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February 05, 2021 Feature

How to Work More Efficiently and Effectively

Allison C. Shields Johs

The title of this article was originally “How to Work More Efficiently,” but both efficiency (doing things the right way) and effectiveness (doing the right things) are important to your productivity. This article offers strategies for both.

Manage Interruptions

All too often, lawyers fall into the trap of constantly reacting to emails, telephone calls, or other interruptions instead of deciding in advance where to spend their time and energy. Allowing too many interruptions is a major obstacle to effectiveness and efficiency.

Get a Handle on Your Email

Email can easily become one of the worst time wasters in your practice; don’t let it hijack your productivity. A good way to prevent that is to clear your inbox of anything that does not belong there.

First, limit your work email account to business messages. Create a separate account for subscriptions or shopping sites so sales promotions and shipping confirmations stay out of the way of your most important messages. Delete any unnecessary messages immediately. Remove yourself from one email list per day until you’re only on lists that you actively participate in or routinely derive valuable information from. If you miss being on a list you’ve deleted, you can always resubscribe.

Don’t use your inbox as your task list. If an email represents a task, move it out of your inbox and into your tasks folder, or add it to a to-do list or action folder. In Outlook, you can drag and drop an email message directly to your tasks folder. If the email requires action by someone else, forward it to that person right away with your instructions. Then delete the email from your inbox, move it to an alternate folder for follow-up, or convert it into a task for follow-up.

Similarly, if an email represents a deadline or appointment reminder, get it into your calendar right away and delete the email. In Outlook, drag and drop the message to your calendar and all of the information in the email will stay with the appointment.

Create folders and set up rules and filters for your email so that messages are automatically routed to the correct folder or even forwarded to others in the office to handle. This will help reduce inbox clutter by removing nonurgent messages from your main inbox so that you can review them when you have time and will automatically highlight messages that need to be addressed immediately. In Outlook, you can create rules to automatically flag or color-code emails from specific people so that those messages stand out in your inbox.

Email that is a client communication should be saved with the file, rather than languishing in your inbox, where it may be difficult to locate later. Most case management programs will allow you to save both incoming and outgoing emails directly to a client’s file.

Now that your inbox is clutter-free, it should be easier to act on it efficiently. I recommend that you don’t check email first thing in the morning. Tackle your most important priority for the day first. For most lawyers, urgent messages don’t arrive via email overnight or first thing in the morning, but if that is a frequent occurrence for you, limit yourself to a quick skim of your inbox to ensure no urgent messages have arrived and then move on to your first task.

Schedule specific times to review and respond to email daily. If you are waiting for something urgent or your practice requires constant email monitoring, either scan periodically for urgent messages and leave the rest for your designated email time or assign a staff member to do the skimming for you. Turn off email notification sounds and pop-up boxes; they are too distracting.

Next, keep your emails short and request a specific action or response. Brief messages beget brief responses. Give good instructions and tell recipients what you expect. Create Outlook Quick for any text you type frequently so you can insert blocks of text into an email message in just a few clicks.

Finally, know when email is not the appropriate medium for your communication. Stop endless email chains. For example, tools like Doodle or Calendly are better than email for scheduling meetings. Make a phone call to discuss complicated or sensitive topics that could be misinterpreted in an email.

Limit or Eliminate Phone Interruptions

When you answer the phone every time it rings, no matter what you are doing, you are putting others’ priorities ahead of your own. Limit unscheduled phone calls. Clients want to know that they will get your full attention and have their questions answered, so have your assistant answer and schedule a telephone appointment, or give a specific time in your voice mail message when you will return calls.

Develop “do not disturb” time. If you were meeting with a client in your office, you wouldn’t answer a nonurgent phone call. Treat your work on a client’s file the same way. Put your phone on “do not disturb,” or ask your assistant to answer all calls during this time.

Set expectations. At intake, tell clients that you prefer telephone appointments so that they will be sure to have your undivided attention, but, if they have a pressing question, you will return their call within 24 hours or by the end of the day.

Give Up Multitasking

If you multitask, you probably think that you’re being productive. In reality, you can’t do two things that require mental energy at once. When you multitask, you are actually rapidly switching between two different tasks. Studies have shown that when you multitask, those tasks take longer to complete and are prone to more errors. It’s just another form of interruption.

The next time you’re in the middle of a task, before you decide to answer the phone or wave a colleague into your office, consider the potential cost to your productivity. Instead, set office hours when you are available for meetings or to check in with those you supervise; plan ahead, prioritize, and ensure you have the materials and information available before you begin a task; and turn off your computer screen or close your email program when you take a phone call to limit distractions.

Make the Most of the Time You Have


Prioritizing is the ultimate effectiveness tool; it focuses you on the right activities.

In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the late Stephen Covey observed that just because something is urgent doesn’t always mean it is important. In fact, a lot of things that seem urgent, like the ringing telephone or the email sitting in your inbox, may not be very important at all.

Your instinct may be to prioritize the urgent without assessing its importance. This puts others’ priorities ahead of your own. Instead, identify and devote your time and energy to the right activities—those that have a high value, advance your core values, are the most profitable, and require your personal skills or expertise.

Identifying the right activities isn’t always easy. Billable work can be easily mistaken for the highest-value work because that’s what clients pay you for. But sometimes nonbillable work such as creating effective billing systems, developing business, training, or strategic planning has more long-term value. Consider the result that task will produce for you, your practice, or your clients, over both the short and long term, instead of focusing just on the task itself. Prioritize tasks and activities with the highest value. Eliminate or delegate the rest.

Create a “Don’t Do” List

Long to-do lists that just keep getting longer are frustrating, exhausting, and, ultimately, completely unproductive. Every once in a while, it is helpful to step back and analyze the many tasks you perform each day to determine whether some of them should be delegated to others, outsourced, or eliminated entirely. Create a “don’t do” list.

