OSB Professional Liability Fund

Managing Your Time and Practice Using the 80/20 Rule

January 20, 2017
by Hong Dao

The responsibilities and tasks of being a lawyer can be overwhelming. Fortunately, a simple rule can help you manage your time and law practice by showing you where you should focus your efforts and resources.  It’s called the 80/20 Rule or the Pareto Principle.
 
The rule requires a basic understanding that the relationship between input and output is unequal, that is, results are not proportional to input. Nineteenth-century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered that the typical ratio is 80:20. For example,

  • 80% of results can be attributed to 20% of input.
  • 80% of a business’s profits come from 20% of its customers.
The ratio is not always exactly 80:20. It can be 75:25, 90:10, or 95:5. The numbers in the ratio may not even add up to 100. The point isn’t to focus on the numbers, but to realize that input is disproportionate to output.
 
This principle has many applications in business and everyday life.

What does 80/20 mean for you as a lawyer?

When you understand that the majority of your results come from a minority of your inputs, you can focus on the 20% aspect of the rule in your law practice.
 
Let’s look at this rule from two perspectives:
  • Client referrals: If roughly 80% of your referrals come from 20% of your referral sources, then focus on cultivating a long-lasting relationship with those sources. You might take those sources out to lunch once or twice a year; send a greeting and thank-you card to the rest.
  • Case selection: Approximately 80% of your earned fees come from about 20% of your cases. If you practice in multiple areas of the law, determine which one or two areas bring you the most revenues and focus your law practice on those areas. You might need to stop taking cases in areas that take too much of your time relative to the earnings they produce.
This rule can apply to other aspects of running your law practice, especially to time management.

How to incorporate 80/20 into your practice

The 80/20 Rule is about optimizing your time. It is about focusing on the important 20% as a way to save time and maximize effort. Determine what types of tasks in your law practice produce the best results for clients and your business and focus your attention on those. Here are some tips on using the 80/20 Rule to help manage your time.

Do the 20% first

Many lawyers manage their time with a to-do list. However, each task on the list doesn’t produce the same value for your practice. About 20% of your tasks will have 80% more value than the others. One or two tasks on the list will bring you the most bang for your buck. Focus on those high payoff tasks. Do the top 20% of tasks first before tackling the bottom 80%.
 
When you’re doing tasks that directly advance the goals of your law practice, you’re performing in the 20% category. These tasks involve providing quality client services that have a real impact on your bottom line. They are probably the hardest and most complex. They may be the ones you like doing least. But they are the most important and should be done first.  
 
In contrast, tasks in the 80% category may be related to your law practice, but they do not directly involve client services. Here are some ways to tell whether a task falls in the 80% category and some examples of each:
  • You’re working on a task that can be delegated to others (fielding calls, ordering and picking up office supplies);
  • You’re working on a task that you’re not really good at doing (building your own website, bookkeeping);
  • You take longer to do a task than you expected (researching technology software on Google, creating legal pleading templates or letterheads);
  • The task is mundane but keeps you busy (reading and replying to listserve emails, organizing paper files or emails).
To be more efficient with your time when working on these “80% tasks,” consider automating certain tasks, outsourcing others, or just saying “no” when possible.  

Schedule uninterrupted work time

If 80% of your daily tasks can be done in 20% of the workday, then it makes sense to block off 20% of your workday for uninterrupted work. That’s 1.6 hours or 96 minutes in an 8-hour workday. Concentrate on the “20% tasks” during this block of time. Try to eliminate 80% of interruptions and control the other 20%. Dedicate a block of time for returning phone calls and emails so you don’t jump from one type of task to another.

One last tip: begin at the end

If you can’t decide whether a task is in the top 20% or bottom 80%, try this: at the start of the workday, ask yourself what you want that day’s outcome to be. Then look at the actions you need to take to reach the outcome. You may already have the actions or tasks written down in your to-do list. The actions that will result in the desired outcome are the 20% tasks. Any tasks that aren’t related or are only tangentially related to that outcome will be the 80%.
 
Your tasks may be endless. But you can choose to focusing on the critical 20% and concentrate your efforts in the most effective place.

If you want to learn more about prioritizing using a time management matrix, read my blog post titled Managing Our Time, Managing Ourselves.