In this blog post, Akriti Shikha, a student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune and pursuing a Diploma in Entrepreneurship Administration and Business Laws from NUJS, Kolkata, describes how a lawyer can improve on his time management skills.
Out of all the elements, one has to work with, none is more precious than time. Lawyer’s abilities to manage their time significantly affects the standard and quality of their legal work, the quality of their service to their current competitive legal environment and the degree of their professional success.
A lawyer’s time is his or her most valuable asset, especially when the client is being billed by hour. Every time the phone rings or an email hits the inbox, the clock starts ticking. Time management skills are important to busy professionals whose time is in constant demand.
To be more effective at managing your time, you must first assess where you are now. How do you spend your time each day? What amount of time do you spend on billable work? On personal phone calls or chatting over coffee with other lawyers down the hall? Track your time for a typical week and enter everything you do during the day. Also, record your high and low energy times.
Once you’ve created a profile of your time, you’ll be able to see where you waste time and what things you can cut back on. You’ll also know if your peak energy periods are, for example, the first three hours of the morning or from 4:00 until 5:00 in the afternoon. This information will help you better schedule your time.
Good time management skill requires learning how the 80/20 rule impacts you. The 80/20 rule, or Pareto principal, states that the relationship between input and output is rarely, if ever, balanced. When applied to work, it means that approximately 20 percent of your efforts produce 80 percent of your results. Learning how to recognize and then focusing on that 20 percent is the key to making the most effective use of your time.
TIME MANAGEMENT TIPS
- Plan your time.
- Take time to prepare and review your time management plan.
- Set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Rewarding, and Timely) goals– A goal could include tracking all your time, even non-billable time, for a week in order to learn how you spend the time in your day.
- Prepare ‘To Do’ Lists (Daily and weekly)– ‘To Do’ lists are essential to an efficient use of your time and a way to reduce stress in your practice. It help in situations of overwhelm because they bring perspective and planning back to the situation and put you back in control. It’s crucial to keep a comprehensive running list of tasks to be completed. The most effective way is to break it down by client name or by project name for transactional attorneys. Chances are this list will be so long that all items won’t be completed every day, so form a habit of updating the list each time there’s a change. Narrow down the list each day by identifying the high-priority tasks that must be completed by end of business. Think ahead to what needs to be done in the coming months. To-do lists are crucial if you want to accomplish tasks in a timely fashion. Each Monday, determine what matters must be accomplished that week, and prepare a weekly to-do list. Each day, devote 15 minutes at the start of your morning writing your to-do list for that day.
- Identify your priorities- Apply the 80/20 rule. Every time you say yes to something you are saying no to something else. Make sure you choose your actions.
- Set aside a reserve of time- Plan for the unexpected, and leave time for genuine emergencies and last-minute matters that inevitably arise. Don’t over-book yourself. “Under-promise and over-deliver,” says Irene Leonard, a professional development coach who practiced law for 18 years. If you think you can prepare the contract by Tuesday noon, tell your client you’ll have it done by Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. Then if you deliver it on Tuesday, your client will be especially pleased.
- Allocate work according to your high and low energy periods– Work on the most important or complex tasks (preparing for an examination for discovery, drafting a new agreement, etc.) during your peak energy periods. Deal with less crucial or demanding matters (brushing up on CLE materials, signing correspondence, etc.) when your energy sags.
- Record your time– Keeping good time records can lead to higher billings and a more productive law practice. Lawyers must maintain time records for individual client matters and also consider keeping a personal time log of all activities, billable and non-billable, to determine what activities are non-productive or inefficient.
- Plan for the unexpected. Do not overbook yourself. Create space in your calendar for all the last minute matters that show up in your practice.
- Adopt procedures to eliminate inefficiencies-
- By avoiding meetings unless necessary, making use of telephone conferences and having and following meeting agendas
- By keeping a record of what work was accomplished to avoid duplication of work
- By keeping files organized and, when not in use, returning files to their proper cabinet or location to allow for easy and efficient access and to prevent loss
- By ensuring that all documents are promptly dealt with and filed away, perhaps implementing a “never touch a document more than once” rule
- By standardizing and systematizing routine tasks.
