July 30, 2008

Are You Suffering From Brain Drain?

Another terrific post from Men with Pens addresses a very big issue solo practitioners face; too many things to do, not enough time.  The end result, lost time, brain drain and at a significant cost to your business and personal life:

Seven Ways to Battle Productivity Brain Drain

https://stuff.mit.edu/afs/athena/activity/i/isg/IMG/BrainDrain.gifToo many ideas at once dig into your mental and physical energy resources just as credit cards dig into your money. Too much mental spending creates debt, leaving you with a mess and feeling overwhelmed trying to stay afloat.

Financial advisors have the perfect solution. These number-crunching pros have strategies that reduce conventional debt, and these can also help reduce and eliminate idea debt and brain drain. You’ll restore some balance in your life and actually get things done with these seven adapted strategies.

1. Cut up your mental credit cards. People who want to reduce debt cut up the tools that let them accumulate more debt. The same applies to entrepreneurs – cut off new, incoming ideas. Write those ideas on a list you can set aside (you don’t want to forget them, after all.) Come back to the list when life is back in order.

2. Uncover the real expense. You probably have a ton of great ideas. When you put those ideas into words on a list, it can be surprising to realize just how much work might be involved. Make a list of each project, all related tasks and subtasks, and get the big picture of just how much your ideas cost you.

3. Budget your mental spending. With the big picture and the (long) list of everything each project requires, it’s easier to see where you need to cut back the unnecessary expenses that cost you time. Cut the spending, and apply the savings to your mental debts.

4. Pay more than the minimum. If the bill comes in and you only pay what’s necessary to stay in good credit, it takes a long, long time to eliminate the debts – and you also rack up interest, making the debt harder to pay off. When you work a little on multiple projects, their progress is slow and you become more tired plugging away.

5. Reduce one debt at a time. Financial experts suggest tackling one debt fiercely (usually the one with the highest interest) to eliminate it before working on eliminating the next debt. Do the same with your focus and time – pick one project and work on eliminating all the tasks to reach the goal. Then move on.

6. Don’t spend what you don’t have. People wake up when families are a mess, partners are complaining and kids are neglected. These people suddenly realize they didn’t have the available time to commit to their ideas in the first place. Know how much time you have, and don’t commit more than you can invest safely.

7. Pay yourself first. If all your time goes to your business, you never have a moment to just relax and do something else. Rest your brain and set aside a chunk of time for something besides business.

Solo practitioners, entrepreneurs in general, do not 'pay' themselves first.  I'm not talking about money, I'm talking about time, attention to health, family and more.

And the most recent phenomenon with progressive solo practitioners:  they are into TOO much, excited by so many potential opportunities the internet has provided, they are like octopi, their hands into so many things they end up with a lot of nothing, at least nothing of real or lasting value.  Great ideas wither and die on the vine from lack of consistent attention because other fanciful ideas distract them from the money-making ones.  Whether it is marketing or a new source of revenue, it doesn't matter.  We are distracted and wasting time with too many 'opportunities.'  And worse yet, we defend our actions by categorizing them as necessary.

Step back, assess what is working for you today and what isn't.  Prioritize your revenue generating (or pleasure generating) activities, shelving those which simply cannot be accommodated today, and then focus on what is most important.  This can't be overstated. Or done too soon. Look at which activities promise the greatest return or greatest opportunity to leverage to help you achieve your goals and stay focused.

I know I am sometimes a victim of overwhelm and certainly of brain drain.  I have to believe you have been, too.

I know this post is resonating with many of you. What have you done when you feel overwhelmed by too many great ideas and not enough time to fully explore them?  What has it cost you?  How did you fix it?

May 10, 2008

Cramming 31 Hours in a 24 Hour Day - Solos Do This

This is a fascinating ABC news report showing us how technology allows us to cram 31 hours into a 24 hour day.  Is this a good thing or not?  I know it took me 8 days in to a 14 day vacation to actually relax.  I'm not so sure this is a good thing.

(ABC Video link has expired.)

I know I would rather have more time than money.  And you?  As a solo are you finding you need to create 31 hours in a day?  Do you have to or just feel like you have to?  Good time to review your time management skills, how you delegate repsonsibilities, how you create your priority lists.

