Time Management for Law Firm Associates (Part 1: Tips & Tricks for the Work Day)

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve had days that seem to disappear… by 6pm, you say to yourself, exasperated, “What a hectic day! Not a moment to myself, and yet I’m not sure what I accomplished. My ‘to-do’ list looks exactly like (or longer than) it did this morning!”

When I worked at a law firm, I had countless days like this. The practice of law requires us to be extremely timely and time-sensitive (billing in six-minute increments doesn’t leave much room for inefficiencies), but unfortunately, time management is not a skill most law schools teach.

Each of us has our own unique “ideal” for what an efficient work environment looks like (e.g., some people work best under pressure, while others like to tackle things in a steady and consistent manner), but I’ve found that the following time management tips work well for most associates:

  1. To-Do List:  First thing in the morning, either create your “to-do” list or review the one you created the night before (see # 7).
  2. Prioritize:  Number each task with its level of priority. For example, a #1 might be a task/deadline that absolutely must be finished or met by the end of the day. This will help you focus on completing the most important matters first, regardless of surprises or inevitable “fire alarms” that may arise.
  3. Delegate:  Determine if you can delegate any of the items on your to-do list (perhaps to a paralegal, a junior associate or your assistant). Delegating early in the day allows your team member to ask/answer any questions that arise and tackle any roadblocks as soon as possible.
  4. Plan:  Before beginning each task, take five minutes to plan out what it will take to complete the task. This will this help you to anticipate resources you might need (for example, requiring an answer from someone first or asking another colleague for precedent). Additionally, visualizing completing a task makes it seem more manageable.
  5. Focus:  Focus completely on the task at hand. This means closing all internet browsers, putting your phone on silent (or in a drawer) and dedicating enough uninterrupted time to complete the task. Building in a short period of rest in between strong bursts of focus (e.g., five minutes after each 30- or 60-minute interval during which you allow yourself to completely and freely “unfocus”) can be helpful and motivating. If necessary, set a timer (and if you use your cell phone for this, be sure to keep it on airplane mode). I must caution that “unfocusing” will not be restorative if it simply redirects your focus to something else, especially something likely to occupy your attention (i.e., this is not the time to re-read that email from your ex).
  6. Cross-Off Completed Items:  Be sure to cross off completed items on your “to do” list once you’ve completed them. This will provide you with a sense of accomplishment and help to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.
  7. Update Your List:  Before you leave the office or put your work behind you for the day, take out your “to-do” list and re-work it for the day ahead–completed tasks will be removed and new tasks will be added. This is the list (see #1) that you will review at the beginning of tomorrow to start the new day.

Be sure to check out Part 2 of “Time Management for Law Firm Associates,” which focuses on some bigger picture ideas about setting yourself up for time management success.

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