One of the hardest parts about being a young lawyer is that to-do lists are a moving target. In practice, unlike in law school, priorities are constantly changing in the face of fire drills and additional assignments. Indeed, seemingly simple tasks take an unexpectedly long time. Every time.
These ever-changing to-do lists mean that young associates must learn effective time management techniques early on to ensure that they produce a strong work product and meet deadlines given. In this article, I summarize five tips for time management, collected from associates and partners.
Write a “must-do” list. Standard to-do lists are helpful, but they are not enough. Instead, write a “must-do” list. A must-do list only has three tasks on it. I suggest writing these three tasks at the end of each day for the following day. Although priorities will inevitably shift, this list contains the three tasks that must be done. A concise to-do list that elevates the three most important tasks ensures that you will not get sidetracked by too many tasks.
Make the must-do list as specific as possible. The tasks should not seem overwhelming or impractical. The list should not say “write brief” but rather should say “research X issue for argument No. 1 of brief.”
Avoid multitasking. Given how often lawyers receive emails, it is tempting to multitask constantly. In fact, failure to do so seems unacceptable. A senior associate told me, though, that there is no such thing as “being good at multitasking.” Instead, we force our brain to switch rapidly, which makes it nearly impossible to focus deeply on any one thing; we are constantly distracted. When associates actively try not to multitask, they get more (and better) work done in less time.
Set aside occasional 30-minute blocks of time where you do not look at emails. Force yourself to focus only on the task at hand.
Learn how to work with the support staff. As a young associate, it is crucial to learn when to delegate to secretaries and paralegals and when not to. Learning how to delegate means thinking through turnaround times in advance so that you have what you need when you need it. It means giving clear directions, which is harder to do than one might think. It also means learning what the staff can do well. After working closely with each paralegal, for example, you will get a sense of their strengths, how much follow-up is required, and what turnaround times are realistic given their current caseload.
Things like proofreading, creating document templates, and working on exhibits are all examples of helpful tasks to delegate.
Do the dreaded task first. When writing priorities for the day or week, make a commitment to yourself to do the most difficult or most dreaded task when you get into work. Most people are more awake in the mornings. Plus, once you’ve completed the dreaded task, the rest of the day will not seem quite as difficult.
Get to the office early so that no one interrupts you during the difficult task. That way, you have a block of time where you can focus entirely on that task and free up the rest of the day.
Don’t wait for the deadline. When completing an assignment, it is important to build in extra time. Inevitably, something will change that disrupts your original schedule (particularly when young associates are at the mercy of others’ unpredictable schedules), or the project may become more complex and time-consuming than originally anticipated.
If you have a clear understanding of which deadlines are external and internal, build in a “fake” deadline for yourself that comes earlier than the deadline given. This will not always be possible, but it should be the goal to ensure that deadlines are not missed inadvertently.
Julie Becker is an associate at Sidley Austin LLP in Chicago, Illinois. The author thanks the following attorneys for graciously sharing tips on time management: Karim Basaria, Lawrence Fogel, Nicholas Tygesson, Michelle Ramirez, and Jana Wozniak.