Work Less and Perform Better, My Lawyer Friends

If billing 2500+ hours annually thrills you to the gills, skip this post. For the rest of you that want a life beyond the billable hour, this is for you.



Working smarter is still better than working harder. Image courtesy Ian Brittan/


In case you missed it, the Oct. 13, 2010 Wall Street Journal had an article about using sports psychology to improve performance at work. The sentence that leapt out at me was this one:

[The sales executive] learned that he was working so hard that he risked driving his numbers even lower. Dr. Steinberg [the sports psychologist] says he prescribed the same remedy many pro athletes embrace: Stop overworking and allow yourself to relax.

When the sales executive did this, his sales numbers actually doubled, and his boss even commented about his better outlook at work. Overwork, my friends, does not pay. It tires you, which leads to mistakes and iffy reasoning, among many other things. As those of you with children know first-hand, sleep deprivation is a tool of torture for a reason. Getting overtired does not help anyone in the end—it just looks impressive to the idiots who equate punching the clock with quality work.

Of course in law firms, the idea of working less seems ridiculous. Billable hours still rule the roost, though I think their days are numbered. But that’s fodder for another post.

For now, think about applying the work less idea on high-stress projects. For example, a brief whose deadline is looming and is making you hyperventilate and reach for the Xanax. Your inclination, I’ll bet, is to start throwing tons of hours at it, researching compulsively, then spending hours at your computer, tentatively typing out a sentence or two then deleting them. After several hours, you might even have two paragraphs. And your brief needs to be around 25 pages. More hyperventilating and sheer panic, right?

Problem is, you’re spending a lot of time on this project, but you’re not actually writing the brief. So give yourself a time budget for the project. Let’s say, 20 more hours than what you’ve already spent on it. During most of those 20 hours, your job is to write.

Notice that I did not say your job was to write well—just write. Don’t start with your intro. Instead, maybe start by pasting in quotes you know you’re going to use from cases. Then write a little bit about why the court needs to consider that quote—what it means in the context of your case. Just a rough outline of the idea. You don’t even need to write in complete sentences at this point, and in fact I’d encourage you not to. Just get the thought on screen, and worry about organizing and hooking everything together later.

While it seems a very chaotic, unstructured way to work, it is actually highly effective, because it gets you writing—you know, that thing you haven’t been doing while staring at the screen?

What you need is a pile of sentences to work with—the sentences don’t need to be good, they need to be something to shape and mold. They can, in fact, be dog-ugly. Most lawyers are more comfortable with editing than drafting, but if you’re the one who has to do the drafting, this is a way to get through it the quickest. Then you’ll have lots of stuff to work with, cutting and pasting away, letting a new connecting thought surface, and so on.

So that’s what you do for about half of your time budget—throw up on paper. Seriously. Then, and only then, can you start thinking about organization, structure and flow. Devote at most a quarter of your total budget to that. The remainder of your budget will be spent on wordsmithing and polishing, correcting typos, and other detail work.

This is how I write just about anything, particularly if I am having a hard time getting going on a project. If you want to read more about writing this way, Bryan Garner’s Legal Writing in Plain English is a great place to start. (Or you could take my online class, So You Wanna Be a Lawyer-Writer, which starts Oct. 28. Just sayin’.)

I used brief writing as an example, but the principle applies to any kind of work:  To work less but get your work done well, you need to take down the fear factor. That’s what overworking is often a symptom of—fear.

So when your inclination is to throw more hours at something, instead ask yourself: If I weren’t scared of failing at this and only had 10 hours to get it done because I’ve got a plane to Paris to catch for vacation that I am not going to miss, how would I approach this project? You might surprise yourself. Give it try next time, instead of reaching for the Xanax.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer, a writer, and a career/life coach who is cheering the coming demise of the billable hour. In the meantime, she helps people get over their fears so they can focus on what really matters at work and in life. How have you gotten past a fear to do something fun or important? She would love to hear about it. Drop her a line at jalvey AT

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