Let's get back to 24 hours in a day...and a good night's sleep.

April 20, 2008

"Tip of the Week" - Try Not To Let Work Get In the Way of Your Life

(UPDATE:  Another great related article by Tejvan Pettinger - The Truth About Money and Happiness)

This article by Tejvan Pettinger discusses how to identify whether or not you are a workaholic.  It is very easy for the solo practitioner to become a workaholic, trust me on this.  I know I can be singularly focused when on a mission and the fallout can be very unhealthy.

Pettinger provides the following list of signs that you are a workaholic:

Are you A Workaholic?

Take a moment to consider the following questions:

  • Is your first thought on waking about work?
  • Is your last thought before sleeping about work?
  • Does work take priority over everything else?
  • Is your social life based around going out with your office colleagues to talk about work?
  • Do you take work home with you at the weekend?
  • Would you struggle to enjoy a 3 week holiday away from work?
  • Is your greatest aim in life to get a promotion and the respect of your work colleagues?

If you can honestly answer 'yes' to a number of these you need to consider making some changes and the article offers some suggestions.

But from the perspective of a solo practitioner it can be daunting.  You are responsible for your own creation, your business.  How it is run, how profitable it is, how you are getting clients, keeping up on the latest technology, mastering skills or learning how to delegate to others are all daunting challenges.  To be able to turn off your brain at the end of the day somehow feels like you are abandoning your 'baby.'  It takes a unique skill to be able to do so without guilt or feelings of trepidation.   

As you are learning the time management skills in the early phase of your solo career, you should be learning not just how to allocate your time for marketing and networking, but also those techniques that help you to shut down and shut off from work.  Without implementing these techniques you are setting yourself up for burnout, ill health, disrupted relationships and other uneccessary problems.

I'm no master of this trick.  I'm still learning how to 'shut every thing down.' 

If you have techniques you have used or face the same struggles, let's discuss it.  Bet we can help a lot of other people, too.

February 29, 2008

Dennis Kennedy's 8 Technology Trends for 2008

From Dennis Kennedy's recent article on Technology Trends for 2008:

I have written recently about how to make prudent technology choices in a negative economy. The key idea is not simply to cut spending, although you might, but to think clearly about the economic justification for each technology decision that you make. You should be doing that anyway, but the importance of good decision-making gets highlighted when times are tough.

It's not rocket science. You look for technology that either helps you cut costs or enhances your opportunity to earn revenues. Better said, you want technology that makes it easier for fee-earners (and, increasingly, other revenue generators) to generate more revenue and makes it possible to reduce costs without making it more difficult to generate revenue. It takes some analysis, some thinking, and often some tough decisions.

In recessionary times, technology decision-makers must focus on good planning and on even better execution. Costly technology mistakes can have a direct impact on a firm's bottom line and its ability to retain staffing levels. Since technology budgets have crept up in recent years to become one of the larger line item expenses at many firms, we'll definitely see a movement toward getting tighter control of those budgets.

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As a general rule, I expect that we'll continue to see solos and small firms driving innovation in the practice of law. Firms that are good at technology will take advantage of opportunities to widen their technology advantage over their competitors and position themselves well for the time when economic recovery comes.

Take a look at this popular technology soothsayer's list of 8 here and join the conversation.  True?  Not True?

A quick overview:

1. Making Better Use of What You Already Own.

2. Lawyers Win Round 1 in the E-discovery Battle . . . by a Wide Margin.

3. Security Begins to Matter . . . Really.

4. The Death Throes for Email?

5. Going Mobile.

6. Opening Audio and Video Channels.

7. Dancing with a Recession.

8. Smart Ways to Work Together – Collaboration Tools.

The Greatest American Lawyer said a year ago, "by the end of 2007 we will see a great digital divide between law firms".  Those who are technology forward will take the lead in all manner of law practice.  I happen to agree.  The technology-forward solo has the opportunity to capitalize on many trends, even the playing field and provide wonderful service for their clients while unshackling themselves from the office.  When unshackled, the elusive work/life balance can either become more balanced or it can encourage a greater form of shackling creating a 24/7 work week.  It's your personality and time management style which will dictate this but either way, advanced technology in the solo' s law office is here to stay.

