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Better to be underemployed than overemployed

There was a recent (April 18, 2017) opinion piece by David Leonhardt in the New York Times titled, “You’re Too Busy. You Need a ‘Shultz Hour.’” In it Leonhardt discusses the work of psychologist Amos Tversky on the importance of setting aside time each day to do strategic thinking about one’s job. He quotes Tversky, “You waste years by not being able to waste hours,” and, “The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed.”

Leonhardt further discusses the work of Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University, writing:

The science of the mind is clear about this point. Our brains can be in either “task-positive” or “task-negative” mode, but not both at once. Our brain benefits from spending time in each state. Task-positive mode allows us to accomplish something in the moment. Task-negative mode is more colloquially known as daydreaming.

He quotes Levitin that task-negative mode “is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable.”

Early in my career I was underemployed because I simply didn’t have enough clients or work to be fully employed. However, as my practice developed, I found that I liked being slightly underemployed. Having a goal of billing 5-6 hours each work day enabled me to have time each day for unstructured thinking–a/k/a daydreaming. I found that when I got so busy that I was billing 7 or more hours each day, I had no unstructured time and no ability to focus on thinking about how I migh permanently resolve a case. While many attorneys would keep taking in work when they were regularly billing 7-8 hours a day, with the intention of billing 9+ hours a day, I would begin referring out work once I got beyond the level of work needed to bill 6 hours a day.

Except for days I am in trial or mediation, I rarely bill more than 8 hours and typically bill 5-6 hours. While this results in less money, I have found it results in a more satisfying practice. The ability to have unstructured time each day allows me to think about long term solutions to clients’ problems rather than solely focusing on immediate issues.

One needs unstructured time to contemplate creative ways to resolve client problems. Without this time, an attorney’s days are spent moving from task to task, resolving whatever is most pressing. Attorneys who don’t set aside time to daydream turn their legal practice into a fire department in a land of arsonists. They spend their days putting out small fires but never addressing big issues. It’s exhausting and unsatisfying.

Setting aside unstructured time each day to simply relax and think assists me in developing creative solutions to my clients’ problems. I find I can represent most clients more cost effectively because, once I’ve conducted a preliminary investigation, I can start thinking about how I might get both parties to a mutually agreeable resolution–potentially avoiding the costs of mediation, trial preparation, and trial. Further I can bill for that time (call it “file review”) when I come up with a good idea. And it never hurts to send a client an email with creative ideas developed while daydreaming–it shows interest in their case at times they would not expect their attorney to be working.

When one is employed to the limits of one’s energy, one focuses on immediate, small, issues, and rarely has time to focus on creative solutions. By remaining deliberately underemployed, and giving oneself time to daydream, one can find greater creativity and satisfaction in one’s legal practice while doing better work for one’s clients.

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  • I would swear that our business attorney bills us for the time he spends daydreaming about “long term solutions to clients’ problems”

    • Gregory Forman

      It’s the difference between a hourly rate and fee for service structure. Many attorneys bill by the hour. Many physicians bill for services. I assume physicians often talk to their fellow physicians about a patient’s care and the fee for services structure takes such work into account.

  • Gregory Forman

    It’s the difference between a hourly rate and fee for service structure. Many attorneys bill by the hour. Many physicians bill for services. I assume physicians often talk to their fellow physicians about a patient’s care and the fee for services structure takes such work into account.

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