Ten Steps to Better Time Management

The projects and tasks that continually demand a response are an inescapable part of working in a law firm. Thus, time management is essential.  This skill will enable you to respond to demands, fully and appropriately, on your own terms. By learning to plan, prioritize, organize and delegate activities more efficiently you can enjoy greater job-confidence and be on top of your assignments, instead of feeling buried underneath them.  The following are ten easy to use strategies, but they will only work if you establish goals, focus your priorities, and take daily steps toward efficiently using your most limited resource – time.

1. Start your day with an action plan

Invest 15 minutes to plan each day. Identify key goals, then plan to achieve these goals by breaking them down into manageable action steps. When planning, make sure your goals are realistic; do not count on completing a week long project in one day. When designing your action plan for the day:

  • Identify three action steps you want to take today
  • Estimate the time it will take to complete these steps
  • Add in time for delays and obstacles
  • Identify available resources that can help you achieve your goals

For example, before diving into a memo, speak to the librarian about locating specific precedents or call an associate who has worked on similar cases. Taking the time to think through how you can most efficiently use your available resources will save more time that can then be invested in improving your final work product.

2. Take one action a day towards achieving your long-term goals

Block out 30 minutes each day to take action steps that will help you to accomplish your long-term goals. For example, spend that time working on a brief that is not due for another six weeks. Each day progress is made on the assignment, while avoiding a few extremely stressful days just before your deadline.

In order to get some quality work done on your long-term projects, turn off your computer screen, tell your assistant to hold your calls, and find a quiet place where you can really focus on the task at hand. While that may seem counter-productive, taking a 30 minute time-out from your daily tasks in order to focus on your long-term goals can save you enormous amounts of time in the long run.

Taking action steps toward long-term goals can also include maintaining professional relationships and achieving personal goals.

3. Prioritize your tasks

When you organize your day, determine which steps will generate the greatest results. Not only does this increase productivity, but it will likely push you to confront more intimidating projects. Challenging projects are often those with the highest return on investment, and you will find that they lose their intimidating force once you tackle them. Save tedious tasks, as well as projects with later deadlines, until after you have completed the items that you have identified as “most important.”  When you come into the office early to draft a memo, do not allow yourself to be distracted by the beep of a new e-mail message.

Apply the 80/20 rule. In most areas of your life, you will find that 80% of your results come from 20% of your actions. You will be most productive if you identify and focus on the actions that will produce the greatest results. For example, if doing a first draft of a client memo is the most important item on your to-do list, identify possible resources and complete the outline for the memo before returning routine phone calls. By focusing on the assignment that deserves the most priority, you will leave the office feeling that you used your time and resources most effectively.

4. Delegate responsibilities

With each new project, determine which tasks require your personal attention and which tasks can be done by someone else. Think of your assistant, paralegals and other associates as resources. Take the time to identify and delegate certain tasks and then spend time on the parts of the project to which you add the greatest value. When delegating, you must be willing to invest time in explaining what you want from the other members of your team. And you must be prepared to trust your co-workers. The following tips are a guide toward successful delegation:

  • Fully explain what it is you want the end product to look like
  • Let your co-workers have full responsibility for delivering the end product that you have outlined, but provide them with possible resources, such as precedents or samples of similar work
  • Point out possible obstacles and challenges
  • Give both critical feedback and praise for well-accomplished tasks

By delegating, you will be able to devote more of your own time to accomplish the tasks that require your specific knowledge and expertise.

5. Invest in creating systems that will support your work

A partner comes into your office and asks for his client’s file. You immediately want to locate the client’s file to show how easily you can retrieve information. If you establish uniform procedures for organizing each case or deal, you will be able to locate any paper at a moment’s notice. To stay on top of all the paper that flows into your office, you may want to:

  • Start a new legal pad for each new assignment, which includes:
    • Basic client information, client charge number, phone numbers, fax numbers, names of parties involved in the matter, etc.
    • Deadlines
    • Research data
    • Outlines and drafts of memos
  • Create a Redweld file folder for each new case, which includes a labeled file folder for your:
    • Distribution lists
    • Original documents
    • Research
    • Drafts
    • Faxes
    • Pleadings

At the end of each day, invest five minutes in placing all loose paper into the appropriate file. By creating such organized systems, your office and desk will look cleaner and neater, and you will feel more in control.

