero by the end of the day.

Apparently, our willpower becomes weaker after we have made a lot of decisions or we are otherwise fatigued.

To make better decisions:

  • Make fewer decisions. Once you decide on something, stick with it, unless there is a very good reason to change your mind.
  • Make important decisions earlier in the day. Similarly, save less important decisions for later in the day, to avoid impulsive decisions.
  • If you have to make important decisions later in the day, eat something first.
  • Schedule important tasks for earlier in the day. When decisions come up, you will be more likely to make better ones.
  • Sleep on it. Before making important decisions, make sure you have had a good night’s sleep.
  • Take breaks throughout the day. Even a few minutes of rest can help you avoid making impulsive decisions.
  • When making important financial decisions, such as for a major purchase, decide as much as possible in advance. For example, when buying a car, decide on as many variables before going to the dealer and speaking to a sales person.
  • Turn off distractions (email, Internet, social media) when working. Constant decision making (e.g., should I check my email?) is wearing and inefficient.

Of the lot, making fewer decisions will probably give you the biggest bang for your decision-making buck. Lawyers have the most difficultly with this, don’t we, what with all that “one the one hand” and “one the other hand” conditioning? Life is easier, however, when you can get some things off your decision-making plate and be done with them.

For example, let’s say you are undecided about the use of social media in your marketing. You hear everyone and his brother saying “you must” and you hear me and a handful of others saying “not necessarily.” Then you hear about the different platforms you can use and how best to use them. Every day, you are bombarded with information and advice.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know what you will and won’t do?

Spend enough time researching the subject and make up your mind. Then, move on.

If you’re not going to do anything on Pinterest, you never have to read about Pinterest or think about it again. If you don’t like social media and don’t want to use it, don’t beat yourself up about it. Done. Next subject. If you are convinced that Facebook is essential for building traffic and engagement and meeting prospective clients and referral sources, then get busy with it.

The word “decide” comes from the Latin meaning “to kill the alternative”. Go forth and slay some alternative dragons, young warrior. You’ll sleep better knowing they are dead and buried.

How I use social media in my business. Click here.

A few thoughts about lawyer suicides

We’re seeing lots of articles lately talking about an increase in lawyer suicides, speculating about the causes and offering solutions.

We know the causes. Money, stress, and variations thereof.

We also know the solutions. More money and less stress.

If you know someone who is struggling and depressed and following a destructive path, or if you are that someone, I want to offer some thoughts. I’m not an expert. I’ve never had a substance abuse problem or thought about killing myself. But I’ve been through a lot of major challenges in my career and personal life. I know what it’s like to hit bottom, and what it takes to turn things around.

First, you can get through this. Most do. It will be painful and it may take a year or two before things are completely healed, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. You must be know this.

Second, you can’t find solutions until you admit there is a problem. If you are in denial, you’re only prolonging your misery and inviting other problems.

Third, don’t dwell on the problems, focus on the solutions. Things aren’t going the way you want? What would fix it? Make a list and get to work.

Fourth, there’s lots of help available. Support groups, information, counselors, family, friends. Don’t for a moment think you have to go through this alone. It’s okay to admit you need help and it’s smart to avail yourself of that help.

Fifth, start immediately. Call someone, today. Do something, right now. The sooner you start, the sooner you will be on your way to a new beginning.

One more thing. You don’t have to continue practicing. If you’ve been thinking about doing something else but have been rationalizing why you can’t, you have my permission to explore other options.

Yes, I know you have all this time and money invested in your career. And yes, I know how difficult it is to walk away and do something new, especially in this economic climate. But none of that matters. If you are unhappy, you don’t have to continue. If you’ve always wanted to be or do something else, you can.

If you have people who depend on you, it will be harder and take longer. It took me three years of writing and planning before I launched the course that issued in a new chapter in my life. But I did it and I’m very glad I did.

I learned to smile again. You will, too.

When is procrastination a good thing?

I’ve got until the first of next month to complete my CLE credits. I’ve been watching videos over the last couple of weeks and making good progress. I know some people would say that doing three years worth of CLE in a few weeks is unwise. They would point out that I could have done an hour a month and been done months ago.

Their math is correct but their advice is misplaced. They assume that procrastination is a sign of weakness or poor organizational skills and leads to unnecessary anxiety and poor results. But is that always true? Is there a time when procrastination is a good thing?

I think so.

Procrastination helps you prioritize. It allows you to filter your list of tasks so you can focus on what’s important and not merely what’s urgent.

CLE isn’t important to me since I no longer practice. Now, it is urgent that I get those credit done, but waiting as I did allowed me to concentrate on important projects.

Procrastinating served me another way. It allowed me to express (to myself) my resentment at being required to take courses I don’t need and don’t want. It allows me to give the middle finger to the system.

