Is Busyness Good for Business?

How Do Leaders Decide What’s Worthy of Their Time?

Debra Pickett

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In the early part of your legal career, the most important measure of your performance is very clear: How many hours are you billing? At virtually every point on the path to equity partnership, the way to do better is to do more.

At some point, though, as you have entered the ranks of practice and firm leadership, the expectations of your performance and the measures of your effectiveness have gotten more complicated. You are responsible for bringing in new business, recruiting new talent, managing resources for profitability and burnishing your firm’s reputation in the marketplace. At times, it seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of those things and, even if you could attend to them all, the different priorities might be at cross-purposes with one another.

How do the most effective leaders decide how to use their time? If you’re asked to serve on a firm committee or on a charitable board or to attend a big conference or write a new article — and all those requests hit your inbox on the same Friday afternoon — how do you choose which, if any, are worth saying yes to?

Make Choices Deliberately


In her book How To Decide, business writer Annie Duke dives deep into various decision-making tools that can be helpful in figuring out which projects to take on or opportunities to pursue. She quickly dismisses “going with your gut” as an option — turns out, most of our guts are pretty lazy and rely on some combination of confirmation bias, outright prejudice and conflict aversion to push us in one direction or another. She also cautions against another favorite tool: the pro and con list. The trouble with these lists, she notes, is that they tend to give the same weight to minor and major outcomes.

Duke says the key steps to making a good decision on any topic are to:

  1. Think about the goals and values that motivate your preferences
  2. Make educated guesses about the positive and negative payoffs of various outcomes and how likely they are, and then
  3. Rank your preferred outcomes

The first step is vital to the process for deciding whether something is worth doing because, as a leader, you’re likely to receive many ostensibly good opportunities of the “it’s an honor to be asked” variety. The associate’s mindset of “doing more is always better” creates a mental habit of defaulting to “yes” whenever we are asked to participate in anything, but, at the leadership level, selectivity is essential. Consider the sample list of requests we posited above: serving on a firm committee, taking a role on a charitable board, speaking at a big conference and writing an article. Any or all of these opportunities could be excellent uses of your time. They might also require huge amounts of work and energy for little tangible reward. The question before you isn’t whether a given activity is good or bad, but whether or not it’s the right thing for you to do right now.

Duke recommends a decision tree as a model for making choices like these. You begin by listing your options and the possible outcomes for each and then move on to evaluating those outcomes in terms of how likely they are to actually come to pass and how strongly you feel about wanting to achieve or avoid them.

Be Clear About Objectives


In applying Duke’s decision-tree model — or any deliberative process — to the very specific context of law firm leadership, we begin with the deceptively simple question of what matters most. If you are trying to optimize time and resources, you need to have a clear understanding of what “optimal” really looks like. Begin with some questions like these:

What are the firm’s goals? Is there an aggressive growth strategy to bring in new clients? Are particular geographic markets or industry verticals important to the firm’s success? Is retaining clients and deepening existing business relationships a top priority? Are you pushing to recruit top-tier talent?

What are your professional goals? What are you trying to achieve in your area of leadership? How is your success measured? How is your compensation determined?

What are your personal goals? Is there a particular area of work in which you want to do more? Do you want to be thought of as a rainmaker? What do you like doing? How much time can you commit to “extracurricular” work?

You might realize, or may have known all along, that the firm’s goals and your own goals are not in perfect alignment. That tension isn’t always a problem – someone has to run the Philadelphia office, even if the executive committee’s attention is focused mainly on Dallas — but it is a sign that the decision about whether to take a particular opportunity is also a part of a larger decision about how deeply enmeshed your career is within your current firm. 

As you ponder whether something is worth doing, the first consideration is “how does it help me achieve a goal?” Your mental notes might look something like this:

Firm committee — Being part of the task force that evaluates the firm’s real estate needs would put me at the center of some big decisions for the firm’s future. The Managing Partner is focused on cutting overhead expenses so we can continue to grow profitability.

Nonprofit board — Accepting my client’s invitation to serve on the board of her favorite charity would deepen our relationship and open the door to making more connections with other business leaders like her.