Anything that distracts you from your main goals and most important tasks belongs on the list. It can include activities or specific types of clients or matters. Take your strengths and weaknesses into consideration. For example, if you are a great speaker but a poor writer, perhaps writing articles, motions, and briefs should go on your “don’t do” list. You can use a ghostwriter, hire a contract lawyer to do the writing for you, or delegate the task to someone else in the firm with excellent writing skills. Focus your energies on trying cases or giving seminars, presentations, or other activities where you can showcase your speaking skills.

The “don’t do” list narrows your options so that you’re not overwhelmed by so many choices every time something new arises. Knowing in advance what things you won’t do lets you stop analyzing everything that comes to your attention. It’s a shorthand way of cutting through all of the clutter of what needs to be done so you can get back to providing great service to your clients.

Delegate Effectively

While it may take longer in the short run to explain a project and correct mistakes than it does to do it yourself, the overall return on that investment is well worth it—if you know how to delegate effectively.

Follow these five steps:

1. Give clear, comprehensive instructions.

This may be the single most crucial component of effective delegation, and it is harder than it sounds, in part because when you know something, you often assume that others know it, too. This can lead to confusing or incomplete instructions.

Be specific about scope, such as how long should it be, how much time should it take, and how many pages. If the employee finds themselves spending more time on it than you anticipated, they can check back with you to determine whether they should keep going, cut the project short, or go in another direction before it’s too late.

Create checklists or written instructions, particularly for tasks that will be performed repeatedly, or by more than one person. This can help ensure that instructions are both complete and consistent.

Communicate why this assignment is important and how it fits into the overall work of the firm. Your employee will be invested in the project and more likely to get it right.

2. Ensure that you’ve been understood.

Miscommunication is inevitable. To you, “memo” might mean one page of bullets outlining the current state of the law. To a new associate, it might mean a legal brief complete with a recitation of the facts, case citations, and a detailed analysis.

Don’t just ask, “Do you understand?” (Most employees will answer, “Yes,” even if they don’t.) Ask them to repeat their understanding of the assignment back to you in their own words. Let them tell you what they think you want them to do and encourage questions to uncover gaps and misunderstandings.

3. Set a definite deadline and establish priority.

Employees need to know when the project must be completed and how important it is in relation to existing work. Don’t make them guess. Add the deadline to your calendar or reminder system and encourage your employee to do the same.

4. Check in.

Don’t wait until the deadline to determine whether your employee is on track, particularly if you’re new to delegation or to working with this particular individual, or the task is new to them.

Check in when you think enough time has passed to have uncovered some questions, but not so far that it’s too late if they’re off track. Place the check-in date on both of your calendars so you remember to follow up.

If you’ve been working with someone for a while and they are meeting your expectations, the need to check in can be reduced or even eliminated; don’t cross over into micromanaging.

5. Evaluate and share the outcome.

Completion of the task is not the end of the delegation process. Feedback is crucial. If you simply redo or correct the assignment without giving feedback to the employee, they will not know what to do differently in the future, and you’ll both have wasted your time. Take the time to teach and correct your employees so that they can grow and improve. Give praise for a job well done.

Sharing the outcome signals that the employee’s contribution is important and that they are an integral part of your success. Positive feedback fosters loyalty and encourages employees to improve their performance.

Plan Your Day for Maximum Focus

Once you’ve eliminated or delegated work you don’t need to do and set your priorities, how do you make sure work gets done? By creating a plan.

Your calendar is an excellent planning tool. It records court dates, closings, client meetings, and other appointments and probably includes deadlines, such as the last day to file a motion or brief. But in addition to recording when your work is due, you can use your calendar as a tool to help you do the work.

First, decide what work you need to accomplish. Then, estimate the amount of time each activity will take to complete, choose a time when you will perform that work, and block out the time on your calendar.

You don’t need to block all the time necessary to complete the task at once; try simply blocking time to complete the first step necessary to move the project forward. When that is complete, schedule the next step, and so on. If something more pressing arises that you must do during the time scheduled to complete the task, move the appointment to another place on your calendar to ensure it gets done.

Don’t schedule or block every minute of the day. Make sure you leave some empty space or downtime on your calendar to account for unexpected emergencies or just to give yourself a break.

Use Forms, Templates, and Automation

When to Use Forms

Forms, templates, and checklists can be huge productivity boosters because they eliminate the need for you to remember every single step in a process and prevent you from reinventing the wheel every time you perform a task. They also improve the client experience and improve consistency.

Anything that gets repeated often can be turned into a form, template, or checklist, from client communications to pleadings to blog posts.

How to Develop Forms

Start with something you’ve already prepared and turn it into a form or template by adding prompts or placeholders where data change based on individual circumstances. For example, to create a client intake form, you might start by identifying the information you need from each client and develop that into a questionnaire for clients to complete. Save it as a template that can simply be filled in. You can also find forms online that you can modify for your own purposes.

Tools and Automation

There are a myriad of tools, apps, and software programs, including practice and document management software, that can help you improve your productivity, create workflows, and develop forms or shortcuts. One example is text expander programs like Quick parts (mentioned above) that can insert blocks of text easily into a document or email. Many practice management software programs include document automation and assembly or matter workflows. Programs like Zapier and IFTT can automatically trigger multiple actions when one task is completed (for example, triggering a welcome letter when a new client file is opened).

Choose one of the strategies above to implement today to increase both efficiency and effectiveness, and see what a positive impact it makes on client satisfaction—as well as your own.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Allison C. Shields Johs is the president of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., which provides practice management, marketing, social media, and productivity coaching and consulting services for lawyers and law firms nationwide.