March 31, 2022

For Lawyers, Time Is Money. How It's Used Deserves Deep Reflection


This is the first in a series of book reviews by Mayer Brown chair Jon Van Gorp, whose reading informs his perspective as a lawyer and leader of a global law firm and helps him draw insight from unexpected sources.

There are 168 hours in a week. It’s a concrete, finite block of time that can seem like a blink or an endless stretch depending on what’s ahead.

As lawyers, many of us are in the business of selling our time. And that presents a problem for us, not just as professionals but as human beings. The essential act of selling our time affects each of us personally and, for those of us in law firm management, the well-being of the people we lead.

It makes us vulnerable.

Client work could easily consume every waking hour of our week, pushing aside other things that we say are important to us—from building a cohesive and inclusive culture within our organizations to allowing for a healthy work-life balance. After all, for us more than most, time really is money. In his book “Your 168: Finding Purpose and Satisfaction in a Values-Based Life”, Harry Kraemer, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and former chair and CEO of the Baxter International pharmaceutical company, writes:

“Most of us have at least a general idea of what we think our lives should look like: the kind of work we do, the quality of our personal relationships, our health and self-care, what we do for fun. … The challenge, however, is that certain aspects or components of our lives can overshadow the rest. In some cases, they consume so much of our time, energy, and attention that there is not much time left for the other areas we say are important to us.”

Kraemer’s contention is that we need to be intentional about how we spend our time. Yet this is not really a book about time management. As the subtitle indicates, it’s a book about finding purpose and satisfaction in those 168 hours, and that is a subject to which anyone who sells their time for a living should be keenly attuned.

Kraemer says that a sense of purpose and satisfaction can remain elusive, even (and maybe especially) for many high-performing professionals. His solution (again, the subtitle is revealing) is living a values-based life. When he speaks of values, Kraemer is talking about the need to identify the things that are important to us and then make a conscious effort each day to give those values the weight and attention they deserve.

He recommends periodically asking ourselves questions such as: “What are my values?” and “What do I stand for?” He offers a more granular set of daily questions for self-reflection, including “What did I say I was going to do today?”, “What did I actually do today?” and “What am I proud of?” This is not his full list, but you get the idea. He is advocating for levels of self-reflection and self-examination that are easy to overlook or to rationalize out of existence in our harried lives. In just 224 fast-moving pages, the book provides meaningful and practical guidance for creating what Kraemer calls a Balancing Action Plan.

A young lawyer I was mentoring once told me that she almost always canceled her weekly late-evening tennis drill to work on unexpected requests from her assigning partners. It was making her miserable. I responded that, rather than simply accepting the unexpected assignment and deadline late in the day, she should self-advocate by proposing a deadline that would allow her to make the weekly tennis drill. I told her that approach was not always going to work, but it was going to work more often than not. She took my advice and rose to partner at the firm.

Tragically, she passed away last year at far too young an age after a sudden illness. Her life and passing reminded all of us close to her that life is fragile—much too fragile not to prioritize the things that make life worth living. Kraemer, who has written widely about this need to prioritize what’s important, likes to cite the well-known metaphor of a jar that must be filled with rocks of varying sizes, symbolizing things of varying degrees of importance to us. Place the largest rocks in first, and the smaller ones will find open spaces to fill. Put the small rocks in first, and the larger rocks may not all fit.

As the chair of a global law firm, I read “Your 168″ while thinking about how COVID-19 has isolated our lawyers and business professionals from one another and how remote work arrangements and technology have conspired to blur the lines separating work and personal life. These colliding trends have established patterns that could define the nature of work for a long time to come, and this is as true for our clients as it is for us. Our profession, and each of us individually, would do well to heed Kraemer’s advice to take a moment to be more self-reflective about how we spend our own limited time and that of the lawyers and business professionals we supervise, mentor and lead.

Reprinted with permission from the March 31, 2022 edition of The American Lawyer © 2022 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

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