How Monotasking Harmonizes with the Billable Hour

Where does the time go? Lawyers often aren’t productive as they want to be thanks to unexpected distractions that interrupt time planned for client service.

For years, Clio’s Legal Trends Report has analyzed low utilization rates in the legal profession, i.e., how much time attorneys devote to billable work, measured on a per-lawyer basis. In 2020, the report found that the average lawyer billed just 2.5 hours (31%) of an 8-hour workday.

But before attempting to address inefficiencies and eliminate interruptions that might be distracting you from billable work, consider this: the report also presents us with the dilemma that not all interruptions are created equal.

Where do you focus our time?

In the Legal Trends Report, consumers rated responsiveness to questions (86%) as the most important trait when selecting a lawyer.

Lawyers are expected to answer a potential client’s questions quickly but also thoroughly, which can take time, research, and thought.

Add to that the demands of delivering legal services to your current clients, which can require monotasking and focus without interruption or distraction, not to mention generating bills, administrative tasks, rainmaking, and so on, and we’re left with the dilemma of how to focus our time.

We all fall into the habit of multitasking in our lives and at work, but double-billing – or billing the same work or time to multiple clients – is unethical and violates the Rules of Professional Conduct (specifically Rule 1.5) even if the attorney completed multiple tasks for multiple clients.

ABA Formal Opinion 93-379 states, “the lawyer who has agreed to bill on the basis of hours expended does not fulfill her ethical duty if she bills the client for more time than she actually spent on the client’s behalf.”

There’s an ongoing debate on whether multitasking harms work quality or improves efficiencies, but when it comes to billable hours, lawyers must monotask, focusing on one matter at a time.

Fortunately, I’m going to share a tried-and-true technique that fits nicely into the legal profession’s billable hour model.

A monotasking method I can get be-Heinz

A common billing method is to record your time in tenths of an hour segments, or six-minute blocks. While lawyers may be able to complete a quick phone call or email in six minutes, most matters take time to evaluate, analyze, draft, consult, and so on. This is where the Pomodoro Technique offers an interesting method for both working and billing efficiently.

The Pomodoro Technique was founded in the 1980s by the university student Francesco Cirillo, who was looking for a better way to concentrate while studying.

So, he wound up his kitchen tomato timer (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato) and spent 25 minutes working on only one task via a “work sprint.” He then took a short break before repeating the process.

Overall, the practice for lawyers can go like this:

  1. Plan your work – Decide what matters you will work on that day and order by priority. Consider how you can distill complex projects into smaller tasks that can be handled during each work sprint.
  2. Go into “Do Not Disturb” mode – This applies to technology and people. In other words, close distracting programs like Outlook and chat, and tell your colleagues that you’re going to be busy.
  3. Set your timer – You can set a traditional timer at your desk or on your phone, or turn to some fun apps for help. The Forest app gamifies your focused time, growing a virtual tree and earning you your break. Another app is the Bear Focus Timer which features Tom, the friendly bear who quickly becomes less friendly if you pick up your phone before your sprint is up.
  4. Monotask – Work on a single matter for 25 minutes, or 24 minutes, which equates to four billable, six-minute segments, and record your time entry.
  5. Break – Take a short, five-minute break. Stand up, get a drink, use the restroom, walk around the office, etc.
  6. Repeat – Return to step four to conduct the next monotask on your to-do list.
  7. Reset – After you have completed four cycles, you should take a longer break of about 30 minutes to better restore your energy and mental attention.

As you work, it will be inevitable that the phone will ring, a client might stop by, or the work itself will reveal new, unforeseen tasks requiring you to shift your plans. But, unless it’s an absolute emergency, be firm in putting these distractions aside, taking note of them for later reference, and returning to your monotask already in progress.

There are only so many hours in a day, but with a little planning and taking control of our distractions—including the ones you make for yourself, like responding to each email as it hits your inbox—I hope you too find better harmony in your daily schedule.

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