What’s the most important tool on a lawyer’s desk?

There are a variety of alternative fee arrangements — like the contingency fee model our firm uses and the flat-fee model that is wrongly under attack — but there are really only two types of business models for law firms: those which profit from efficiency and those which profit from inefficiency.

The latter model is used by the "BigLaw" firms with hundreds of lawyers working together to maximize the fees billed to the client. They call it "leverage," a clever name for using four attorneys — two of them too junior, one too senior — and six paralegals to do the job of one attorney and a paralegal, and then bill the client for every tenth of an hour wasted by the team. It’s good money if you can find some sucker willing to pay it, like a Fortune 500 company.

Most attorneys, though, profit on some variation of the efficiency model. Contingency fee lawyers obtain as large a recovery as possible while conserving money and time. Flat-fee attorneys charge the highest amount the client will pay and then serve the client to the fullest, balancing that along with their obligations to other clients and the need to maintain a reputation for quality work. Efficiency is just as important for solo practitioners and small firms that rely on hourly billing, because they profit by keeping their overhead down, and because they typically do best, and suffer the least risk, when they have many clients paying small bills (for efficient work) than a handful of clients paying large bills. Outside the Fortune 500, the larger the bill, the less likely it is to be paid, and the less likely the client is to come back.

Which brings me back the introduction to this post: a stopwatch.

All lawyers are clock-watchers by nature. Problem is, most lawyers use their clocks, watches, and stopwatches the wrong way.

Don’t use the stopwatch to look back on how long it took you to do something. There’s always some more research you can do, always some language you can tweak, and always something more you can discuss on the phone, that will look like it was "worth" the time you spend fooling around and procrastinating. Looking back at the clock just tells you how little time you have left to do anything else, not how efficiently you used the time you had.

Instead, use the stopwatch to set a deadline for yourself. You know how long the brief should take, how long a simple status call should be, and even how much time it takes to blog something. Predict that time, set the stopwatch, and get to it with all deliberate speed.

If you end up going a little but over, that’s okay. It’s not a race, it’s a principle. Setting a deadline makes it more likely you took as much time as you should, rather than as much as you could, for the same quality product. And isn’t that the whole point of your business model?