Hey, I’m human.

In school, procrastinating served me another way. Waiting until the last day to write a paper or study for exams gave me a built in excuse in case I got a poor grade. “Hey, I didn’t spend any time studying.”

I almost always got good grades, however. But what if I hadn’t?

What if procrastinating is harmful? What if it keeps you from doing what’s important? What if it results in poor performance or results?

Then you have a problem.

There are lots of techniques for dealing with “bad” procrastination. I think the simplest solution is to get the task out of your head and onto paper–your calendar or other “trusted system”. Give yourself enough time to get the task done and then forget about it. If you’ve schedule a start date and given yourself enough time to do what you need to do, you can then devote your mental energy to other things until it’s time to start.

That’s what I did with my CLE. I knew what I needed to do and when I needed to do it. And I’m getting it done.

Calendaring tasks for the future also gives you a buffer of time which may allow you to adjust your priorities. When the scheduled start date arrives you may find that the scheduled task can be safely postponed, or that you don’t need to do it at all. Since I am not actively practicing, I keep thinking about changing my status to inactive. If I do that I won’t have to do CLE.

When is procrastination a good thing? When it serves you in some way. It’s okay to do things at the last minute, as long as you are getting important things done. And as long as you’re still getting good grades.

Why you must only do work you love

My first five years of practice I was unhappy and broke. I took any legal work I could find and wound up doing a lot of work I hated. Most of it paid very poorly and every day was a struggle to stay afloat.

One day, I was so miserable, I made a bold decision. I started turning down work I didn’t love.

When I was done cleaning house, I had only a few clients left and lots of free time to think about what I had done. I was scared, but something told me I had done the right thing.

It’s funny how things work. The vacuum in my practice quickly started to fill. I began attracting the kinds of clients I wanted and soon my practice was busy. I was making good money (for the first time in my life) and I was happy.

I know, it’s hard to say no to someone who wants to pay you. But if you’re taking on work you don’t love, it’s actually costing you money.

Turning down work you don’t love makes room for more of the cases and clients you enjoy, and creates a cycle of increasing prosperity and joy.

When you do work you love you are excited to do the work. Because you are excited by your work, you get better outcomes and finish faster. As you get better outcomes, you attract bigger cases and higher paying clients. Because you finish faster, you have more time to accept more good clients and your income increases further. As your income increases, you are more excited and attract more work you love, earning even more income.

Now, what happens when you take work you don’t love? You aren’t excited by the work. When you aren’t excited by the work, you get poorer outcomes and take longer to finish. As you get poorer outcomes, you attract poorer cases and clients and your income decreases. Because you take longer to do the work, you have less time for good clients and your income decreases further. As your income decreases, you are unhappier and attract more work you don’t love and earn even less income.

Prosperity starts by drawing a line in the sand and saying no to work that you don’t love.

Learn more about how I turned around my practice. Click here.

If your five year old was managing your law practice

It’s been a long time since I had a five year old in house but not so long that I can’t remember what kids are like. Hey, I can even remember what I was like.

So, what if kids ran the world? More to the point, what if your five year old was managing your law practice? What changes might they make? What would they tell you to do?

1. Have fun. Find ways to put some fun into what you do. Because if you don’t, you’ll burn out. Or get sick. Or ruin your marriage.

That might mean you need to delegate more tasks. Eliminate others. And loosen up. Find some light in the darkness. Find something to smile about and laugh about every day. Put some play into your day. Because if your practice isn’t fun, at least some of the time, you probably need to do something else.

2. Learn stuff. Kids love to learn. It’s keeps them young. If you’ve stopped learning, you need to rekindle your innate thirst for knowledge and learn something. Legal stuff doesn’t count.

Read and listen to things outside your normal areas of interest. You can use those nuggets in your blog posts, articles, speeches, and conversations.

Schedule weekly learning time and study marketing, writing, speaking, leadership, management, and productivity. Read history. Read profiles about business leaders and creative people. Go to museums and art galleries.

3. Tell me a story. Kids love to read stories and have you read them stories. You do, too. You just forgot. So, read some fiction now and then. All facts make Jack a dull boy.

And tell stories to your clients and prospects. Stories are the best way to show people what you do and how you can help them. They are interesting because they have people in them and because something happens to them. Put stories about clients and cases in your marketing materials.

Visuals can tell stories, too. Put photos on your website. Use charts and diagrams to deliver information (but only if they are simple and interesting).

Oh yeah, make sure you have some coloring books and crayons in the office so your client’s kids have something to do.

4. Could I have a dollar? Kids like to have their own money to spend so we pay them for chores or give them an allowance. If they ran your practice, they wouldn’t understand it if you did work but didn’t get paid. Get rid of clients who don’t pay. Ask people who owe you money to pay you (but don’t cry or throw your toys if they don’t).

