Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
“Duh! Tell me something I don’t already know,” you might have said to yourself when you read this headline about lawyer time management. I’m sure you already have some kind of list on your desk, on your computer, or on your mobile device right now. And yet, I frequently find myself coaching lawyers about creating and reviewing lists to improve lawyer time management and reduce the overwhelm of modern law practice.
There are many different kinds of lists with different functions and different ways to manage them. This post will include a “list of lists” and a brief description of their benefits or functionality. Check out David Allen’s, best-selling book Getting Things Done and his website of the same name for more elaboration on some of these ideas. I also invite you to share your suggested additions to this list in the comments below.
To Do Lists
If your desk has a stack of papers on it, you are using that as a to do list. It’s not very effective and probably contains some ticking time bombs within it. We all have more to do than we can accomplish in a day, and probably more than we can remember that we are supposed to do. Even though your list may be frighteningly long, get it out of your head, out of that paper stack, and into writing. You’ll have fewer deadlines and promises slip through the cracks. Once you get used to the potential overwhelm of a long list, you’ll actually feel less stress knowing that you haven’t forgotten something.
Because your to do list is too long, you need a priority list. At the end of the day (or first thing in the morning) make a list of the three most important things for you to accomplish tomorrow. That priority list will help you stay on track when a myriad of less important tasks sing their siren song of distraction. Don’t choose more than three priorities, because feeling successful each day helps you sustain your energy. Some unexpected new priority will almost always pop up, negatively impacting lawyer time management. If you actually do complete your top three items, you can create a new priority list. Alternatively, you can reward yourself by just going home early for once.
Project Next Action List
Upon examination, you may find that many items on your to do list have multiple steps for completion. David Allen points out that those are the projects that you never seem to check off. To get unstuck, break each of your projects down into their component parts, and identify the next action for each project. You can then choose from your next action lists when you create your priority list.
The fastest way to get something off your desk is to delegate it to someone else. When your to do list is too long, review it carefully for any projects or parts of projects that you can delegate to someone else. When I go over a long to do list with a client, we almost always find several things that can be delegated to someone else, at least in their initial stages. Editing and polishing are often easier than getting started.
Assigned Task List
Once you delegate tasks to others, you need to keep track of whether the work gets done on a timely basis. Outlook and Gmail allow you to assign tasks and set due dates. They can also send you a notification when the assignee marks the task completed. Free project management software like Asana or Trello can help everyone on the team keep apprised of the status of each element of the project.
Checklists for Lawyer Time Management.
In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande cites studies demonstrating that, even when performing familiar tasks, professionals that use checklists make fewer errors. There’s a reason why the FAA requires pilots with thousands of hours of flying experience to use a checklist before takeoff. In addition to helping you be more efficient, a checklist for a recurring undertaking allows you to more easily delegate it to someone else. You can also use the checklist to review the status of that assigned project.
Many of the documents you create may actually contain “stealth lists” that can remind you of all the tasks that need to be finished to complete the project. When you review a table of contents, an index, or a closing memorandum, you may notice that it contains a list of all of the smaller parts that need to be completed for the whole project to be accomplished. Start by creating that document first so that you can use it as your checklist.
Someday Maybe List
Capture the bright ideas that come to you while you’re in the shower, taking a walk or daydreaming. You might not ever get around to implementing them, but you don’t want to lose the ideas. If you have something on your to do list that has remained there for many months, perhaps you are really not that committed to it. Unclutter your to do list by moving that item to the “someday maybe” list.
“Waiting For” List
How often have you asked a client for information, to produce a document, or to sign and return something, only to have your request disappear into a black hole? Perhaps you closed a transaction a month ago, but you still haven’t yet received the recorded instruments from the County Clerk’s office. By keeping a list of the things you’re waiting for, you can avoid a mad dash at the last minute or a malpractice claim for failing to follow up.
Pick and choose what works for you from among these suggestions for improving lawyer time management. Don’t let list-making become an excuse for postponing action. Make sure your lists ultimately make your practice more efficient, instead of making it even more complex.
This post was adapted from an article by the author originally published in the October 26, 2014 issue of the Solo Practice University Blog.
“There just are not enough hours in the day to do everything myself! I want to improve my work-life balance by delegating tasks, but no one is available. I keep reading and hearing about virtual paralegals and virtual assistants as affordable options, but I wonder: Where can I find virtual support which meets the needs of my law practice?”
Solo and small firm attorneys often share these same thoughts. For both groups, virtual paralegal or virtual assistant support is often the perfect solution provided you find the assistant who matches your needs. The first step is deciding what task(s) you want to delegate. That list will grow quickly if you could find the right person. Your next move will be checking out the following sources to identify the names of virtual paralegals or virtual assistants who have experience in your practice area.