When You Get Derailed - How to Get 'Railed', Again

It happens to us all.  We get overwhelmed, undernourished (not underfed), anxiety-ridden about the world Artshow0071 and our future in it and our best marketing efforts and business-building goals just fall by the wayside.  But to make it worse, somehow we feel like we can't keep up with those we believe are superstars in their chosen profession, that it would be admitting weakness if we acknowledged there are simply blocks of time when we are not chugging full speed ahead with a blazing smile.  And we fight the idea it is a normal part of our personal and professional ebb and flow; instead we feel like we are failing. 

You may wonder why I'm writing a post like this?  After all when you read all the marketing, consulting blogs as a rule, these consultants never have a bad day, or lack inspiration, or feel like maybe they aren't succeeding in the race.  Common sense should tell you that's not true but seldom will anyone own it.

Well, if you are an entrepreneur wouldn't it be dishonest to say these experiences aren't normal.  We all know they are.  We can't always be on 100% of the time.  I know I certainly can't.  And chances are, neither can you.

So, this post by Wendy Piersall of the Inspired Entrepreneur just drove the point home to me because it is so well written and honest.  She might very well have been peaking in my window these last weeks.  The death of my aunt, the winter weather, being shut up in snow and cold took its toll on me. Sometimes it's just hard to keep shoveling coal in the fire. Sometimes you just need to sit back, take a break and appreciate how far you are advancing towards your goals.  But I'll let Wendy tell her tale:

You know the drill. You put off a task, then feel a little guilty about it. The guilt leads to more procrastination and, suddenly, you have a month-long pile of things to do that are more imposing than ever now that the pile has gotten so huge.

What’s a poor entrepreneur to do?

Get Introspective

My first course of action is always personal. I figure out whether I am letting fears or limiting beliefs get in my way. It does happen sometimes, and unless I work on the intellectual and emotional reasons for my rut, I won’t pull myself out of it. Sometimes it’s not an issue; it’s just life happening. But sometimes there is a bigger fear that needs to be addressed.

Wendy goes on to describe her approach to getting out of the rut and back to productivity:

  • Look Out For Number One
  • Get It Down In Writing
  • Chunk It Down
  • Prune It
  • Build in Accountability and Take Action

Have you ever had days, weeks, months like this, where you know what you have to do for yourself, for your solo practice but you just can't seem to get the motivation or energy to do it?  It's OK. Really.  Welcome to the human race....the operative word being 'race.'

February 20, 2008

Lessons Learned from a Gourmet Chef - You Can Go Home

The parallels are undeniable in this article...world renowned executive chef goes home to small town, USA and opens a restaurant serving metropolitan gourmet on his terms, high quality at reasonable costs and living the 'seamless' entrepreneur's life I've talked about so much on this blog.  You connect the dots.

Chef Gary Maples of Charleston graduated from a prestigious culinary school in Europe.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

Gary Maples and Stacia Ozier at the Daily Kneads Cafe in Arcola, Ill., on Friday, Feb. 8, 2008. Kevin Kilhoffer/ Staff PhotographerToday, he plys his trade in Arcola, where the fragrance of baking bread and other delectable aromas waft from the small kitchen of his Daily Kneads Restaurant on Main Street.

“Most people in the area will never have a certified executive chef make things for them, unless they travel,” said Maples, who graduated from culinary school in France and has been a chef for 34 years.

He and his wife Stacia Ozier are owners of the Arcola restaurant, a two-person operation, that is only open during the middle of the day.

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“The hotels and big restaurants take a tremendous amount of drive and determination. Most people who go into it don’t make it 10 years. It’s just too hard.

“They’re not willing to work seven days a week and they’re not willing to work 18-hour days. They’re not willing to do what’s required.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the owner, the maitre d’ or a cook in a nice hotel, you are going to work a lot. They are going to work you if you’re good until you can no longer work.

“If you don’t have determination, don’t have pride in what you do, you’re not going to make it.”

