The scales of justice may symbolize the legal profession to most, but as a busy lawyer, you may consider a ticking clock to be the more apt visual metaphor.
Time considerations dictate virtually every aspect of lawyering, no matter your area of practice. Timetables set by rules of procedure and your clients’ priorities shape your daily schedule. Deadlines for filing a pleading or closing a deal carry tangible legal significance. Too often, you probably find yourself wishing you had more than 24 hours in the day to get things done.
Time management constitutes perhaps the most critical skill in a lawyer’s toolbox, and yet, few lawyers receive meaningful training in its principles and techniques. Many lawyers struggle to prioritize and allocate time effectively, with negative consequences. Missing a meeting or a filing deadline can cost your clients valuable rights. Rushing to complete a draft contract or pleading under time pressure risks making embarrassing and expensive errors.
In other words, manage your time poorly, and you expose your clients to legal and financial harm and yourself to malpractice risks. Manage it well, and you can deliver consistent results and win new business.
Let’s look at six ways busy lawyers can manage their time more effectively.
Conduct Periodic Time Audits
You cannot tackle a time management problem without first understanding it. That’s where time audits come in. A periodic assessment of how you use your time can identify inefficiencies and redundancies in your daily workflow. For example, an effective audit can measure:
- How much time you spend on administrative tasks more suitable for an assistant or paralegal.
- Which tasks take you the longest to complete.
- What types of interruptions cause the greatest disruption to your workflow.
- How much time it takes you to devote meaningful focus and thought to a particular task.
- How you allocate your attention to the tasks you need to complete (i.e., do you attempt to multitask?)
With this data in hand, you can begin to eliminate lousy time management habits and replace them with good ones.
Managing your time effectively requires knowing which task should get done first, second, third, and so on. Deadlines, client demands, and your work habits – which can differ from lawyer-to-lawyer and from day-to-day – all figure into prioritizing tasks. For setting your daily priorities, here are some helpful reminders:
- It’s ok to leave tasks unfinished at the end of the day. Be realistic about what you can accomplish.
- The scale of or time needed to complete a task should not necessarily dictate its day-to-day priority.
- A task with a deadline far in the future should not automatically go to the bottom of the priority list.
- Setting client expectations for when and how you will respond to their questions or demands on your time can make prioritizing easier.
- Procrastination is the enemy of prioritization. Do not let fears about or dislike for specific tasks override their priority.
Learn Skills & Techniques
Prioritizing tasks is one thing; actually doing them is another. If you find yourself staring at an uncompleted to-do list and wondering where your day went, then it’s time to research and try out some skills and techniques employed by successful time managers. For example:
- Let go of the dream of multitasking. For most people, multitasking is a myth. We get far more done, and we do it better, by focusing our energy and attention on a single task at a time, foregoing all others until we reach the task’s natural stopping point.
- Try out the Pomodoro Technique, developed by time management guru Francesco Cirillo, in which you work in fixed increments of time (Cirillo suggests 25-minute blocks) interspersed with scheduled breaks.
- Allocate daily blocks of time to specific tasks. For example, dedicate ten-to-eleven a.m. and three-to-four p.m. to reading and responding to emails. Outside that window, do not engage with email except in high-priority circumstances.
These are just three examples to pique your interest. An entire industry exists to help you learn time management skills and techniques. Dip your toe in the pool and see how it feels.
Lawyers often believe they can do it all. However, too many fail to recognize that others can perform certain tasks just as well, often faster and more effectively.
Anything your time management audit flags as a purely administrative task, for instance, should land on someone else’s plate, not yours. Delegating frees-up valuable time in your day and reduces overall stress.
A lawyer who struggles to delegate often worries that leaving a task to someone else means it will not get done the way the lawyer prefers.
Automation provides an efficient and sensible response to that worry. By automating tasks using software designed with lawyers in mind, you can standardize tasks, which keeps errors and variations from your preferred output to a minimum. Additionally, it eliminates time wasted on duplicative effort.
Lawyers can also unlock valuable time in their day by outsourcing the task of new client intake to a legal call center. Not only does intake outsourcing relieve lawyers and their staff of a considerable administrative burden, it also widens a firm’s reach by offering 24/7/365 coverage and quick response times to prospective clients. That means you never miss a new client opportunity.
Improve Your Law Practice (and Your Life) With Effective Time Management
Busy lawyers do not have the luxury of ignoring that ticking clock. Luckily, through effective time management, lawyers can find ways to make that tick-tick-tick feel like the comfortable rhythm of their workday, rather than a white-knuckle countdown to looming disaster.