Attorney Referrals. Word-of-mouth referrals from another attorney are often the best way to quickly locate reliable virtual support if you are under a deadline crunch. A referral adds immediate credibility and gives you confidence as you make this paradigm shift. You probably know at least one other attorney who has used a freelance, temp, or virtual paralegal. Don’t forget the contract research attorney you used last year. There is a strong possibility that he has worked with a virtual paralegal who has proven to be trustworthy and reliable.
Social Media. There is no doubt about it. Social media is here to stay. Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are great sources for virtual paralegal referrals. Most virtual paralegals or virtual assistants utilize social media to build their businesses. Monitor a virtual paralegal’s tweets and posts for a few weeks to observe the level of professionalism and knowledge. Talk to attorneys and paralegals and let them know what you need. They will be more than happy to make suggestions. Try these search terms: virtual paralegal, paralegal services, virtual assistant, virtual support. You can also search the Twitter hashtag #virtualparalegals.
Internet Search Engines. Google and Bing search engines often bring different names to the top of the search results. Consider the search term “virtual paralegal blog”. Many virtual paralegals maintain their own websites and blogs, particularly those who have chosen the virtual path as their full-time employment. Blogs are particularly helpful in identifying writing skills and analytical thinking abilities.
Paralegal Professional Associations. A truly professional virtual paralegal will maintain a membership in one or more paralegal professional associations to stay abreast of changes in the legal industry. Check with your local or state paralegal association, or contact the following national associations to find a paralegal in your practice area or jurisdiction who has shown an interest in working virtually. Be aware that some paralegals offer services in this manner on a full-time basis, while some paralegals are merely trying to supplement their income. The latter group is likely to be available only for evening and weekend assignments.
Virtual Assistant Organizations. There are several virtual assistant organizations which will be happy to help you in your search. Although these organizations are more general in nature, some of their members focus on legal support services for attorneys.
Virtual Paralegals and Virtual Assistants. Most virtual paralegals and virtual assistants are consummate professionals. They know you are most likely to be happy if you find the right person. If the paralegal or assistant you are interviewing by phone does not seem to be the right fit, ask her if she knows someone who has a stronger skill set in the particular practice area you need. Last week, I readily admitted to an attorney that I had no experience with class action litigations, and I am happy to make referrals under those circumstances.
Attorney Coaches and Legal Staffing Recruiters. As the concept of virtual paralegals and virtual assistants has become more accepted by attorneys, those professionals who coach and mentor attorneys have become quicker to suggest this viable solution. Ask your coach, mentor or local legal staffing professional if they personally know a virtual professional who could help you. Once again, personal referrals go a long way in establishing a firm foundation for a virtual relationship.
A paradigm shift to virtual paralegal or administrative support does not have to be occur “cold turkey”. Test the waters. Identify one project or case. Decide on one candidate. Give it a trial run. Assess the pros and cons. Refine the process. Change the candidate if needed. You’ll never know unless you try it. Many attorneys have a great experience, and they stay with the same virtual paralegal for years. As the trust level grows, the number of cases, tasks and projects you trust to your virtual paralegal will grow. Before you know it, a virtual paralegal has become your right hand, and you will probably have never even met him or her in person.
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
Is running your law practice growing to more than you can handle, but maybe not enough for full-time help? As a prudent business person, perhaps you aren’t ready to make the commitment to hire more staff or to lease additional space to accommodate them. If you find yourself working too many long hours just to keep up, and doing work that you should be delegating, maybe it’s time to experiment with a virtual paralegal or virtual administrative assistant. Virtual workers can permit you to flexibly expand and contract your office staff as your needs fluctuate on a project by project basis.
Confidentiality and Security
Some lawyers worry about confidentiality and security when they can’t look over the shoulder of an employee. Cathy Ribble, owner of Digital Paralegal Services, LLC, says her firm has training concerning confidentiality and security. When an assignment is completed, any printed documents are shredded, returned to the lawyer, or shipped to a third party at the lawyer’s direction. They use password protected, secure internet network connections and their electronic devices are password protected. “I avoid open forums for calendar and document collaboration tools published for the general internet public. There are many secure, encrypted and password-protected alternatives for collaboration,” says Ribble.
Andrea Cannavina, CEO of Legal Typist, Inc., emphasizes that selecting the right technology and the right people are important elements of protecting clients. Most of their digital assistants have over 10 years of experience in a traditional law firm setting. Most such organizations work with independent contractors, so make sure subcontractors are required to enter into confidentiality agreements. Subcontractors for Legal Typist “have to separately initial a confidentiality clause in the [independent contractor] agreement,” says Cannavina.
Range of Services
Virtual legal assistants can handle just about everything your traditional assistant does. I use a virtual assistant in my business, and she even brings me coffee sometimes. (She’s local and usually comes into my office about once a week, stopping by Starbucks on the way.) Ribble describes the virtual services she offers by saying, “I find myself providing the same paralegal support I provided while working in a traditional law firm.” She rarely meets lawyers face to face.