6. Learn to control interruptions

In all law firms, interruptions are a normal part of your day. Your phone will ring, your e-mail will beep, and visitors will stop by unexpectedly. Too often, by responding to interference, we allow ourselves to get interrupted. The trouble with interruptions is that it often takes longer to recover from the interruption and refocus on the project than it takes to deal with the actual interruption.  In order to better control interruptions:

  • Always add in extra time for interruptions when planning your day
  • Return non-urgent phone calls in “batches” after important projects are completed
  • Answer e-mails only 4 times a day–twice in the morning and twice after lunch–as opposed to each time a new one arrives
  • Visit colleagues, as opposed to having them visiting you, so you can control the length of the visit
  • If you are in the middle of an important project, ask if you can get back to the caller as soon as you are finished, instead of taking the call and then hoping to get back into the project

You have more control over your time than you sometimes believe. You will not be able to eliminate interruptions but you can better control them.

7. Keep track of all of your contacts

Whether you want to send a fax to the participants of a deal or mail a copy of your new article to a prospective client, you need to have a system for tracking your contacts. It will help you to create a distribution list of people who are involved in each new project, including phone and fax numbers.  Using either a traditional rolodex or a computerized one, record the names, addresses, and phone numbers of colleagues you want to keep in contact with.  By keeping track of your professional contacts, you will be able to communicate with them more efficiently and maintain these contacts over time.

8. Learn to communicate and ask questions – now

Poor communication can be the biggest waste of time, as the following true story illustrates: a summer associate was assigned a time consuming project. For five straight days she locked herself in the library to research. She produced an extremely impressive product. Unfortunately, she did not receive any credit for her work. As it happened, the client no longer needed the firm’s help. Because the associate did not keep in touch with her supervising attorney, she failed to learn of this change. In addition, she lost precious time that could have been used to complete other client work. To avoid such a scenario, you should:

  • Ask questions to clarify assignments
  • Ask for possible resources
  • Ask for deadlines
  • Keep those you work with well-informed of your progress
  • Address possible obstacles directly and ask for help

Learning how to communicate effectively with other attorneys, clients, and staff is critical to successful time management and a successful career. If you take responsibility for staying in touch with supervisors and colleagues, you will get the information you need to prioritize your time most efficiently.

9. Invest time in learning to use helpful technology

Technology should help us to be more efficient. By learning to fully utilize your technological resources, such as voicemail, e-mail, and the computer, you will maximize your productivity and feel more confident. To benefit from your firm’s technology, you need to periodically update yourself with current methods and programs. Here are some tips:

  • Make the time to attend training sessions to learn about your firm’s technology
  • Invest 5-10 minutes every day to learn one new technological tool that can help you maximize your time

By keeping on top of your firm’s new technological innovations, you will learn how to effectively use the many tools designed to help you perfect your time management skills.

10. Work as a team with your secretarial assistant

Your assistant is one of your most valuable resources. He or she has specific skills to help you achieve your goals. You can maximize your assistant’s capabilities by facing projects as a team. To support this essential relationship:

  • Make sure your assistant has a copy of your daily calendar so he or she always knows where you are
  • Update your assistant on all of the projects you are working on now, or will be working on in the future
  • Know your assistant’s talents, use them and praise them

Your secretarial assistant can be your most valuable tool for managing your time.

If you are able to incorporate even just one of these tips into your daily routine, such as a daily action plan or to-do list, or the ability to manage interruptions, you will undoubtedly notice expanded productivity and time usage. This will help you to alleviate stress and feel more confident while you’re at work.