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Corporate Counsel Connect collection

June 2014 edition

Top ten ways to become a more efficient (and possibly happier) in-house attorney

Patrick Johnson, JD, Serengeti Law

Jeremy ByellinGoing in-house means that your stress levels deteriorate, your hours working go down, and general bliss settles in, right? While that's what many attorneys were lead to believe, this turns out to be more myth than truth, on par with being told there would be no math. Turns out, the workload isn't necessarily lighter if you make the switch to in-house, nor is the stress level necessarily lower – though ditching the billable hours doesn't hurt. One thing that does change immediately after going in-house: The word "efficiency" takes on an entirely different meaning. This term morphs from "How many hours I can bill in a certain timeframe?" to "How much work can I get done in a certain amount of time?" Here are some ways to pack more of what you need to do in your work time.

  1. Track your matters and/or deadlines in one place
    Your boss asks you what's going on with that litigation matter that started six months ago. You're likely working on many matters at once, so what happens next? If you're not tracking all your matters in one place, you go find your paper file, search through your email messages, and/or schedule a meeting with the law firm working on the matter to discuss. This all takes time. There are legal matter management systems that allow each attorney to track all of her matters at once, require updates from law firms regularly, or if there is a material change in the matter, collect all relevant documents and give a snapshot of the matter spending and budget with the push of a button. No more panic, no more time wasted.
  2. Pick up the phone when necessary
    Email, IM'ing, and texting all appear to be an excellent way to quickly communicate with people without the time and effort of a phone call or seeing them in person. This can be true but isn't necessarily so. We've all experienced chains of email going back-and-forth where people don't understand what's being talked about, don't know the background behind the email, or simply misinterpreted the email completely. If you let them, these emails can go back and forth for days or even weeks. Much can be lost in translation in emails. If you have a question that takes explanation or is complex, if you see an email that you find outrageous and feel deserves a scathing reply-all response, pick up the phone or walk over and talk to the person instead. You will often save hours with a three-minute conversation.
  3. Speed up invoice review
    Let's be honest, nobody likes to review invoices, especially legal invoices with time tracked in six-minute increments. This is tedious. This is not practicing law. But you're an in-house attorney, so controlling costs, keeping your law firms honest, and managing their efforts is in the job description, so review invoices you must. Speed it up. Automate what you can. E-billing software can auto-flag expense code violations, rate increases, and budget overruns for you and route these flags to a billing specialist, if applicable. Invoices can be automatically routed for approval based on your legal department structure. If you manage other attorneys, you can choose to see invoices that are only above a certain dollar amount. No more piles of paper bills on your desk, no more walking them over to the next approver, no more double-checking invoices against guidelines and approved rates. That's time in the bank.
  4. Have a legal research database
    Many companies have the same issues that pop up over and over again in their legal work. So an issue arises, you ask your law firm to answer it, and a few days (and an invoice) later, you receive the answer either in a formal memo or an email. Flash forward a year, and the same issue comes up again. Perhaps this wasn't an issue that necessarily warranted its own file, so there may be no paper trail to search, and an email search proves fruitless. You now painfully have to ask your firm to research the issue again (and you again receive an invoice). Create a searchable and shared database of legal research for your legal department so that you and your in-house colleagues do not have to recreate, or pay to have your law firms recreate, the wheel every time an issue comes up again. This database should have standardized naming conventions that are followed by everyone in the legal department, so if someone needs to search for research two years from now, they'll be able to find it.
  5. Make your meetings walk-and-talk
    Most people that work in offices, attorneys or not, find that 90% of their work day is spent in two places: sitting at your desk or sitting in a meeting. Most people could also use more exercise than they are getting. Scheduling walk and talk meetings kill two birds with one stone. Studies show that taking short breaks in your day can make you more productive and getting outside is even better. Taking detailed notes can be difficult while walking, but this is solved by having one person send out a summary email of action items after the meeting. It may even make you more creative. So what are you waiting for? Time to kill your meeting room and get your 10,000 steps in.
  6. Share a contract database
    Contract attorneys in a corporation get calls all the time asking about particular contracts. In a paper file system, they then have to go find the contract in the files and read through it to find the pertinent information. Having an organized, searchable database of these contracts can save countless hours of searching, filing, and rereading. A contract database can even be set up with permissions that allow the people asking for the contracts to look for themselves rather than come to you at all.
  7. Get to work without a car
    Driving a car often seems like the most efficient way to get to work. It's often the quickest way to get from point A to point B, but it is rarely the most efficient. Why? Because when you drive your car, you use your commute time to drive instead of doing something else. Take a bus or a train and you'll probably get some more of those 10,000 steps in, and you'll be able to get a jump start on the day's email, get some work done, or read that book you've been meaning to get to while commuting. You can also use your commute time to exercise by riding your bike to work. If your commute takes 20 minutes by car and 30 minutes by bike, round-trip you can get an hour of exercise in for the price of 20 minutes. Using your commute to do something else allows you to "double-bill" your time without any ethics violations.
  8. Take a break from multi-tasking
    Most job descriptions these days ask that job candidates be good at multi-tasking. We've all been in conversations and meetings with the person that thinks they are hyper-efficient, writing emails while talking and blogging at the same time. But they speak slowly, interrupt incessantly and end up doing all of these things badly. Instead, prioritize your tasks that day, and focus solely on the task at hand for a given amount of time. No, email isn't going away, but even that can be done more efficiently if you decide to spend 20 minutes a couple of times a day dealing with email, and no more. Studies have shown that if you concentrate deeply on one thing at a time, you'll be more effective at those tasks, and you'll get more done.
  9. Create a contract clause database
    A contract clause database would likely be part of a contract database, but it's more for the attorneys looking for specific contract language than business owners looking for contracts. The common scenario is this: A contract attorney remembers a heavily negotiated and rather obscure clause in a contract three years back, and that same situation has arisen again. Unfortunately, this attorney has no idea in which contract that clause lives. The solution is to track non-standard and/or heavily negotiated contract clauses and associate them with the contract so attorneys within your legal department can search for them, use past work, develop best practices, and save time.
  10. Don't eat at your desk
    Though it may seem so at times, in-house lawyers don't work in a bubble. You have clients that you need to serve, even if they're internal clients. Knowing your clients, the current political landscape, their business, and their current pain-points is not something that can be picked up at your desk drafting contracts or briefs. Schedule lunches with folks in the businesses that you serve, others in your legal department, attorneys at law firms with which you have close ties, and other in-house lawyers that don't work at your company. How productive are you really when you're eating in front of your computer anyway? At least a few times a week, use your lunch time to do vital networking, and you'll know that time was productive.

Some of these items might seems obvious, yet I observe few people doing more than a couple of these. You no longer get credit for putting in long hours for the sake of long hours, so use your time wisely. You may end up a better attorney and a happier person for it.

Reprinted with permission from the Association of Corporate Counsel 2014 All Rights Reserved