Time Management for the Successful Lawyer (and Law Student)

Vol. 40 No. 2

By

Carla J. DeVelder, a former law school associate dean with experience in student affairs and career development, is in-house counsel in the insurance industry in Omaha, Nebraska.

By implementing good habits in law school, law students will be more productive and balanced while in school, and will also set themselves up for greater personal and professional success.

For many, time management practices (both good and bad) are learned in law school and cemented into habit in the early years of practice. By implementing good habits in law school, law students will be more productive and balanced while in school, and will also set themselves up for greater personal and professional success.

 

Bad Time Management Habits to Avoid

Perfectionism. For law students and lawyers, perfectionism is viewed as a positive trait. When asked to state a weakness, many times interviewees will blithely state that they are perfectionists, hoping to show the employer that even their weakness is a true, hidden strength. However, there is a difference between perfectionism and excellence, and the successful lawyer will know when to exercise perfectionism and when good is really good enough. For example, spending extra time and attention on producing a clearly written, well-polished brief is an important use of your time. Applying the same kind of energy on a routine letter or in-house memorandum is not the most productive use of your efforts. Lawyers need to be able to prioritize in terms of urgency but also in terms of importance of the work product. If they do not, every minute of the day will be slavishly devoted to minutiae, and productivity will be sacrificed.

If you can’t prioritize for yourself, ask others for help. If you are buried under assignments from a number of associates and partners, find your mentor to discuss how to prioritize. Make sure you understand the scope of the assignments and any applicable due dates so that you can properly assess. In your coursework, do not sacrifice your daily assignments to work on an outline for exam preparation. As your professors will quickly tell you, true understanding of the daily work and participation in class are the best exam preparation you will find.

In your personal life, realize that you may not be able to get to every family function or make everything perfect for everyone else. Make sure that your time with your family and friends is meaningful and that you are actually present when you are with them (as opposed to stressing over assignments, deadlines, or hearings). Buy the birthday cake from the store and know that your presence at the party is more important to your child than who made the frosting.

Indecisiveness. This one is tough. For law students and new lawyers, everything about the law and/or starting practice is foreign and, when nothing is familiar, the thought of error (and its impact on the client) can be paralyzing. Knowledge is the key to fighting indecisiveness. Make sure you know your facts and confirm them as much as possible. Do your research and arm yourself with case law. Now, sit down and analyze the facts and the law like the lawyer you are! At the end of your analysis, make a recommendation, even if only to yourself. It is OK and advisable to consult with peers or mentors with your strategy. Confirmation from another source that you are on the right track will solidify your course of action. Make your decision and proceed. If you receive new or better information at a later point in time, you can re-evaluate.

Workaholism. Like perfectionism, being a workaholic is often touted as an admirable trait. However, working hard and liking your work are not the same as being a workaholic. Despite logging in an extraordinary amount of hours and sacrificing their health and loved ones for their jobs, workaholics are frequently ineffective employees. Workaholics take on more work than they can handle effectively, are unable to delegate or work as a team players, and often refuse to take time off, even when their work performance is affected. Many lawyers are so busy focusing on the next deposition, trial, or brief that they can’t focus on anything else. Practicing law is a marathon, not a sprint. You will be more effective if you learn to pace yourself and schedule time away to spend with family, friends, hobbies, exercising, etc., now. Postponing recreation until work is finished is fine in the short term, but there is always more work on the horizon and continuing such a pace will leave you overwhelmed and depressed.

 

Good Time Management Habits to Embrace

Use a daily “Action List.” If you are like most busy professionals, your “to do” list runs to multiple pages and appears insurmountable. To tackle it, each morning, pick three items that are most important and focus on getting those items—and only those items—done that day. Of course, emergencies can and will happen. When they do, reprioritize your list of three. Carry this practice to your personal life as well. At the end of every day, you’ll know what you’ve accomplished and that “to do” list will be more manageable.

Arrange for an hour or two of uninterrupted time every day during your high energy time. Hide out in the library. Screen your calls. Turn off e-mail. Wake up before the kids. By doing everything you can to really focus on your work and maximize your most productive time, you will get much more accomplished than when your attention is constantly divided. Be disciplined enough to protect this time on a daily basis and it will help to know that you have time set aside to handle the most important tasks of the day.

Stay organized. The costs of disorganization, in terms of time, stress, and lost opportunities, are enormous. Set up a simple filing system for work and personal projects and stay on top of them. Be mindful of what needs to be kept and what can be thrown away. Calendar appointments or conference calls (along with a quick note about the topic). Return phone calls within 24 hours. When you leave a message for someone, provide them with a good time to call you back to avoid an endless game of phone tag. Jot a quick note in your file or calendar system to show that you made the call and when to follow up. Get your support system (spouse, kids, and staff) on board. Let them know the system and your expectations for them to assist.

With a little planning, you can master time management as a law student and take those skills with you to your new job.

 

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