Successful Lawyer Time Management

A lot of lawyers struggle with time management.  Many lament the unpredictability of their schedules and the volume of last minute client “emergencies.”  Some get so many interruptions during the day that they don’t actually get a good start on their most important projects until after 5:00 pm. They work long hours just to make a little progress.

Some attorneys want to please their clients, so they promise to deliver the client’s work at the earliest date they can get it out. Unfortunately, they usually make the assessment in a vacuum, without first assessing the other commitments they have already made, and without allowing space for unexpected contingencies.

There are many such issues that affect an attorney’s productivity. Here is my top ten list of time management behaviors of productive lawyers:

1. Update your to-do list daily. Of course, that first requires that you keep a written to-do list. Attorneys who keep their upcoming tasks in their heads tend to feel more stressed and frazzled. They’re also more likely to overcommit themselves, get started too late, or forget things.

2. Prioritize your 3 most important tasks. Lawyers who don’t keep the focus on what’s most important to get done today get distracted by the papers on their desk or the latest email. You can’t afford that with so many genuinely urgent matters also derailing your plans during the day.

3. Delegate as much as possible. Savvy lawyers push the work they don’t enjoy off their desks and onto someone else’s. Chances are, if you procrastinate on it, it’s not your strength or it’s too far below your competency level. Either way, it’s better for you and your client if you can delegate it.

4. Identify activities slipping through the cracks weekly. Effective lawyers take a strategic approach. That includes stepping back regularly to assess where they are. At either the beginning or end of the week, make a brief review of all your projects. Catch what you missed and make a plan for the week ahead.

5. Keep a sacred uninterrupted productivity hour. Lawyers who allow everyone else to determine their schedule have trouble getting anything finished, and run up the client’s bill unnecessarily by working inefficiently. Your co-workers and your clients really can manage without you for one hour a day.

6. Limit returning phone calls to twice per day. Unless those calls relate to the hot project you’re working on right now, they’ll distract you. Bunch your telephone calls together at a time when you typically need a break from focusing on the computer screen. Give your assistant a script that includes the hour your caller may expect you to call back. Most clients are satisfied if they just know when they will hear from you today.

7. Track all time, whether billable or not. Some firms require their lawyers to account for at least eight hours of activity per day. Tracking all your time keeps you honest with yourself and shows you where the leaks are.

8. Train subordinates to do more complex work. The most efficient attorneys recognize the value of investing in the development of those who help them. Attorneys who say, “It’s just easier to do it myself,” also say “I’m just barely keeping my head above water.”

9. Let go of controlling how work is done. Effective managers give clear instructions about the expected results, and then get out of the way. That allows those you supervise to choose production methods that capitalize on their particular talents and abilities. You can require quality and timeliness without micromanaging. Keep your focus on your own work.

10. Fire or refer clients you don’t enjoy working with. Difficult clients tend to demand a lot more attention than our best clients, then complain about the service and the bill. They leave us distracted and weary when we turn to the clients we should be giving our best service to. Put your attention on what you want more of.

Do these 10 productivity pointers sound hard to implement? Are you good at some of them and lousy at others? Are these things you know you should do, but somehow you still don’t? You may need a buddy to encourage you or to hold you accountable. You may need more resources on how to go about some of them. You may need a way to make routine behaviors more interesting.

I encourage you to experiment with trying out at least one of these tips for 3 weeks. I would be delighted to hear how your experiment works out.

© 2008 Debra Bruce. This article originally appeared in the November 2008 The Practice Manager which is published by the State Bar of Texas.