Do not be the tenant of your problem, but the architect of your solution

January 2, 2011

Way back in the mists of time, being a lawyer was reassuringly monopolistic, client service was met merely by opening a file and clients, of course, knew and accepted that it would be expensive to use you.

Back then every aspiring young lawyer who was hungry to inherit the promised land learnt a very important lesson – a lesson in how to behave that became so ingrained I suspect it still lurks behind much of what we do today even though the promised land has lost its lustre and the world has moved on.

The behaviour of which I speak is not always obvious; it is like a slightly uncomfortable itch, pulling at the way we work. We have also become expert at masking the worst excesses of the behaviour. We would prefer not to recognise it, but it will always be there. Like realising Christmas Day is using an old pagan ceremonial day, it is the realisation that no matter how well we have dressed up our present and adorn it in ever fancier new clothing, underneath we are a group tree-hug away from a less sophisticated past.

The lesson of which I speak, notwithstanding blackberries, cloud computing and the digital everything of our new normal, is that activity is more important than results.

I still have a recurring nightmare that I failed my law society finals – I wake up fidgeting and frightened that I have just left the exam hall clutching a manuscript on land law too embarrassed to even hand it in. It is the same feeling I have about time sheets and those bloody six minute units of time. I know that “out there” there are dark forces at work telling me that I have not delivered enough time; “More units of time, Paul – you need more time, come on Paul, more time!!!”

I believe it is why we are so rubbish at time management – not because we cannot manage time, but because we have been brain-washed into believing that time should not be managed. The clock ticks on, this is good, tick tock, a soothing noise, tick tock – the targets are closer, the fees are higher, the partnership approves.

When we escape the tyranny of the clock and move in-house, we are momentarily assured that we have found our refuge where colleagues value results, not the time the results take to deliver; but like addicts recovering from their addiction, we can only do this one day at a time. Unless we have constant support, we risk slipping back into our bad old ways. The tell-tale signs are there to be seen:

  • I have too much work with no time to plan, only to do
  • I have too many emails; I can only read them all if I work 36 hours a day
  • I only have time for crisis management, not to do the job I was employed to do

We can put ourselves into “clinics” for temporary respite care. Normally these take the form of conferences where we meet fellow sufferers, convince ourselves that we are not the problem and go to bed too late because we believe we can behave as we did fifteen years ago.

The answer however is not in the conference quick fix. There we kid ourselves that we have seen the answers – to prioritise, to see the woods for the trees and to realise that relationship management is not about pleasing people, but doing the right things. Then we go back to our offices and, although we are aglow with conviction, the conviction falters on the anvil of a thousand unread messages accumulated while we were away.

The conference quick fix will not work, but then there are other tricks we can play on ourselves to buy a little time:

  • We can employ admin assistants (even though the rest of our organisation needs less back office support).
  • We can get law firms to do more of the job we were employed to do (when we were employed to save our employer using law firms).
  • We can recruit more junior lawyers (to do the job we were doing; then get our employers to pay us a higher salary to manage the lawyer in the job we were doing before the junior lawyer was employed).

But in the end we are simply covering up the problem with our ineffectualisms; we do not solve the problem.

The answer is not to address the symptoms, but to recognise and address the deep seated cause of our malaise. We need to reinvent ourselves, to deconstruct our hard-wired desire to be busy and to build a new way of working, more businesslike, more street wise – about marrying results to our resources.

While it is easier to inhabit a problem, to live within it and to be constrained by its walls, it is still a prison. It is nearly always harder to build a new solution, but if we do not try, we will inevitably come to feel that we are a prisoner of familiar circumstance.

My plea is that we must not allow ourselves to be the tenant of our problems, occupying a space, but never owning it; we must try instead to be the architect of our solutions. We must be fearless enough to reinvent our roles and to assert our value and be honest enough to acknowledge that being busy does not make our busy-ness worthwhile; it is our results that will build our careers, not our activity.

I listen intently to every tip, guide and tutorial on working smarter, being more effective, more six sigma’d; but I do not hear enough that we have addressed the hardest thing of all – our will. Show me the lawyer who walks a different walk; it will be worth more than all the talk.

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