YourABA: June 2013
YourABA July 2013 Masthead

Strategies to better manage your time
and the workplace

Marian Lee

Amy L. Jarmon

Every day, lawyers face multiple deadlines, a sometimes dizzying array of projects that must be managed and, inevitably, fires that must be put out before they rage out of control. Merely putting in more hours doesn’t always help — often, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to deal with all of the demands, said Amy L. Jarmon, author of Time and Workplace Management for Lawyers, a new book from ABA Publishing.

Without solid strategies in place for coping, many lawyers will never quite feel in control of their days, said Jarmon, the assistant dean for Academic Success Programs and an adjunct professor at Texas Tech University School of Law. Jarmon offers some strategies from her book and steps for implementing those strategies.

What is the importance of organizing your physical workspace to achieving efficiency?

By organizing your physical workspace, you will be able to increase your productivity in several ways. Carefully planning the furniture layout allows you to have everything within easy reach. By considering work station ergonomics, such as chair height, monitor height and keyboard position, you can minimize fatigue, neck or back strain and other workplace maladies that diminish one’s ability to focus. Having sufficient storage (filing cabinets, drawers and shelves) will help you keep work surfaces decluttered. Limiting the files and papers on your desk to ones you anticipate using during the day allows you to organize the materials into stacks by task (projects to do, files to refer to or files for meetings). With better organization, you will no longer waste time hunting for a paper that has disappeared in towering stacks of files, papers and books on every surface.

What are some key tips for setting a routine to help lawyers feel that they have better control over their days?

Evaluate your legal environment. Each legal environment has its own idiosyncrasies and rhythm. By asking a series of questions provided in the book, a lawyer can gain greater awareness and choose time and workplace management strategies more wisely. Determine when you have the most energy to be productive during the day. Everyone has high-energy, low-energy and medium-energy times during the workday and workweek. If you do not know when these times are during your day and week, keep track for two weeks and look for patterns. Whenever possible, reserve your high-energy, productive times for projects that need heavy mental lifting. Complete routine tasks in your low-energy periods.

Know your firm’s policies and your supervisor’s preferences on work styles. Each firm has its own culture regarding open/closed office doors, staff or attorneys answering telephone calls and prompt return of telephone calls and emails. Some supervisors are more flexible about differences in how people work. You may have more or less latitude in the strategies you wish to implement or may need to explain your choices.

Analyze the common interruptions to your work and the amount of time you lose to them. Telephone calls, emails and drop-in visitors are some of the common workplace interruptions. If you are unaware of the interruptions you encounter or the amount of time they take out of your day, keep track for a week. Schedule reserved time in your weekly schedule. Have at least two blocks of time in your weekly calendar that can be used for unexpected projects, reorganization of your schedule because of an emergency that displaced project time, additional time needed for a task that you underestimated, or appointment slots needed on short notice. If things are on track, then use the reserved time to move on to the next task on your to-do lists. Capture windfall time. When a meeting is cancelled or a client is running late because of traffic, consider how you can use the windfall time productively. Know the types of tasks you can fit into various size blocks of time so you do not fritter away the time.

What is the importance of goal setting?

Clarifying goals and priorities allows you to focus on the most important tasks for the day and not become distracted by less important things. Goals state what you want to achieve while priorities organize the tasks that will help you achieve those goals. Without goals and priorities, a lawyer can stay very busy all of the time and work many hours of overtime without accomplishing what is most important — and frequently most fulfilling.

Set yearly goals with strategies for achieving those goals and tasks within the strategies. Make your goals realistic, manageable, specific and measurable to optimize your being able to reach them. Revisit your goals regularly to check your progress — at least once a month. If necessary, add new strategies and tasks to stay on target. It is important to have both professional and personal goals so that you can achieve a work-life balance. Your goals will be supplemented by master, monthly, weekly and daily task lists as appropriate.

What is your advice for organizing incoming and outgoing items?

If you have a staff member assigned to you, that person may presort your incoming items before they arrive in your box. If you are doing the sort, having a consistent system for incoming items is essential. Decide for each item whether to file it in a client file or a reference file, forward it to someone else for whom the item is relevant, do it if it will take less than 15 minutes, delegate it with instructions, schedule it for later action on your task lists, read it later, or trash it.

Supplement your system with a tickler file where you file the item for later action by month and date after it has been added to your appropriate task lists. Sort your incoming stack at least three times a day (early morning, midday and before going home). You will be less likely to overlook an important item if you have multiple sorts. Make a decision as to what needs to be done with each item rather than just return it to the stack to think about later. For outgoing items, distribute them several times during the day so they do not delay others’ work or miss mail pickup times.

What strategies can lawyers implement to manage crises effectively while minimizing disruptions to their day?

It is important to distinguish between a real crisis that must be handled immediately and a perceived “crisis” that may not need to be handled now or may not need to be handled by you. On your daily task list, prioritize your tasks into three categories: most important, important and least important. This prioritized list will help you have a solid perspective on the importance of the task you are working on when you are asked to stop your work and switch to another task. Evaluate the new task for its level of importance. If it is not a real crisis and the person will be open to discussion, explain your work priorities and indicate that you will work on the task later or someone else will need to complete the task if it needs to be handled sooner. If it is a real crisis, stay calm and take a few minutes to evaluate the situation carefully. Decide what tasks need to be completed, the time needed for the tasks, staff who can assist, advice that might be needed and options for reorganizing your workload. After the crisis, regroup and reprioritize your own task list if necessary.

What is the best way to deal with competing demands on your time?

Create a project list to track all assignments. Whenever possible, confirm the assignment details and any deadlines in writing. Set an artificial deadline at least two days before the real deadline to allow for final editing or other adjustments that are needed. Estimate the time needed for the project and then calendar the tasks for completion. Should you realize after the fact that you have a conflict in deadlines for several assignments, talk to the assigning attorney. If multiple attorneys are involved, you may want to ask your supervisor to indicate the priorities for the assignments.

What do you feel are the most important pieces of advice for lawyers to take away from your book?

Time and workplace management are difficult topics for many lawyers because of the nature and pace of legal work. The strategies in the book are meant to be adopted in stages. One cannot implement all of the strategies at once. It would be overwhelming to do so. By implementing several new strategies and then returning for more strategies to implement, a lawyer will experience the cumulative effect of changes over time. Persevere. As your productivity increases, you will feel more in control of your professional life and recapture your personal life.

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