Excellence Lawyers

The Minimalist Lawyer

Does minimalism have a place in professional practice

An oxymoron if ever there was one.

Lawyers are expected to multi-task: bill, do client work, manage themselves and others, generate new business, and manage a life outside of work.

You don’t hear many lawyers talk about the need to focus on less (the sine qua non of minimalism), and, if you do, how many of them are brave enough to drop something?

One issue has always vexed me. The one sure way to significantly increase the client experience is to act for fewer clients. Fewer clients means faster turnaround of work, less complaints and, over the long haul, more work. But lawyers think the exact opposite.

Perhaps lawyers are inveterate hoarders, or they don’t have the self-belief to accept that in letting go it will make a demonstrable difference to their professional lives and/or billing.

Perhaps it is the competitive nature of the profession that drives this mentality.

It seems a fixation to out bill a compatriot rather than working together as a unit, team or in unison to provide the most memorable service to the client (prima facie simply because you bill stratospherically does not mean you provide the best service).

As I have said before this incessant focus on the numbers – remember the Hard Stuff (see In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters) – is driving out client service, people management and engagement with the brand.

Perhaps it is taking the point too far but the information age was supposed to free us from the tyranny of manual labour, but lawyers have become little more than machines: “I had best get back on my hamster wheel”.

Minimalism is associated with ‘simple’ living.

It is a throwback to the age of austerity: make do with less. Everything had its place – let’s face it you knew where things went because you had less.

Some of the specifics include:

  • A move away from consumerism.
  • An environment denuded of clutter.
  • Focusing on the Big Rocks – the few things that are likely to make the biggest difference to your life.
  • Being happy.
  • Living a balanced life.

Do any of these have an outlet in professional practice?

I would suggest that all of them do and probably a whole host of others that I have not even mentioned.

You may feel that asking you to do less (at work) is professional suicide. You have watched some of your best friends made redundant or leave. From time to time you also fear for your own position.

You are judged by meeting your target and the way you have been trained means that you have no choice to work long hours, manage lots of projects and prove your position.

But one thing I know for sure is that having lots of ongoing projects/tasks is not the most productive way to run your life. It causes conflict in having to meet the competing demands of working in a world where you are paid to think set against doing the most you can in the time available.

Having spent 14 years in the profession, my experience is that without exception no one had the balance right. Even if they were on top of the work there was something else badly out whack.

I am inviting you to look outside of the box. Or at least the edges.

You don’t have to get into the ethereal world of blue sky thinking or deep blue oceans. Instead, start focusing on the things that you really want to achieve in your life. How does your role qua lawyer further your purpose?

One thing I am certain of is that the less you have to deal with – whether that is the clutter at home or work or the need to acquire more things – the more likely it is that you will achieve your purpose.

In my case, just to be clear, I could no longer reconcile life as a solicitor with what I really wanted to achieve. I didn’t fall out of love with the profession per se but rather my primary aim wasn’t being achieved. I also found that I was taking on more and more to the point where I was enthroned in Cubicle Nation and my prediction was to see a greater part of my role being outsourced.

My area of law was hardly cutting edge.

If you are a believer in the less is more school of thought then all of this should be music to your ears but if you are firmly in the sceptic camp then challenge yourself to change your modus operandi for at least a week and see if it makes a discernible difference.

The easiest place to start is to adjust your daily routine and to see if you are any more productive.

One tip that you might want to try is to write down the 3 most important things you want to do tomorrow and when you arrive at work don’t automatically turn the computer on but spend the first hour with the phone diverted and the computer switched off and see how much progress you can make with task 1. Of course, if it involves you dictating then turn the computer on but not your emails. You want to cut down on the number of distractions you have to face. Undoubtedly there will be emergency scenarios but they are the exception. After the first week look back at your progress and ask yourself if you believe by carving out the first hour it has made a noticeable difference to your day. The most important thing may not be to engage in client work but just to think, to undertake some research or perhaps to catch up with someone that you have been putting off speaking to for a while.

This is not a time management exercise but rather an exercise to get you to focus on the important rather than the (perceived) urgent.

You might also start to think about how you can declutter. This is a classic aspect of minimalism and is, if nothing else, good for the soul. It is best achieved in baby steps but things like old Law Society Gazette magazines, old periodicals and non-client stuff can progressively be disposed of. You want to work on the one touch system. In other words a system that forces you to do something with a piece of paper or whatever you come into contact with. Move it on: destroy it, recycle it or file it but don’t keep circulating it around your desk.

Ultimately the idea of minimalism is a choice but if like me you work best when you have only one thing to focus on, you won’t want a whole load of clutter in your line of sight.


The mindset of minimalism does not readily apply itself to professional practice. You may feel you couldn’t do justice to the notion and like a lot of things you expect to start off with the best of intentions but very quickly you will abandon any changes and slide back to your old ways.

Possibly, but I believe you can control your circumstances more than you believe is possible. If you can see the purpose to it – achieving more time with your family – and are willing to preserver for long enough then you will develop the motivation to stick with it.

Done right it will make a measurable difference to your professional life and start you on a journey that will be hard to give up on.

~ Julian Summerhayes ~


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