Conference invitation — Speaking at this industry gathering would demonstrate my expertise and could raise the firm’s profile with some of the key decision makers likely to attend.

Article — Adding another publication to my bio and having some new insights to share with clients would reinforce that I’m the go-to person on issues like this one.

Get to Yes or No Quickly


After giving some thought to how (or whether) an opportunity aligns with the goals before you, it’s time to make some educated guesses about how each opportunity could play out. Duke’s decision-tree model charts potential positive and negative payoffs of various outcomes and how likely they are. Your exploration of possibilities might look something like this:

Firm committee

  1. Best outcome — Influence key decisions, demonstrate leadership and expertise to managing partner. Somewhat likely.
  2. Good outcome — Work with some new colleagues, build some important relationships in the firm, but don’t end up influencing top management decisions.
  3. Bad outcome — Give tons of time to research and analysis work that’s largely ignored; endure long, contentious meetings. Somewhat likely.

Nonprofit board

  1. Best outcome — Enjoy the work, make a meaningful contribution to the community and develop relationships with local business leaders who might hire the firm. Not very likely.
  2. Good outcome — Deepen relationship with key client, feel good about giving back, learn more about work being done in community. Somewhat likely.
  3. Bad outcome — Attend meetings and events but don’t make a lot of connections and don’t learn much. Get sucked into fundraising work that you don’t enjoy. Somewhat likely.

Conference invitation

  1. Best outcome — Prepare a great presentation, make high-visibility keynote to large audience of GCs in your target industry, leave post-event cocktail party with a fistful of business cards. Highly unlikely.
  2. Good outcome — Deliver remarks over Webex, post presentation on LinkedIn, get a few comments and a nice note from a former client who wants to reconnect. Somewhat likely.
  3. Bad outcome — Speak to sparse attendees at a poorly organized meeting with no opportunity for further engagement. Not very likely.

Article

  1. Best outcome — Publish article in highly visible industry journal, get interviewed by others writing about this topic, receive multiple invitations to brief potential clients on the issue. Not very likely.
  2. Good outcome — Work constructively with a junior colleague, learn some new things, post article on LinkedIn, get a few comments and a nice note from a former client who wants to reconnect. Somewhat likely.
  3. Bad outcome — Devote many hours to research, writing and revisions. Article isn’t published anywhere except firm blog and no one sees it. Somewhat likely.

In general, the very best- and worst-case scenarios rarely come to pass. Instead, as above, most of the opportunities that come your way are likely to have good-but-not-great outcomes. Being realistic — neither too cynical nor wildly optimistic — about how an opportunity is likely to turn out is the best way to make a good, strategic decision about whether it’s worth pursuing right now.

This work of setting expectations is the key to an important leadership skill: confidently saying no to things. It’s easy to get sucked into the competitive drive to do everything you see other people doing and to devote yourself to the never-ending project of accumulating bullet points for your bio. But, when you look at an opportunity honestly and are able to say, “Even the very best outcome here, which is fairly unlikely, doesn’t seem that great,” you can be clear that what might feel like a can’t-say-no invitation is really just not right for you right now.

As a professional and a leader, your time has value. (In law firm life this is an actual dollar amount.) That value should be factored into your decision-making just as the cost of other resources is factored into other business decisions. All too often, we think of our own time as “free,” when, in fact, the investment of time has very real costs attached to it. Making a decision about how to use your time might feel like a simple yes or no question — Do I join this board or not? — but it’s also an evaluation of a single opportunity against a host of others that might come up in the future. If you say yes to a three-year term on this board, you might have to say no to any number of competing invitations that come along in the next three years. Are you confident that the outcome you’re likely to achieve in taking on this particular opportunity will be better than the ones you could be passing up?

Of course, opportunities and invitations don’t arrive in a vacuum. So the theoretical understanding that something probably isn’t going to be worth an investment of your time might bump up against real-world social and career pressures to say yes to it. This is especially true for lawyers of color who are invited to join their firms’ diversity committees and women who are asked to take on office housekeeping and nurturing roles. Most of us feel some obligation to be a “team player,” and that sense of obligation is sharper and more complicated for people who are underrepresented in leadership positions. When we don’t share the same background and life experience as colleagues who have more institutional power, we’re inclined to overrule our own judgements in service of fitting in and getting along.

