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Time Management for Lawyers

By Irene Leonard, Lawyer Coach

Imagine having enough time to be highly productive and efficient. What would that look like for you?

Use a Daily To-Do List

David Allen states in his book, Getting Things Done, that the way to stress-free productivity is “capturing all the things that need to get done—now, later, someday, big, little, or in between—into a logical and trusted system outside of your head and off your mind.” The idea is to write it all down rather than rely on your memory. This is critical for reducing stress; you won't have to worry about forgetting something if it is in your system.

My personal experience, as well as my experience with lawyers I work with, indicates that strictly following a well-prioritized, daily to-do list is one of the single most important things to help feel in control; and that reduces stress. A well-prioritized, daily to-do list must take into account what has to be accomplished this week, this month and next month. Deciding what I need to do today and what is realistic about what I can do today, helps me prioritize and determine what's really important in the limited time I have each day.

Gerald (not his real name) was stressed because he could never seem to get everything done on his weekly to-do lists. He felt his response time to some projects was unacceptable.

The simple fact is he was unrealistic about what he put on a to-do list. He put everything on his list and consequently became overwhelmed and unable to prioritize. With coaching, Gerald agreed to put only those tasks on his weekly and daily to-do lists that he absolutely knew he could get done in a week. He also agreed to include time for unexpected projects.

He started this new behavior by agreeing to put only three tasks per day on his list. When he prepared his daily to-do lists, he was disappointed initially by how few projects he was planning on dealing with; but that was all he could realistically accomplish, especially as he had so many daily interruptions.

His new, significantly reduced daily to-do list resulted in:

  1. Feeling better about meeting his goals;
  2. Handling his client expectations better because he could keep clients better informed as to delivery dates;
  3. Capturing more billable time because he stayed focused and knew where he was spending his time; and
  4. Improving his delegation — he was more mindful about having others help him with his workload.

Delegate Early

There's an art to delegating. Those lawyers who are good delegators feel more productive and efficient. Gerald had to prioritize his workload in creating his daily to-do list and that led him to realize he needed help in getting projects done. Because he was thinking ahead at the same time as preparing his daily to-do list, he early on became proactive in enlisting the help of others on a project.

The sooner you have others helping you, the sooner you'll be able to have the delegatee produce a work product that meets your criteria. This reduces your stress and increases your overall efficiency.

Say No

Saying no is really a matter of prioritizing, so you can focus on what's important. You need to be able to triage in the practice of law. When you have competing demands, you have to decide which is most important and then how to say no to the demand that is not as important.

This is a really tough behavior to develop and stick to, but one of the most important efficiency skills you can master. Saying no includes:

When preparing your to-do list, whether daily or weekly, you have to eliminate some tasks in order to stay efficient.

Saying no also means learning what's good enough. When I ask my clients “what's good enough?” they cringe, as though I were suggesting they commit malpractice by settling for “good enough” work. Experienced lawyers know when “good enough” is the right solution. Not everything has to be done perfectly.

The practice of law is not an area where we can afford to make mistakes and I am not suggesting that you get sloppy, but rather that you become better at knowing just what is important for the particular task at hand. Your clients will be happier that you're not spending more time than is really necessary to serve their needs.

When I was general counsel for a major real estate development company in the early '90s, there was nothing I disliked more than having an outside lawyer spend hours preparing a many-paged memo that should have been handled more succinctly, but which I had to read, figure out and then pay for. The many-paged memo did not impress me, but rather suggested the lawyer was uncertain of his answer and was afraid to give me advice for fear of being wrong. As a result of this experience, I learned to give better instructions when delegating.

Sometimes, the shorter memo takes longer than the long, kitchen-sink memo, so it might not seem so efficient; but delivering the right product right from the beginning generally means less time spent on the overall project.

Plan for the Unexpected

In a busy law practice it's a given that there will be daily, unexpected conversations, emails and projects. Include time in your schedule for those unexpected events. By making room for important things that are not on your daily to-do list, it will help you feel in control when the unexpected shows up.

Be Realistic With Promises

If you're willing to learn only one skill to improve your efficiency, learn how long it really takes you to do things so you can give realistic promises.

Not delivering on your promises is a result of not knowing how long it really takes for you to do things. If you misjudge how long it will take and it takes longer than you plan, then you and everyone else will be disappointed. So, to reduce your stress and increase your efficiency, master the art of knowing how long it takes you to do things.

Being efficient requires being well organized, resourceful, professional and competent. By intelligently delegating, saying no to what's not important, making realistic promises, planning for the unexpected and strictly adhering to a well-prioritized to-do list, you'll have the time to achieve a highly efficient and productive practice.