Maples said he doesn’t know what he likes most about his work. He said it is almost second nature.

“I don’t even think about what I’m actually doing.”

As I said, the parallels to stories from the Big Law front to solo/small firm are uncanny.  Food for thought.  (pun intended).

Hat Tip to Jeremy Richey for bringing this story to my attention.

Related Links: Going Solo in A Small Town

February 18, 2008

Do You Have A 'Herd' Mentality?

Recent experiments by professors at the Universities of Oxford and Wales Bangor show that it may be natural for people to herd just like animals when they are in a crowd, as reported by The Telegraph (2/14/08) The scientists told volunteers to start walking around a large hall with no particular destination. Then they gave a few of the volunteers some directions on where to walk. It turns out that it took only 5% who seemed to be informed to sway the rest of the crowd of 200 people or more. "There are strong parallels with animal grouping behaviour," says Professor Jens Krause, who led the team of scientists.

..herding behavior in human beings .... is the study of how humans behave in groups within contexts of uncertainty....(Elliot Wave Theorist 2/17/08)

A solo practitioner is about not being part of the herd.  Or part of the herd-mentality created in law school which has every single lawyer on virtually the same career path - working for another, preferably Big Law.  I've received many e-mails from law students who specifically state they wanted to work for themselves but "got caught up in the attitude at law school" and ending up doing what everyone else was doing and getting a job.  They became part of the herd and were led by the 5% who knew definitively where they wanted to go...Big Law.

Being a solo practioner is about self-empowerment, choice and taking absolute responsbility for your own actions, successes and failures. This is the reality.  If you do not understand you alone will be responsible for your actions it will be very hard to appreciate the career path you are travelling when becoming a solo practitioner.

The ability to accept personal responsibility for work outcomes and to thrive under individual scrutiny improves your chances by 65 percent of successfully making the transition from working for a traditional large company to succeeding...at a small firm or as a (solo practitioner)

Peiperl, M., and Y. Baruch, 1997. "Back to Square Zero: The Post-Corporate Career."  Organizational Dynamics 25: 7-22

You alone are responsible for your successes and failures.

Whether by conscious choice or believing you have no other choice than solo practice, the issue is the same. However, knowing you are in control (for the most part) of this venture, you are eliminating a great deal of uncertainty because you have removed the external variables which lead to insecurity such as an employer, the employer's agenda, pleasing the employer, the employer's mismanagement which leads to your layoff, the possibility you are not the right color or gender or marital status or pedigree.  While there will always remain some degree of uncertainty in solo practice, a large part is removed because you know you are not going to fire yourself or knowingly create a failed practice.  You know your color, gender, marital status and pedigree and are quite proud of it.

Solos, however, deal with a different kind of uncertainty.  This includes bringing in enough of the right clients to sustain themselves over the life of their solo practice as well as getting the actual legal work done.  These skills can be learned and the pendulum on these uncertainties can swing towards greater certainty.

To countermand the solo's sense of uncertainty is the headiness of the achievement, self-employment on your terms, building something with your name on it, bringing in the clients and income to maintain a chosen lifestyle. It remains unquestionably one of the most powerful motivators for many who choose solo practice.  You work just as hard but on your own time schedule.  You are driven by your own work ethic in order to achieve those goals which are most important to you.  And these goals play a critical role in determining the character and structure of your solo practice. It's a symbiotic relationship.

If your ambition is Big Law that's terrific and congratulations for understanding the environment you believe you will thrive in as a lawyer.  I'm not here to dissuade you. But if the Big Law environment isn't where you will flourish and you are feeling like you are being led away from the solo or small firm option by the 'herd' then decide where you do fit into the 'herd."  Once you get a handle on where you fit in, (only your opinion matters) the options will make more sense and you can be a little more peaceful about your choices, whatever they may be.  Only then can you start successfully planning the present and the future.

January 31, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Michael J. Keenan

Michael Keenan is an Elder Care Lawyer in Glastonbury, Connecticut who has had his solo practice now for sixteen months.  His is a paperless office utilizing technology to better serve his clients, keep his overhead down and profits up.  He is a big believer in the power of blogging and is just thoroughly enjoying his professional life as a solo.  Here's his story: (and a sampling of why Michael is a great lawyer in my book.)