Still, the exercise of realistically examining the potential payoffs for an opportunity and coming to a yes or no decision about its value is a useful one, even if it only happens in your mind. If you regularly feel that you must say yes, even when no is the better answer for you, it’s time to consider finding a different role or a different firm. Similarly, if the opportunities that are most exciting to you — the ones most likely to lead to outcomes that advance your personal and professional goals — are consistently at odds with the ones that seem best suited to achieving firm goals, it could be time to move your practice elsewhere.

Get the Most From Your Choices


After you’ve ranked the possible outcomes of a decision and come to your yes or no answer, it’s time to deliver that answer and set to work on trying to achieve the best possible result. This work begins with the moment you accept or decline an opportunity and the language you use to frame your response.

If you’re saying no to something, you can do so in a way that opens the door to other, possibly better, opportunities in the future. Some graceful and positive no answers might include:

I’m flattered to be asked to serve on the firm’s task force on this, but, at the moment, I’m focused on leading my practice through our implementation of the new hybrid work model and I wouldn’t be able to give this initiative the time it deserves.

Thanks so much for thinking of me as a potential board member. I’m not available to serve in that capacity right now, but I’d be glad to introduce you to a couple of colleagues who might be an excellent fit. Please be sure to keep me posted on the organization’s fundraising efforts, too, as I’d love to support such a great cause.

Unfortunately, I’m not able to make this speaking engagement work for my 2022 calendar. Please keep me in mind for future opportunities, especially if you’re planning programming related to trends in FCPA compliance.

I won’t be able to contribute an article at this time but would very much like the opportunity to work together in the future. Could we schedule a call sometime soon to brainstorm other ideas?

Saying no doesn’t have to be an absolute. It can be, as in these examples, an opening to negotiate a better opportunity for yourself in the future or to be generous in creating an opportunity for an under-recognized colleague.

Similarly, saying yes can be the start of a negotiation, especially when you have some reservations about the value of a particular opportunity or concerns about its potential outcomes for you. Some strategic yes answers might include:

I’m looking forward to being part of the firm task force. Given my obligations around serving XYZ Client in the ABC matter, I should be able to attend monthly virtual meetings and devote an hour or so each week to task force work.

I would love to take a position on your board. I see that terms for members are typically 3 years long. Right now I can commit to a year of service. Does that work for you?

I’m excited to speak at the conference. I’ll need some support from your team with marketing the event and getting familiar with the presentation technology.

I have some great ideas for writing about this topic. I’ll be working with an associate to pull together an outline and we’d appreciate your feedback on it before we move forward with authoring a complete draft.

Negotiating the scope of your involvement in an opportunity (just as you would work to structure a deal in the best interest of a client) is essential to getting the best return on the investment of your time.

Inviting Future Opportunities


Just as the progression into firm leadership has been about moving away from delivering the largest possible quantity of billable work toward taking on responsibility for high-quality engagement, decisions about the best uses of your time will evolve too. As a senior member of a committee or board, for example, your contributions should center on setting strategy rather than executing plans.

When you write or speak about your involvement in a project, focus on the aspects of it that you managed and tie them to particular results. Statements along these lines could include:

I led the team that analyzed our East Coast real estate footprint as part of an initiative that yielded a $4 million dollar cost savings.

I chaired the committee that developed the organization’s strategic plan, which included a $20 million capital campaign.

I presented insights on 2021 trends to an audience of 100 top legal executives at the industry-leading 123 Roundtable event.

I organized a team of researchers to document and publish a comprehensive analysis of recent antitrust decisions impacting the tech sector.

Decisions you make about how you use your time today influence what you’ll be doing tomorrow — and what you’ll have the opportunity to do after that. In being thoughtful and strategic around what you say yes or no to, how you say yes or no, and how you present the outcomes of those decisions, you shape the way others perceive and value your contributions.

The most effective leaders manage investments of time at least as carefully as they manage financial investments. Without a structured approach to decisions about how to use your time, you might find yourself constantly busy but never fully converting all that work into real value for yourself or your book of business.

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