Ten Tips for Achieving Better Work–Life Balance

The Bencher—November/December 2016 

By Kelly L. Andersen, Esquire

I was admitted to practice in 1979 and still love, love, love practicing law. I have no plans to retire—ever. I believe a number of things have allowed me to keep continuously refreshed. Here is what I have discovered:

Be selective in the cases you accept. 

When I was a young attorney, a much older attorney offered this advice: “You make money on the cases you don’t take.” This advice has two aspects: avoid bad cases in any field and limit the field in which you practice very narrowly. I am fond of Isaiah Berlin’s essay about the fox and the hedgehog, in which he writes, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one thing very well.” I am a hedgehog. I stick to what I know really well and refer all other cases to attorneys who have found their own niches.

Don’t procrastinate.

A young man contemplating entering the practice of law wrote Abraham Lincoln for advice. Every attorney should read, more than once, the advice Lincoln offered:

Leave nothing for tomorrow that can be done today. Never let your correspondence fall behind. Whatever piece of business you have in hand, before stopping, do all the labor pertaining to it which can then be done... This course has a triple advantage: it avoids omission and neglect; saves you labor, when once done; performs the labor out of court when you have leisure, rather than in court, when you have not.

[Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, Vol. 1, 1832–1858, The Library of America, 1989 pp. 245–246.]

Have a passion for closure.

Some attorneys seem paralyzed to make a decision until they have routinely covered points A to Z, not realizing that the opportunity for resolution is sometimes better at point A than at point Z. Resolution sooner than later saves time and money, and is less stressful for clients. If we are not careful, we may find ourselves moving paper and working hard, but not really advancing the case to closure. At every step of a case, it is appropriate to ask yourself, “What thing can I do now to justly close this case?” Is there a document missing, which once obtained will bring the case to a conclusion? Can a demand letter be done and thus initiate settlement discussions? If negotiations are getting nowhere, is it best to file the case, and thus move it a step closer to closure? Can a trial date be set? Can depositions be set?

Before handling a document, making a call, or dictating a letter, question whether the action is advancing the case to closure. If not, is it worth doing?

Be decisive.

During the Civil War, a colonel in the quartermaster’s department approached General Ulysses S. Grant with a requisition authorizing large expenditures. Grant studied the request for a few moments and then approved it, surprising the colonel. “Are you sure?” the colonel ventured. “No, I am not,” Grant responded, “but in war anything is better than indecision. We must decide. If I am wrong, we shall soon find it out and can do the other thing. But not to decide wastes both time and money, and may ruin everything.” [Ulysses S. Grant, Triumph Over Adversity, 1822–1865, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, p. 249.]

While all of us hope that all of our decisions are right, sometimes the inability to make a decision is the worst possible de facto decision of all. Indecision is generally the root cause of procrastination in people who otherwise have a good work ethic.

Leave tracks.

Much time is wasted if an attorney opens an existing case file, and has to go through a significant portion of it to determine what was last done, and what is next to do. Whenever work is done, make a brief summary of what has been done and, if it is not already apparent, what needs to be done next. A summary, dictated moments after a deposition, will save significant time later on when the content of the deposition must be recalled. The same is true when voluminous records have been studied. While the facts are fresh, dictate a memo to the file summarizing the good and bad points, noting what is missing, and simultaneously dictate letters requesting what is still needed. It is also an excellent time to dictate a status letter to the client, and do whatever else can then be done to advance the case as far as then possible toward resolution.

Set aside chunks of uninterrupted time.

Chunks of undisturbed time are vitally needed to be creative and to feed opportunities. If we sacrifice our most productive hours to routine tasks and entangle ourselves in needless paper, we will soon be dealing in shadows instead of substance.

But just as there is a need for some uninterrupted time, there is also a balanced need for periods of complete availability, when we take as many phone calls as necessary, meet impromptu with staff, and deal quickly and decisively with a host of miscellaneous matters. But these blocks of total availability must be tempered and seasoned by creative solitude. Otherwise we are only responding to problems, rather than creating opportunities. As business guru Peter Drucker has instructed, “Feed the opportunities and starve the problems.”

Think carefully before you file, but don’t think too long.

Filing a lawsuit dramatically increases the cost of resolving a dispute. Document production can become a nightmare. Depositions consume valuable time. Motion practice (even though today most experienced attorneys file very few motions) can drain resources.

Yet all too often these and other steps of litigation really do not change the essential nature of a case; they only consume time and add costs. Therefore, instead of rushing to file a lawsuit, ask whether some informal discovery can now be done to resolve the case, before costs mount. If the other side wants a document, why not produce it, especially if its production can be compelled later on? 

While not filing a lawsuit often increases case efficiency, it is not always so. If matters are not moving informally, or if the case is unlikely ever to resolve without substantial formal discovery, then the most efficient step is to bypass informal discovery entirely. Under these circumstances, filing a lawsuit will get the matter on a clock ticking toward resolution and will save time.

Knowing when not to file and when to file is one of the marks of a seasoned, skilled attorney. 

Invest in technology.

Software now readily available allows attorneys and staff to enter notes, telephone numbers, addresses, claim numbers, deadlines, and warnings of deadlines with just a few keystrokes. Once entered, the information is instantly available without having to retrieve a file. This convenience saves perhaps only a moment here and there, but over weeks and months the cumulative effect of time saved is stunning.

It has been years since I studied files using paper and a yellow highlighter. All our files are now stored electronically, and I study them at the office using Adobe® Acrobat® Pro. I also use an iPad® and several very helpful apps: TrialPad® for trial; TranscriptPad® for studying and annotating depositions; and Keynote for opening statements and closing arguments. I could never go back to the old ways. (I also drive a car rather than ride a horse to work.)

Old-time dictation using tapes and transcriptionists can now be done using word-recognition software. We use Dragon® NaturallySpeaking, and it has saved us tens of thousands of dollars.

Exercise daily.

I cannot speak highly enough about daily exercise. Until about age 40, I failed to maintain any regular exercise program; then a doctor gave me the news that I had a peculiar condition that required either drugs or daily exercise. I decided on exercise. After huffing and puffing in the beginning, I was soon running miles and miles. At about age 50, I changed to cycling. Now, in my mid-sixties, I am able to successfully complete 200 miles in a day, and still have energy left.

Take vacations.

In about my 14th year of practice, I began to burn out. I actually envied a painter working on our house: He would arrive a little before 8 a.m. and leave at 4:30 p.m. He took a half-hour lunch break, and he took no work home. He had no worries about statutes of limitations and no starts in the night about possible malpractice. Not long after this, I took a nice family vacation. That was all I needed to get back on track. I especially enjoy time in nature, which restores me magnificently.  

I can positively say that observing these 10 tips has allowed me to enjoy work–life balance, such that I love coming into work each day and feel that I am now in my most productive years so far. As poet Robert Burns wrote, I hope “The best is yet to come.”

Kelly L. Andersen, Esquire is an attorney with Kelly L. Andersen, P.C.  in Medford, Oregon. He is vice president of the William V. Deatherage AIC.

©2016 Kelly L. Andersen, Esquire. This article was originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.