5. Nap time. Stop running all day. Take breaks. Get some rest. Have a snack. And make sure you get a good night’s sleep because tomorrow is going to be a busy day.

If your five year old were managing your law practice, your law practice would be pretty cool place.

How to stop other lawyers from stealing your ideas

I got an email from a lawyer who says other lawyers are copying her firm’s marketing. Some are lawyers who left her firm and opened a competing practice. “I know this is supposed to be the highest form of flattery, but it drives me nuts. Why can’t people come up with their own ideas?”

Wow, a lawyer with marketing ideas worth copying. You don’t see that every day.

Anyway, let me address the issue of what to do about people who are stealing your ideas.

You might be expecting me to say something about non-compete and non-disclosure agreements, copyrights and trademarks, but I have to assume she has that covered. She knows what to do to protect herself legally. She wants to know if there’s anything she can do to make it harder to copy her ideas in the first place.

Yes, there is something you can do.

First, whatever it is you are doing, don’t be quiet about it. Don’t try to sneak in under the radar, do it big. Do it loud enough so that everyone knows you are doing it.

True, your competitors will also notice, but they are going to find out anyway. You can’t stop them. And you can’t stop them from using your ideas. But you can make enough noise so that when they do copy you, the market will see what they’re doing and realize that they are copycats and you are the original.

If I were to start a computer company today and tried to copy Apple’s marketing, I would be laughed at (and sued). Everyone would know that I was a wannabe and that Apple was the original. My marketing would remind everyone that Apple was the first and the best and I would wind up selling more Apple products than my own.

If you are the Apple of law firms in your practice area and market, nobody will be able to touch you.

The other thing you should do is infuse into your marketing as much of your personality and style as possible. Don’t make it about “the idea,” make it about YOU. Because you are unique. You can’t be copied.

Use your name and photo in all of your marketing collateral. Tell personal stories that nobody else can tell. Record audios and videos and do webinars and interviews that feature you as the face of your firm.

Your ideas will still be copied but you will always be the original, and the best.

One more thing. The fact that other lawyers stealing your ideas “drives you nuts” will only serve to perpetuate your frustration. It’s the Law of Attraction. What you focus on, you get more of.

You have to let it go.

There have been many times in my life when I was frustrated about something. As long as I continued to think about what I didn’t want, I continued to get more of what I didn’t want. When I was (finally) able to let go of my emotional attachment to what I didn’t want, that’s when I got what I did want.

I know, kind of airy-fairy. But true.

Think about the reality of people stealing your ideas. Not a good feeling, right? Now, think about some aspect of this that feels better. Maybe that even though they are stealing your ideas, your firm is still doing well. Or that you realize that ideas are a dime a dozen and that it’s the implementation that counts. Or maybe that the idea of becoming the Apple of law firms in your market challenges and excites you.

Let go of your frustration and continue to think thoughts that feel good when you think them. Get excited about all of the goodness that lies ahead for you. When you do, you will be at a place that is so far ahead of other lawyers, they won’t ever be able to catch you.

Need marketing ideas? Try this or this.

What do you do when you have too much to do?

I’ve got lists. Lots of tasks and projects. Things I’m working on and things I plan to work on. Everything is organized in Evernote. I follow my own version of GTD. Every task or project has at least one tag to identify it as something I plan to do Now, Next, or Someday.

But while everything is organized and tagged, I still have too much to do. It’s overwhelming. So I find myself avoiding my lists and doing what is nagging at my brain, which defeats the entire purpose of having a task management system.

Currently I have 54 Now tasks, 531 tagged for Next. I’m supposed to look at everything during my weekly review, but with that many tasks on my list, I find myself procrastinating.

What do you do when you have too much to do and your weekly review isn’t working?

You declare task bankruptcy.

You get rid of everything and start over. A fresh start with your tasks.

While I had never heard the term “task bankruptcy” before, I’ve done it before. I did it to achieve inbox zero with my email. I did it when I stopped using one online task management app and started using another and there was no way to export/import my tasks. I can attest to how good it feels to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Starting over doesn’t mean throwing out everything. I will refer to my lists in the process of creating new ones. But every task will be scrutinized and will have to earn it’s way back onto my lists.

First, I will move all of my tasks and projects into a temporary notebook. My main notebook, where I keep all of my tasks and projects will then be empty.

(NB: In Evernote, I use one notebook for all of my notes. I use tags to identify when I will do something (Now, Next, etc.) and for reference purposes. Multiple notebooks leads to confusion–Which notebook should I file this note in? Which notebook DID I file that note in?)

Next, I will go through all of my tasks and projects in the temporary notebook. Anything I know I want to do (or have to do) will get moved back into my main notebook. Anything I’m not sure of, that doesn’t call out to me and inspire me, will go.