- Setup Desk Diaries or Calendars– In order to manage time efficiently, one should implement calendar or desk diary reminder system in order to plan their time on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis and to act as reminders for appointments, court, tribunal, closings or other attendances relating to client matters and any crucial dates.
- Implementation of Reminder Systems- These systems should assist in:
- Flagging limitation periods and deadlines
- Follow up, to ensure lawyers respond to reminder notices on time
- Reminding lawyers of steps to be taken in particular files.
Lawyers should assume or assign, usually to their administrative assistants, responsibility for diarising key dates in time management systems and ensuring compliance with deadlines. Ultimate responsibility for meeting deadlines and limitation periods rests with lawyers. Lawyers should conduct periodic, usually monthly, reviews of all open client files to ensure that work on all files is being completed in a timely and cost-effective manner.
- Time Docketing or Recording Systems- Lawyers should record or docket all the time, billable and non-billable, on each client file or matter. For each client, lawyers should specifically record client name, matter or file reference and code, activity or work performed, including all telephone attendances and correspondence and the time spent on activity or work. They should use manual or electronic daily time sheets to docket immediately after the activity or work is complete and to ensure that docket entries are recorded or assigned to client files daily. They should consider implementing time recording or time docketing systems that
- Explain services to be performed
- Accumulate the total time expended on the file by each lawyer
- Permit the recording of billable and non-billable time
- Produce interim and final statements of accounts for services rendered to clients
- Produce time data for monthly, quarterly and annual reports to assist in management of the law firm.
- DELEGATE- One can’t do everything by themselves, in fact one has to learn to delegate tasks to others.
- Plan for delegation in your day– Make time for it, so it’s not an afterthought.
- Provide sufficient information– Give a brief description of the overall file and the specific task you want accomplished, along with appropriate resources and the deadline, so the delegatee can properly address the task and hand it in on time.
- Be clear in your expectations-If you want the task accomplished in a certain way, then be specific. For example, “I only want you to spend three hours on this. I want the information presented in bullet form. I want to see the answer first, then the law in the next section.” Then accept that what you get back will be different from how you would do it.
- Refrain from micromanaging– One of the goals of delegation is to develop your employees. This can only happen if you give them the freedom to apply their own problem-solving skills. At the same time, when delegating to students and staff, ensure that you provide proper supervision according to the rules of professional conduct.
- Promptly review completed tasks- Have a rule that you’ll look at work that comes back to you within 24 hours, suggests Leonard. You want to keep matters moving along.
- Offer feedback– Acknowledge when someone does a good job. If certain aspects of the work could be improved, provide constructive criticism.
- OVERCOMING PROCRASTINATION- Procrastination is a common time-waster among lawyers. If you’re stuck, try these tips:
- Ask ‘what is stopping me’?: People often procrastinate because they don’t really know what to do next. Go brainstorm ideas with another lawyer in the office, or ascertain what research needs to be done to move ahead.
- Break the project down into small parts: Another big reason people procrastinate is worrying about not having enough time to finish the whole project in one sitting. But, all or nothing thinking is unhelpful. Instead, chip away at the project for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
- Plunge in anywhere: Are you dragging your feet because you don’t know where to start? The beginning isn’t necessarily where you must start – most projects have several places to start. So start anywhere. Perhaps start at the easiest part, or tackle the hardest part first.
- Reward yourself: Tell yourself that once you dictate that letter or return the stack of phone calls sitting on your desk, you can treat yourself to a café latte or go for a run at lunch.
- Don’t worry about being perfect: Embarking on a project is not the time for your internal editor to take over. You don’t need to get everything right at this stage. One way to get your words out on paper or on the computer is to pretend you’re writing a letter to your mother.
- Don’t work for longer than 15 minutes: Limit your time to 15 minutes and, when the 15 minutes are up, decide if you want to quit or work for another 15 minutes. You may find yourself happy to continue working because you know that a break is no more than 15 minutes away.
