iStock image licensed by Walker Clark LLC, commercial reproduction prohibited

In her recent article (New York Times, 27 July 2017), Niraj Chokshi writes  “It’s a question central to daily life: Do you spend money to save time or spend time to save money?”

“People who spent money to buy themselves time, such as outsourcing disliked tasks, reported greater overall life satisfaction,” said Dr. Ashley Whillans, assistant professor at the Harvard Business School and lead author of the study which was based on a series of surveys from several countries. Spending money to save time also appeared to “reduce time related stress and increase well-being, while spending on material goods did not have the same effect.”

Lawyers tend to greatly value efficiency. They tell us that control of their time, above all else, is an important factor in their personal and professional success. Yet many law firm decision makers get stuck in a downward spiral of procrastination, unwilling to make a financial investment in protecting their time and, according to this study, even their sense of well-being.

a downward procrastination spiral

Well-intentioned and otherwise excellent lawyers procrastinate about management actions they need to take, making themselves and others unhappy in the process. They say, “I should deal with the lagging performance of one of our partners,” “I should follow up on the rumors circulating about senior associates’ dissatisfaction with their career progression,” or “We should discuss partners’ concerns about the compensation this year.”

Anticipating doing something you don’t relish or don’t know quite how to tackle isn’t pleasant. The most natural thing to do is to keep putting it off, telling oneself that the “right time” to address it will surely come soon. But, how much time and effort is wasted on just anticipating doing something you don’t want to do, individually or collectively as a partnership?

We observe that as time passes, and situations remain unresolved, the pressure to do something increases. Or, in some cases, the opportunity to act is simply gone. In their frustration, partners may rationalize the issues and why the timing isn’t quite right to address them. They may become entrenched and start to deny problems exist or even begin to blame others for bad results. They spend more time venting than problem-solving.

Partners often describe to us how nagging worries about the consequences of not dealing with important management needs interferes with their peace of mind and professional satisfaction. They say, “There just never seems to be the right time to talk about the issue, to decide what to do and how to do it. Client work and billable matters are, after all, most important.” And once the procrastination really takes hold, it seems harder and harder to resurrect these sensitive or seemingly difficult issues in order to resolve them. Problems created by inaction become more intractable.

In true procrastination fashion, partners often find themselves finally dealing with an issue when the circumstance is forced upon them. Time is up. Promising associates turn in their resignations, the practice groups have been drawn into partnership tensions about upcoming promotions, and partners are grumbling about the lack of transparency in the compensation process that was supposed to have been completed a month ago.

At this point, nobody has time to understand the nuances or complexities of the issues. Partners simply want to deal with them as quickly as possible, much as they would with client service situations. They quite often realize they are responding inexpertly to a problem of their own making. One of the most common things we hear them say is “Well, you know people will never be happy.” They rationalize that they would have had upheaval and negative stress – regardless of how they handled things – because there will always be conflict between partners, right?

The truth is that the residue from not handling a situation well can cause permanent damage to trusting relationships in a firm. Respectful disagreement where partners are equipped to make informed decisions based on factual evidence of the pro’s and con’s and a sharing of views is not the same thing as simply pouring water on the fire. The simmering embers are still there. They may still need to be addressed.

Why not hire an expert to assist?

Hiring an external consultant could be analogous to hiring someone to clean your home. Yes, you could do it yourself. The question for partners in a law firm though is, if you do decide to handle this sensitive, complex or “unpleasant” management issue or situation on your own, what will you compromise in terms of your own delays, productivity, stress, and even the end result? According to the study, your sense of well-being is also on the line.

Neutralizing and clarifying issues makes it a lot easier to figure out how to deal with them. There are many successful methods for neutralizing tensions and clarifying opportunities between partners on everything from compensation to strategic priorities to sensitive discussions about performance or promotions. A skilled, knowledgeable third-party facilitator knows how to bring the right approach, balance of guidance and information, and contextual integrity to even the most difficult conversations between partners.

Then again, if you hire someone who:

  • isn’t experienced in working with law firms; or
  • who doesn’t understand your competitive environment and where it’s headed; or
  • who doesn’t have the professional credibility to be persuasive with partners about options

then you might very well find yourself in an even worse situation than if you attempted to do it yourself.

There is a lot of wisdom and expertise in every law firm that often goes untapped. A qualified third party can be especially helpful getting partners moving beyond procrastination where that knowledge and experience can really pay off. Even the best plans often fail to get off the ground because they don’t have a realistic road map for implementation – a road map that is unique to each firm depending on its internal and external capabilities with consideration to the level of urgency, resources, leadership and track record in implementing change.

So, the choices are yours.

Do you want to pay a qualified professional to assist you in addressing and doing something more efficiently and effectively, perhaps with less procrastination, and less negative emotional investment and potential fall-out from poor or unsustainable results?

Or, having evaluated the situation, do you decide that it is the better use of your time, resources, and expertise to go it alone?

Either way, you will pay. However, as Ashley Whillans points out in her article, “buying time” has benefits that could go even beyond the resolution of a business or management challenge. Buying time can make you happier.

Lisa M. Walker Johnson