Lawyers are used to dealing with demanding clients. We come to expect working weekends for clients with urgent needs; we’ve perfected the art of delivering bad news to temperamental clients; and we double and triple check our work for the most detail-oriented clients. But what if your client were the President of the United States? For Alyssa Mastromonaco, that was her reality for the three years she served as an assistant to President Barack Obama. In her 2017 book Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House, she shares how to be at the top of your game, all of the time. (Hint—it involves meticulous advance planning, but the payoff is worth it).
Use a Calendar. Most lawyers keep a calendar at work, but Mastromonaco recommends using a single calendar to keep track of everything in your life, even the personal details. In particular, she recommends scheduling reminders to do things in advance, such as calendaring a notice to schedule a doctor appointment, haircut, or dinner reservation. Mastromonaco also suggests listing not just important birthdays, but also making a reminder three days in advance, so you won’t forget to put a greeting card in the mail. In addition to meetings and appointments, she also keeps an ongoing grocery list on her calendar, so her morning routine never gets thrown off by running out of milk or—gasp—coffee.
Make Lists. As lawyers, we almost all have a to-do list (and admit it—the items at the bottom of the list can languish for weeks or even months). Mastromonaco paradoxically advocates for simplifying your to-do list by keeping three to-do lists for immediate goals, long-term goals, and personal. The immediate list should only contain items that need to be accomplished that day, such as picking up a prescription or filing a brief. The long-term list contains items that need be accomplished relatively soon, but can wait for when there’s time, such as planning a vacation. The personal list should include tasks you want to do, such as calling a friend or reading a certain book (we recommend Mastromonaco’s book—it’s fantastic) that you don’t want to slip your mind.
Pack Thoughtfully. We’ve all been guilty of trying to pack the morning before a flight, haphazardly tossing items into a carry-on and then arriving at our destination and realizing we forgot something so obvious (and necessary), such as heels or a coat. While rarely a disaster, these mishaps can keep you from focusing on what’s important, like your oral argument or deposition. Mastromonaco proposes creating a master packing list (her book includes her personal checklist as a starting point) that you can use before any trip. She suggests including small but important items such as band aids, Advil, hair bands, phone charger, sunglasses, Tide pen, and granola bars.
Do Your Homework. Mastromonaco urges preparing not just for job interviews—which is a given—but for social events as well, such as a client dinner, community networking event, or even a friend’s party. The groundwork is as easy as googling a client contact to learn what position that person holds, how long he or she has been with the company, and what college the person attended. Knowing basic information in advance can help you prepare topics for conversation and more easily connect with that person. A minimal amount of preparation can save you from an evening of small talk and awkward silences.
And Lastly, Sleep! Lawyers can easily fall prey to the demands of work and let healthy habits such as working out or eating right fall by the wayside during busy periods. However, a regular sleep schedule is necessary to keep you functioning—Mastromonaco reports that when she purposefully made time to sleep, she found she had a better attitude and made better decisions when she was adequately rested. After all, no client wants to hire a stressed out, sleep-deprived lawyer.
While not a lawyer herself, Mastromonaco’s guide to implementing preparation and scheduling best practices into your daily routine can help lawyers position themselves to be ready to focus on the important things—like explaining to your client exactly why your plan or strategy is a good idea.