- Create artificial deadlines to help move a task to action– Deadlines carry a negative connotation, but they don’t have to mean something bad. A solid deadline can help a lawyer prioritize client matters by creating a sense of urgency for certain tasks above others. Use a triage system, similar to a medical professional. Target the items with short deadlines first and forget about the rest of the to-do list. Create a ticker system in the calendar to sound an alarm or send an email when the day and time comes to address the next task. This can help create focus on the files at hand and alleviate stress about any work waiting in the pipeline.
- Identify and eliminate tasks distractions- Tune out distractions in the office and focus on one matter at a time. If possible, place the phone on Do Not Disturb mode and close the email window to avoid temptation. If co-workers continue to drop by for a chat, grab the file and a legal pad and head to the nearest open conference room to avoid further distraction. Develop daily rituals, like updating your to-do list, responding to emails and returning phone calls at the same time each day. Creating a pattern to the flow of work helps to maintain focus and minimize stress/frustration about the more mundane tasks.
- Avoid Multi-Tasking – Clients deserve to have their lawyer’s undivided attention, particularly when being charged by the hour. Concentrate on one file at a time so legal issues don’t get muddled and the time charged to the client remains accurate.
- Focus on one task at a time so as to trying to complete each task without interruption.
- Learn to say no and minimize interruptions. It helps in determining how much of your time will be spent doing things you don’t want or have the time to do. How easily one says no is a matter of their personality rather than knowledge of time management skills. On should make effort to say yes only if the goals will be met by doing the thing.
DEALING WITH THE E-MAIL DELUGE
- Check your e-mail infrequently– Check it as infrequently as you are comfortable with, for example, three times a day or only after completing a task.
- Use folders to automatically sort incoming e-mails– For example, if you subscribe to a newsletter or are on a list which always has “LegalAlert” in the subject line, e-mails can automatically be removed from your Inbox and placed in the appropriate folder. Unread messages will show up in bold print.
- Create “action” and storage folders to further organize e-mails
- Move “to-do” and event e-mails– If an e-mail requires you to carry out a task like researching an issue or reviewing an agreement, drag and drop the e-mail to your electronic “to-do” or task list.
- Have your e-mails screened before you see them– Ask your secretary to vet your e-mails and organize them in folders in advance. Your secretary could also reply to routine inquiries. For personal e-mail, use a different e-mail address if you’re concerned about privacy.
- Create group mailing lists-For example, if you’re frequently communicating with the same group of lawyers on a leasing project, you could create a distribution list for this group in your mail.
ORGANIZE YOUR OFFICE
- Learn to control your paperwork- One faces challenges about handling paper as dealing with the continuous flow of paper throughout office is a fact of professional life. Without an effective plan for dealing with paper, it can easily get out of hand, cluttering the desk, making it impossible to find the few truly important ones. Some suggestions for weathering the paper blizzard would be:
- When deciding whether to keep or toss an item, one should be very selective about what to save and what goes to the wastebasket. The key question should be, “Is there anywhere else I can find this information if I need it later?”
- Once you decide that a document is worth saving, the question becomes “Where do I put it so that I can find it again easily?”. Thus, this brings to the need of filing systems which must be kept simple. For this purpose, a number of filing techniques are used.
- Use the trash can.
- File incoming paper.
It is essential to manage time which helps in setting the priorities and improving productivity. By using these above-mentioned tips, one will be able to achieve their goal effectively.
- Covey, Stephen R., “First Things First”, Simon & Schuster, 1994.
- Elwork, Amiram. “Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal & Professional Satisfaction in the Law”, The Vorkell Group, 1997.
- Forster, Mark, “Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play”, The Guernsey Press Co. Ltd., 2000.
- Lively, Lynn. “The Procrastinator’s Guide To Success”, McGraw-Hill, 1999.
- Morgenstern, Julie. “Time Management from the Inside Out: The foolproof System for Taking Control of your Schedule – and Your Life”, Henry Holt, 2000.
- Sanitate, Frank. “Don’t Got to Work Unless It’s Fun! State-of-the-Heart Time Management”, Santa Barbara Press, 1994.
- Smith, Hyrum. “The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management: Proven Strategies for Increased Productivity and Inner Peace. Warner Books, Inc., 1994.
- Leonard, Irene. Create the Practice You Want: Law Practice Development Workbook. Coaching For Change, 2001.