FRONTLINES

Simple Steps

Back in grade school, my father and I constantly battled about how I did things around the house. No, he wasn’t urging me to work harder to obtain perfection. Instead, he wanted me to stop obsessively doing things over and over, seeking to remove a single flaw when I had already produced two or three or more efforts that were more than good enough. He would patiently try to explain that success in life didn’t come from total perfection—it came instead from raising your work to an acceptable level of quality and then doing as much at that level as you possibly could.

As you might guess, I was hard to convince then, and still am. Deep in the heart of almost every lawyer, or future lawyer, lives a serious case of perfectionism. My father’s theory isn’t necessarily right for producing legal work, where even a small mistake can sometimes mean devastating losses for the client and a malpractice action for the lawyer. But when managing your practice, there are lots of less-than-perfect things you can do. My goal with this column is to give you quick tips to ease your practice management tasks along, so you have more time to devote to legal tasks that must be perfect—in short, simple steps that are good enough. Let’s get started with tips on prioritizing daily to-dos.

Make two lists.

Many lawyers struggle every day to keep on track. Constant interruptions make it hard to keep focused on, much less complete, the most important tasks you face each day. And when things go on like this for days or weeks, it can feel like every file or stack of paper on your desk is on fire. Here’s what you do.
  • Start by making a single to-do list containing everything that you can think of that needs to be done. Don’t try to organize or prioritize the tasks, just list them.
  • Next, go over the main list carefully and break it into two lists, one for yourself and one for your secretary or legal assistant. On your list, keep only things that must be done by a lawyer. If you don’t have to do it yourself, don’t.
  • Take another look at the lists and, on a new, high-priority list, pull off the three or four things you know must be accomplished today or you might as well not show up tomorrow. Delegate the priority items on your assistant’s overall list and get started on your own priority items. Now.
  • Check in with your assistant for a progress report at around 3 p.m. each day. This allows time to get things back on track if unexpected events are derailing your plans.
  • Revise your lists before you leave for the day, or each morning as soon as you arrive in the office.

Let the high-priority list guide the work you must tackle each day, but keep the second list handy so that you can add less-pressing tasks to it as they come up. This way you can stay focused on what’s most critical now without distraction, because you won’t have to worry about what you may be forgetting: It’s all on one of the lists.

This system doesn’t require learning new technology, and costs no more than the price of a legal pad and a few minutes of your time, yet it can serve as a rope across a raging river you’re trying to cross—something to grab onto and reorient yourself as the steady flow of work threatens to pull you under. And that’s good enough.

About the Author

Laura A. Calloway

is Director of the Alabama State Bar’s Practice Management Assistance Program.

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