Michael J. Keenan Photo

Guest Blogger - Michael J. Keenan

First, I'd like to thank Susan for an opportunity to reflect on the past 16 months as a solo and share my experience with readers.  The good news from the world of solo practice is that I have found that it is nearly all good news.  I'm particularly loving solo life at this point as the stock market is continuously surging up, down and in all different directions, and the word "recession" is probably the most-used word on the internet these days.  It occurred to me the other day that if I were an associate in a law firm where business has slowed dramatically then I could be cut loose without warning (in fact, that;s exactly what happened to me five years ago).  As a solo, the only way that I would be "laid off" is if all of my clients fire me at the same time.  I might lose one or two here or there, but I'm not going to lose them all at once.  So, strangely enough, I feel like I have much more job security now than I did 16 months ago.

Of course, every new solo is going to have a different experience, but I am happy to report that my life, both professionally and personally, has improved dramatically since becoming a solo.  I enjoy making and implementing decisions about how the practice is run without having to propose ideas to the partners and waiting weeks or months for a response.  I no longer feel compelled to impress anyone by trying to be the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night.  If I'm suddenly needed at home due to an illness or some other unexpected contingency, I can just quickly adjust the schedule and leave the office without worrying about what the boss is going to think.  I can charge what I think are reasonable fees based on the client's circumstances without having to explain myself to someone later.  The list of wonderful things that are associated with being your own boss goes on and on. 

Of course, there are going to be difficulties whenever you make such a big career change.  The biggest problem I have experienced so far is that I had more business than I could handle when I started out.  I remember Amy and I spending the better part of a year squirreling away as much money as we could, anticipating that business would be slow for at least the first six months of the solo practice.  Instead, it was gangbusters virtually from day one.  The news to my referral sources that I was hanging out my own shingle seemed to spur twice as many referrals than usual and I was quickly swamped.  Yes, this falls into the "good problem" category, but it's still a legitimate problem.  For a while I was not able to turn work around within a reasonable timeframe and there was a general sense of disorganization and chaos for the first ten months of the practice.  Then I hired some "virtual" paralegals and implemented some more technology into my practice, but I didn't truly feel like I was getting a secure handle on things until the first anniversary.  So the moral of the story is to make sure that you are able to handle a big workload on day one.

I would offer two big-ticket pieces of advice to anyone thinking about going solo.  The first is to master the available office technology out there, especially the tools that will allow you to have a paperless office.  My practice is as paperless as I can possibly get it.  My most expensive piece of office equipment is my Fuijitsu ScanSnap scanner (about $500) which is very fast, yet small enough to sit on my desk next to my monitors. What goes into and out of my office is immediately scanned and saved in the appropriate digital file.  I enter the data from all business cards that I collect into my Outlook contact manager and then chuck the cards.  I always use the notes function in Outlook instead of those sticky notes.  I only keep original estate planning documents, which is required.  Literally everything else is digital.  My information is safer that way since I have two separate online services which back up all of my data every 24 hours, so if the building burns down I can be up-and-running the next day.  And free services like LogMeIn.com allow me access to all of my files from any computer with an internet connection, so I can get a lot of work done at home in the early morning hours before the kids wake up.  A nice secondary benefit is that my office is always clutter-free and organized.  Visitors must think I’m a Zen-Buddhist; no paper or file folders anywhere in sight.

Other technology tools that I use: I have two large flat-screen computer monitors which allow me to have two different programs simultaneously running and visible, so that I can do computer work much more efficiently.   My Treo 680 smartphone has become invaluable since e-mail has become my main source of communication.  And my Bluetooth earpiece allows me to handle calls on the go and convert dead driving time into billable time. 

I try to pick technological tools and systems not because they’re the latest and greatest, but because they are practical and allow me to be more mobile and productive.  At this point I feel like I have put the right tools and systems in place and I know that they have greatly improved my bottom line.

