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The Lives of Lawyers: A Corporate Lawyer's Guide on What to Do When Your Deal Flow Becomes a Trickle

Slow periods cause anxiety for everyone, and lawyers are not immune. Alarm bells start ringing when we’re not busy (or billing all that much) for a prolonged period. As insecurity, fear, and doubt take hold, we wonder whether we are doing enough, whether there is more that we could be doing, whether we’ve done something wrong, whether others have more on their plate than we do, and whether we’re one step away from being fired in the midst of one of the worst job markets in recent memory. And while slow periods happen every year, the kind happening now in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic feels different—no one knows how long it will last, whether we’ve seen the worst of it, or when, and to what extent, things will go “back to normal.” What’s more, wide-ranging economic and social changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are afoot, including a wave of pay cuts, layoffs, and lower partner payouts at law firms of all sizes.

Perspective matters. Although so much feels uncertain and out of our control right now, we get to decide for ourselves whether to regard this period as one of lockdown or sheltering-in-place, as a crisis or an opportunity, a burden, or a blessing. Similarly, it is up to us to decide how to use “dead” time, and whether to regard it as such. We will get through these times of economic uncertainty, although probably not entirely unscathed. But as with any challenge we rise to, we can and will come out stronger, ready to take on and handle more.

How to Use This Time to Become a Better Lawyer

While you have time on your hands, think about how you were spending your time when you were at your busiest. Were you being your most efficient and productive self, or were you running in circles, so caught up in moving forward that you were unable to identify better ways to move? Without the typical distractions, it becomes easier to observe ourselves. In this new in-between space—with fewer distractions, water cooler breaks, commutes, endless to-do lists, and 24/7 communication with clients and colleagues—take the opportunity to see yourself clearly and understand how your energy levels and focus shift throughout the day. Conduct a time audit and create personalized schedules that work for you.

Before we know it, things will speed up again. What’s more, particularly now, as administrative staff are being laid off, associates will need to rely on themselves more than ever to do a lot of the work that their colleagues were once doing. Use the time you have now wisely to assess your administrative burdens and reduce the ones that have been hampering you. Streamlined workflows save time and reduce stress, ensuring that the administrative work will get done on time, and more precisely. Take the time to learn about new technologies, and take the initiative to help yourselves and your firms become more tech-competent.

Slow periods not only trigger our anxieties but also eat away at our confidence. Learning new skills and developing new methodologies is a fantastic way to enhance your self-esteem and value in the marketplace. This is the right time for learning, gaining new tools, growing new practice areas, and deepening knowledge areas and skill sets that we weren’t taught in law school, and don’t have time to learn when there isn’t downtime.

More Tips for Lawyers to Use Their Downtime Effectively

  • Prioritize yourself—your work and life, health, hobbies, love, and passion. Set aside time for new or existing hobbies and give yourself a gift that will revitalize you and boost your productivity Enjoy some downtime (of course, in coordination with your colleagues). Many attorneys are chronically stressed, which can result in burnout if unchecked. Perhaps this past year was a marathon of a sprint for you. It’s okay, and even advisable, to use the downtime now to rest and regenerate.
  • Streamline your workflows by assessing, reducing, and automating what you can. Adopt time-saving technological tools that reduce your to-do list and serve as a boon, not a burden. ZERØ’s mobile email filing capabilities are easy-to-use and shoulder much of the administrative burden of email filing, alleviating stress, and boosting productivity.
  • Upskill! Educate yourself by researching recent trends, exploring and listening to podcasts, and taking an online course. Develop new skills or refine existing ones (e.g., negotiation, mentoring, etc.). Platforms like HotShot can help you upskill on legal-specific subject matters with over 600 videos covering transactional, litigation, and business acumen skills, all for free now for the next few months. You can also use this opportunity to learn more about business or technology using platforms like Coursera and Khan Academy.
  • Nourish and expand your network. Reach out to friends, former colleagues, and fellow alum that you might not have had time to speak to recently in all the busyness. Reconnecting is powerful—beyond potentially leading to new and surprising opportunities, rekindling old ties and mutual trust feels good!
  • Get involved in legal tech initiatives. Stay at the top of your game & keep current on how technology and innovation are shifting the legal industry. Now, especially, due to urgent needs spurred on by the fallout from the pandemic, these technological changes are happening rapidly, and there is good reason to think that these changes to technology will be here to stay for a while. For instance,Thomson Reuters just launched Westlaw Edge, the latest version of Westlaw.
  • Generate new content, show your work, and build your brand. Explore, research, draft articles, or blog posts. Consider working with your firm’s marketing team to stock up on relevant content that can be rolled out later, even in the busiest of times! Polish your online presence on social media sites like Linkedin, and update your bio on your firm’s website.

Make the Most of Your Downtime

Although this is a period marked by loss, we all stand to gain from taking the time to empower ourselves—whether it’s by learning new practical skills, self-care techniques, or streamlining our—so that we can do more by doing less, and reduce sources of stress. Partners should actively encourage their team members—from associates to administrative staff—to use this slow time for upskilling, deepening knowledge, or engaging in the pursuits mentioned below. Often, associates don’t take advantage of downtime. Feeling guilty about any time not spent billing, they anxiously spin their wheels, taking on small tasks instead of longer-term projects, checking in with others to gauge whether they’re in the norm. Especially during these trying times, encouraging associates to take on pursuits like those listed above (and even assigning these) is likely to not only boost morale but also generate new value.

Author

  • Amy Sapan

    Originally from New York and based out of Tel Aviv since late 2010, Amy Sapan has over eight years of corporate legal experience, principally in the fields of high-tech and private investment fund formation. She has previously held positions at Amit, Pollak, Matalon & Co. and Yigal Arnon, two of Israel’s leading law firms, as well as Dickstein Shapiro LLP in New York City, now defunct. She received her J.D. magna cum laude from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and her B.A. in International & Area Studies summa cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis. She is a member of the NY State Bar and the Israeli Bar Association. She is passionate about gardening, art, craft, dance, swimming, ecology and movement.