Here are some examples of the work that specialized virtual legal assistants and virtual paralegals may handle: transcription of dictation or handwritten notes; initial draft transcriptions of pleadings, motions, letters, blog posts, stipulations and interviews; revisions to the foregoing; case and deadline management; document review and organization; pleading preparation, review local court rules, electronic court filings, electronic and mail service of document copies; assistance with legal briefs (citation review, editing, table of authorities, table of contents, binding, printing and/or digital formats); coordination of service of process; billing assistance; internet research and investigation; document production, bates numbering and other discovery tasks; and preparation of hearing notebooks. Some assistants will communicate directly with your clients via telephone or email. Others only interact with the attorney’s office.
Cannavina’s company focuses on digital dictation, but that’s not as limiting as it may sound. “Our clients don’t just use us for documents – think of dictation like speaking your needs – we do calendaring, opening new electronic case files, adding contacts and such – mostly for our clients who also use Clio,” explains Cannavina.
Does your virtual assistant or paralegal need to work in the same jurisdiction where you practice? They don’t have licensure requirements, so they aren’t legally limited to any particular jurisdiction. Legal Typist works nationwide, but they limit their practice to the U.S. for security reasons. They keep all their processes and technology on U.S. soil. While being in the same jurisdiction is helpful, Ribble believes “practice area trumps jurisdiction. A well-trained experienced paralegal can use basic practice area skills to research a new jurisdiction’s requirements.”
Delivery of Documents and Information
Depending on the type of services provided, virtual workers may accept automated telephone dictation, web upload of text and audio files, email, overnight shipment of documents, and even regular U.S. mail. Some services handle only digital documents and don’t do any courthouse or electronic filings. Virtual assistants and paralegals may also work with your online law practice management software, which can enhance your ability to track the progress of projects.
Although the hourly rate paid to virtual paralegals and digital assistants usually exceeds the hourly rate of similarly skilled employees, the law firm may actually experience a cost savings. As every virtual service provider emphasizes, the lawyer pays only for actual time worked, and does not have to pay for overtime, vacation time, sick time, coffee breaks, training or professional development expenses, personal phone call time, payroll taxes, health insurance or retirement benefits. The attorney is also spared the cost of providing an office, furniture, computer, software and equipment for the worker. There are no repair, maintenance, insurance or property tax costs for those items, either.
In general, virtual paralegal rates range between $30 and $65 per hour. Some virtual paralegals charge 25% to 30% of the lawyer’s hourly rate. Some have volume discounts. Prices for virtual legal transcription services are measured in many different formats. The price may be quoted based on the number of words, pages or minutes of recorded audio or even a flat monthly fee. The rate may be influenced by the volume of work contracted for, the clarity of the recording, the number of speakers per recording, or the requested turnaround time.
Conflicts of Interest
Lawyers may worry about how they will manage conflict checking when they use a virtual service. Conflicts haven’t come up for Digital Paralegal Services, due mainly to the different geographical locations from which the work comes. Cannavina reports “in the 10+ years I’ve been a VA, I have not encountered one conflict.” Both companies have a policy of requiring subcontractors to stop work immediately and report to them if they encounter a familiar name.
Nevertheless, all parties should be vigilant about protecting against conflicts of interest. “The rules are no different for a Virtual Paralegal and Virtual Administrative Assistant than for a paralegal, legal secretary or anyone else working under the supervision of an attorney in the brick and mortar setting,” says Vicki Voisin, the self-styled “Paralegal Mentor.” She frequently writes and speaks on ethical issues for paralegals.
Rule 5.3 of the ABA Model Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct requires that lawyers with supervisory authority over nonlawyers make “reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer.” Voisin recommends that all types of virtual assistants “maintain a detailed conflicts log that includes the name of the firm and attorney they’re working with, the name of the case and the parties to the action, and any other parties involved.” They should also be aware of “personal conflicts they might have: relatives/friends on the opposing side, stock or business interests that might be a conflict, cases they worked on in previous employment, etc.” says Voisin.
Ribble says she prefers to work with paralegals certified by the National Association of Legal Assistants because they “must meet certain ethics requirements within their CLE credits, so the attorney is assured of a baseline understanding of [the attorney’s ethical requirements].” There are a number of other certifying organizations for paralegals and legal assistants.
If you are now ready to dip your toe into the virtual pool, you can think of the guidance in this article as your virtual floaties. Happy swimming!
© 2011 Debra L. Bruce. Adapted from an article by the author originally published in the September 2011 issue of the Texas Bar Journal.
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
This year is almost over. As you think about next year, do you have things you want to do differently? Have you started contemplating your New Year’s Resolutions yet? Do you notice some of the same items on your list that you had last year? Perhaps you are a victim of “the power of habit.”
New York Times business reporter, Charles Duhigg, published an excellent book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business in 2012. He summarized research by neuroscientists on habits and provided illuminating case studies of how people and companies broke bad habits and transformed their futures. Using the research and principles Duhigg described, I’ll provide some guidance on how you can look at the patterns in your life to design structures for better habits in the future. Read more «Overcome Bad Habit Loops»