The second big piece of advice I would offer is to blog. I have been doing so since May, 2006 and the amount of business my blog has brought in still blows my mind.  In fact there are some weeks where I get a call a day from people who have run into it.  I also have what I call a “recreational” blog on distance running (my other passion besides elder law) and even this blog has brought in a significant amount of business!  A blog will boost your Google ranking and it’s a “point of difference”, in marketing lingo.  In other words, it sets you apart from the approximate 98% of attorneys who are not blogging.  If someone does am internet search on your practice area in your town, they will find a bunch of websites for different law practices which all say essentially the same thing:  here are all of our accomplishments, our practice areas, our biographies, how we intend to deliver excellent service, etc.  But if your website is accompanied by a blog then you stand out from the other attorneys in a big way.  It tells the reader that you know you’re an expert in your field, and since more of your personality comes out in a blog than from a website the reader starts to feel like they know you.  And any marketing consultant will tell you that a client is more likely to call a lawyer who they feel they know than an attorney who they don’t know.

So…if you’re considering hanging out your own shingle I would say that the most difficult part is finding comfort on a psychological level with “taking the plunge”.  But heavy planning leading up to your launch tends to ease the discomfort.  And once you take the plunge, the resulting sense of independence and autonomy will feel terrific and you’ll find yourself busier than you thought you would be.  I would also recommend a business plan that incorporates a technology-oriented approach and blogging.  Good luck!

Michael J. Keenan, Esq.
Keenan Law, LLC

My website: Keenan Law, LLC

My blog: The Connecticut Elder Law Blog

December 11, 2007

Don't Be A "Go-Getter." Be A "Go-Giver."

I recently read a life-changing business parable authored by Bob Burg and John David Mann called "The Go-Giver."

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The Go-Giver: A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea

The Go-Giver tells the story of an ambitious young man named Joe who yearns for success. Joe is a true go-getter, though sometimes he feels as if the harder and faster he works, the further away his goals seem to be. And so one day, desperate to land a key sale at the end of a bad quarter, he seeks advice from the enigmatic Pindar, a legendary consultantreferred to by his many devotees simply as the Chairman.

Over the next week, Pindar introduces Joe to a series of “go-givers:” a restaurateur, a CEO, a financial adviser, a real estate broker, and the “Connector,” who brought them all together. Pindar’s friends share
with Joe the Five Laws of Stratospheric Success and teach him how to open himself up to the power of giving.

Joe learns that changing his focus from getting to giving—putting others’ interests first and continually adding value to their lives—ultimately leads to unexpected returns.

Imparted with wit and grace, The Go-Giver is a heartwarming and inspiring tale that brings new relevance to the old proverb “Give and you shall receive.”

This book is only 132 pages, a one sitting read, and if you have the guts to implement the lessons, you will have found the power to change the way you look at your solo practice, how you serve your clients and ultimately how much money you earn.

I've said numerous times on this blog, when you are a solo your personal and professional lives must mesh seamlessly in order to achieve the elusive work/life balance.  This book provides those 'laws' which will enable you to do so because they translate not just to how one conducts business, but how one conducts their life.

And if you don't believe me, this book is being hailed by Seth Godin, Tom Hopkins, Stephen Covey and David Bach to name a few.  Check it out on Amazon.  (In the interest of full disclosure I don't get a penny, just the satisfaction of knowing I've passed on an important book to you.)

November 28, 2007

I'm on the Cover of Fortune....(Well, I Should Be.)

(This was just way too much fun to pass up.) 

But truthfully, I feel I should be...not because I have the traditional fortune in terms of gold ingots in my Prada bag and mansions in three countries.  But because I have a different type of fortune and I feel like one of the richest people on the planet.  I am self-employed, have created a work environment where I pick and choose my clients and when I work or not. My income is of my choosing depending upon how smart and/or hard I work.

And, yes, I have my business and marketing plan, too.  Without it, life is just disorganized, fanciful dreaming and mindless wandering.  Without a business plan, well, some people get lucky.  But most often they don't.  And without an intelligent and inspired business and marketing plan, great ideas (and talented lawyers) wither on the vine.

So, can you picture yourself on this cover?  What do you need to do to get there?  Is it time to get started?  The new year is just around the corner.