The objective is to have a lean and mean Now and Next list. I will still have my Someday/Maybe list, but I will be ruthless in paring this as well.

I guess you could describe this as a periodic review. You go through everything and make decisions about whether you still want to do something and if so, when. That’s what should be done during the weekly review. But when the whole system gets bloated, it makes sense to periodically re-boot.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything you have to do, if you find yourself procrastinating on your weekly review, you might want to declare task bankruptcy and get a fresh start.

But be careful. Once you have zeroed out your task obligations and created new lists, those tasks might start accumulating again. Fortunately, you won’t have to wait seven years before declaring task bankruptcy again. You can do it any time you want.

If you want to see how I organize everything, check out my Evernote for Lawyers ebook.

The virtue of wasting time

“Quit goofing off and get back to work!” Have you ever said that to your kids or your employees? I know you’ve said it to yourself.

We seemed to be obsessed with the idea that wasting time is a bad thing. I know, “wasting” implies “no value,” but is that really true?

Me thinks not.

Playing video games, checking in or posting on social media, watching football, or whatever you like to do when you’re not doing what you think you’re supposed to do, is not wasting time. I can think of several reasons why it is good for you. And if its good for you, then its good for your work and other aspects of your life.

  • It helps you relax. Stress is a major health risk. Goofing off helps us forget our troubles and lower our blood pressure. Laughing has been proven to improve mental and physical health.
  • It helps you think. When our conscious minds are distracted, our subconscious minds come up with ideas, solve problems, and help us make decisions.
  • It improves skills. Gaming can improve hand-eye coordination and sharpen critical thinking. Watching sports can teach you about leadership, strategy, and team effort. Social media can help you learn about pop culture, which can be used in conversation and writing.
  • It helps you meet new people. With many hobbies and personal interests, you get to meet new people–at the game or the sports bar, online, at the concert, or the convention. New people bring new ideas, new contacts, new business.
  • It affirms life. The purpose of life is joy, not work.

Is there such a thing as spending too much time “wasting time”? Our bosses, parents, and spouses may think so, especially if they’ve seen us spending an hour or two on a site like this one. But it’s really the wrong question.

Better to ask, “Are you getting your work done?”, “Are you making a contribution to the world,” and “Are you happy?”

If you can answer those questions in the affirmative, I don’t think the amount of time you spend conquering pretend kingdoms or contemplating your navel really matters.

Earn more so you can goof off more. Here’s how.

Is it time to put your practice on a diet?

Yesterday, I did a strategy session with an attorney who was thinking about getting out of practicing law. After several decades of practicing, he said, “I don’t have the enthusiasm for my practice I once felt. I’ve had difficulties staying focused on my practice and delivering my work product in a timely fashion.”

In other words, the thrill was gone.

He does tax and estate planning, trust and estate administration, and tax compliance. Much of his malaise was centered on a feeling of being bogged down in administrative minutia. As a sole practitioner, there was simply too much to do and too much to keep up with and he was overwhelmed.

I asked him if there was any part of what he does that he liked. He said he enjoyed working with individuals and helping them with estate planning. I said, “If you could have a successful practice doing nothing but that and none of the other things you’re currently doing, how would that be?” “That would be great,” he said.

Problem solved.

He didn’t need to get out of practicing. He needed to put his practice on a diet.

By getting rid of practice areas (and clients) that weighed him down, he could have a leaner, more robust practice doing what he enjoyed doing. I told him there was more than enough business available for the kind of estate planning he liked and that he didn’t have to do anything else.

Many attorneys suffer from “practice bloat,” a term I just made up but which seems to accurately describe what happens over a period of years. You start out lean and mean, excited, and enjoying the process of building your practice. At some point, you take on additional practice areas because the work falls into your lap or because you want to have another profit center or something to fall back on. In time, your practice no longer resembles the one you started. You have too much to do, too much to keep up with, and you start falling behind. At this point, many attorneys start thinking the law is not their calling and they start looking for something else.

Some attorneys start out doing too much. I did. I took anything that showed up. I thought I had to because I needed the money. Soon, I was overwhelmed and frustrated, convinced I’d made a mistake in becoming a lawyer.

In both cases, the answer is to put the practice on a diet.

Get rid of practice areas you don’t enjoy. Get rid of clients who drive you crazy. Get rid of work you’re not good at but continue to do because “it’s part of the job”.

The vacuum you create by getting rid of things that do not serve you will soon be filled with work that you love and are good at. You’ll breathe life into a moribund practice, attract new clients, and increase your income. Most importantly, you’ll look forward to going to work every day.

There are more than enough clients available who want and need what you love to do. If your practice is bloated and the thrill is gone, it may be time to put your practice on a diet.

Does your practice need fixing? A new focus? Do you have marketing questions? I can help.