Advice from a Billionaire Lawyer: Sell Yourself One Hour Each Day

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In the 21st century knowledge economy, a lawyer’s most valuable assets are time and attention. A lawyer’s job is to focus on and solve difficult problems, and success is dependent upon the ability to harness and direct energy toward creating solutions.

At the same time, most lawyers are more distracted than ever. The 24-hour, on-demand, always-on work culture is sapping lawyers of the willpower and energy necessary to remain focused on the task-at-hand for more than mere moments. Most emails result in an almost instantaneous reply, like a forehand volley at the U.S. Open. Every phone call adds another item to the to-do-list.

These circumstances make it difficult to keep up with client work. They make it seem nearly impossible to focus on important but not necessarily urgent issues like professional and business development.

That’s a big problem, because professional and business development are the very things that allow lawyers to grow and thrive over the arc of a long legal career. Indeed, to succeed over the long-term, one must continually increase and improve knowledge and skills, and build and grow relationships that will create new business opportunities. Failing to do so will result in getting left behind.

So the question is, why aren’t more lawyers consistently focusing on these issues? In my coaching practice, the answer I hear most frequently is some variation of “I simply can’t find the time.”

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This is an understandable yet unsatisfactory answer—at least if you’re looking to get ahead in your career. You’ll never “find” the time. We all have the same number of hours to work with. Instead, you must ruthlessly prioritize the time with the understanding that it’s the most valuable investment you can make in your most important client: yourself.

Charlie Munger is a self-made billionaire and is the Berkshire Hathaway business partner of Warren Buffett. He’s also a lawyer. Early in his legal career, as he was busy handling client work and billing hours, he came to the important realization that he was his own most important client. He could spend all his time billing hours and making money, or he could aim for a higher ROI.

Sell Yourself an Hour

For Munger, this meant that he needed to recalibrate his thinking and start making time to focus on himself and not just his paying clients. He concluded that, to get ahead and stay ahead, he needed to “sell” himself one hour of his time each day.

In her 2008 biography of Warren Buffett, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, Alice Schroeder recounts Buffett’s early impressions of Munger:

Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, “Who’s my most valuable client?” And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people, too, and sell yourself an hour a day.

Munger, of course, is not the only hugely successful businessperson who consistently invests in himself. Buffett is renowned for spending up to 80% of each day reading. Bill Gates famously disconnected during annual “think weeks” in which he read, contemplated, planned and wrote while CEO of Microsoft. The list goes on. Successful people make themselves a high priority—not just their paying clients or customers.

It’s easy, especially when the economy is good, to stay holed up in your office each day billing hours for clients (other than yourself). If you’re an associate at a law firm, short-term rewards such as bonuses and salary bumps incentivize this behavior.

For most, spending a dedicated hour each day focused on professional and business development seems impossible. Even if you were to give it a try, you may quickly abandon the practice because it’s unlikely to result in any immediately discernible benefit. However, what separates those who optimize for the long-term over the short-term is an understanding that the compounding returns on self-improvement will result in massive benefits, but not all at once.

The odds are that at the beginning of 2019 you set some big goals for yourself. Perhaps they seemed so big that you never got started working toward achieving them. You couldn’t find the time amid the wave of hot demands. Today is the perfect time to revisit those goals. This year may be slipping by, but right now is far better than late December to commit to a program that will have a transformative impact on your long-term career prospects.

What would it mean if you were to write a well-regarded book this year? What would be the impact of forming 20 new relationships with other professionals? How would your reputation within your firm be different if you developed a valuable set of new skills?

These things are possible but only if, like Munger, you invest in yourself each day. Extraordinary results are within reach to those who chip away at important but not necessarily urgent priorities, day after day. Invest in your most important client. Start selling yourself an hour each day.

Looking for more? Check out these related posts:

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Jay Harrington is an executive coach who blends strategic consulting and problem-solving counseling to help lawyers set and reach their business objectives.

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If you’re a lawyer interested in unlocking your potential and increasing your performance, contact me to schedule a free consultation. Through a process of coaching and consulting, I will help you to establish clear goals, identify and overcome obstacles, create and execute a strategic plan of action.

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