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After the Bar

Professional Development

Systems for Tracking Accomplishments to Advance Your Legal Career

Jennifer Shearer Palmer


  • Create a to-do list that you can add to, edit, and reorder throughout the day as you complete jobs and come up with new ones. Review your list every morning to plan for the day and ensure that you are fully prepared for all deadlines.
  • Whenever you send a task to someone else, make a note in your to-do list to follow up.
  • Simple checklists will help you remember all the necessary steps of a process that can easily be missed in the rush of a deadline.
  • Keep a list of accomplishments to include in your annual review so that you can look back and quickly remember what you did at the end of the year.
Systems for Tracking Accomplishments to Advance Your Legal Career
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When I started as a junior associate in Big Law in 2015, my goal was to learn as much as possible from the talented and experienced attorneys I was lucky to work with. I didn’t have a particular system for organizing my to-do list or keeping track of practice pointers, let alone for tracking my accomplishments.

I figured I’d generally keep track of what was important in my head.

But as we all know, life moves fast for law firm associates, and remembering what’s important as opposed to what’s urgent can be a challenge. We have trials to prepare for, briefs to write, and opposing counsel to deal with. We’re also building a practice and developing client relationships.

Keeping track of what’s important in your head creates unnecessary errors and stress. Most things won’t fall through the cracks. But something inevitably will.

Over the years, I’ve developed systems to help me track the important things, including my to-do list, lessons learned, and wins. By keeping these things organized and written down in a safe, accessible place, I create mental space to focus on the tasks at hand. I stay as responsive, effective, and efficient as possible for my clients while pushing ahead with my professional development goals.

Here are six strategies that have worked for me.

1. A Word Document Serves as a To-Do List

We all have our own way of organizing our tasks, and there’s no single right way to do it. I keep my list in a backed-up Word document. I include a complete bullet-point list of all my active matters. Under each matter, I have sub-bullets for all tasks that are coming up and the deadline, if there is one.

I add to, edit, and reorder this list throughout the day as I complete jobs and come up with new ones. I also review my list every morning to plan for the day and ensure that I’m fully prepared for all deadlines.

This document is also where I track other professional commitments, such as tasks for the nonprofit board I sit on, blog posts I’m working on, and presentations I’m giving. Everything goes here so that I miss nothing. If I’m away from my computer, I take notes on a notepad and promptly add any action items to my document when I get back to it.

My email inbox also serves as a backup to-do list. Anything left in my inbox requires me to act. All other emails are either deleted or filed in the appropriate folders. Ideally, I get to “inbox zero” by the end of the workday.

2. Write Down Every Task That Needs Follow Up

We frequently get something off our to-do list by passing it on to someone else. We give drafts to partners to review, motions to assistants to file, and projects to associates and paralegals for them to complete.

But handing off a job doesn’t mean you can forget about it. As a responsible attorney, it’s your job to make sure the next step gets done. If you don’t write that down, you may wake up in the middle of the night weeks later realizing that someone dropped the ball and you forgot about it.

To avoid this, whenever I send a task to someone else, I make a note on my to-do list to follow up. For example, summary judgment brief—sent to Person A—follow up by May 1 if I don’t hear back. Or motion sent to Person B to file by the end of the day; make sure this gets filed today.

That way, even if something is temporarily off my plate, I don’t forget about it. I review these follow-ups along with the rest of my to-do list daily.

3. How Checklists Help Me with Routine Tasks

Over the years, I’ve developed various checklists to make sure I don’t forget anything when carrying out a routine job, such as intaking a client or filing a brief. Many people remember most steps of a routine task in their head. But after I read The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande, I’ve been motivated to write down my checklists.

Simple checklists have been shown to improve performance profoundly and reduce errors for pilots, surgeons, and other professionalsI believe they’re just as powerful for lawyers. Checklists help me remember all the necessary steps of a process that can easily be missed in the rush of a deadline.

For instance, before filing a brief, these steps include cite-checking cases, checking whether a motion to seal is needed, and adding the table of contents. These are all things that can easily be forgotten without a simple checklist.

4. Take Time to Track Lessons Learned

We all make mistakes, and they can sting in the moment. After dealing with the issue, the next thing to do is make sure it doesn’t happen again. My approach is to keep a list of my mistakes and constructive feedback and to review it periodically. I call this list “lessons learned.”

For example, Partner X needs to have single spaces, not double spaces; don’t send Partner Y a draft brief unless it’s completely proofread and perfect (ideally, that’s true for any partner, but some are more particular than others).

5. Don’t Forget Your Accomplishments

My to-do list document isn’t limited to things I must do. It also has things I’ve done and accomplished. I keep a list of things to include in my annual review so that I can look back and quickly remember what I did at the end of the year. This includes motions or cases I won, speaking engagements, articles published, and conferences attended.

Keeping track of this in one place saves a lot of time later when you’re trying to highlight your achievements for the year for a self-review or a yearly practice plan. This type of record is also extremely helpful when you’re up for partner and need to promote yourself. It’s also beneficial day-to-day because it helps you remember to share “wins” in your daily conversations, as appropriate.

6. Maintain an Accomplishment File

Now and again, you’ll get a lovely email thanking you for your great work from a client or colleague. Save these!

As my parents have long taught me, we should all have a file where we save positive feedback about ourselves. They called it their “cool dude” file, which you can save on your computer as “CD” for short. I now have an electronic folder where I save these congratulatory, thankful, and generally positive emails. This isn’t a folder you need to refer to frequently, but it’s nice to know it’s there.

These are the systems that have helped me maintain my organization and sanity in the fast-paced world of litigation. Everyone will have different ways of organizing their professional development, but I hope these ideas are helpful, especially if you’re just starting your career.

You’ll run into many lawyers who seem stressed and burned out, but the law doesn’t have to be that way. If you figure out systems that work for you and stick to them, you can develop your reputation as an organized, reliable attorney and position yourself for success.