October 23, 2012

Meeting Your Deadlines with Grace

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May/June 2010 Issue | Volume 36 Number 3 | Page 12

Simple Steps

Meeting Your Deadlines with Grace

I just mailed a birthday present to my aunt Marguerite. I know what some of you are thinking: Ho, hum, where’s the remote? Time to change this channel. The more charitable may be thinking: How sweet, but what does this possibly have to do with managing your practice? Well, here’s the deal. My aunt’s birthday was two months ago—which should make the direction we’re going a bit clearer.

Getting things done on time really boils down to developing the ability to accurately record deadlines and then act effectively in anticipation of them. And this skill, or the lack thereof, can make or break a lawyer’s reputation. Lawyers who successfully manage deadlines are the darlings of the courts, not to mention their clients. Like the cool kids in high school, they have toothpaste-white smiles, every hair is always in place, their clothes never wrinkle, and they have a great date for the prom. Okay, maybe not all that, but their practices do seem to be more organized and serene.

Unfortunately, many lawyers never get the hang of anticipating deadlines—starting to act sufficiently in advance to get the work done with a little grace and a day or two to spare. Instead, it’s a never-ending game of “whack-a-mole,” or constantly fighting today’s fires with no time to think about tomorrow’s fires, much less plan to prevent them. Laboring under the weight of everything they should have already done, they are always showing up a day late and a dollar short, no matter how hard they try.

If this describes you, don’t despair. A few simple steps can help tame the deadline demons.

Let Your Calendar Manage Your Deadlines

Here’s how you do it:

  • Determine the final deadline for completing all the work on a file and put that date on your calendar.
  • Break the work down into discrete steps, including tasks that must be done or materials that must be gathered before you can get started.
  • Calculate how much time will reasonably be needed to accomplish each step you identified. Now add a fudge factor of 10 percent for unforeseen difficulties.
  • Determine which steps can be delegated and assign them to others in your office. Then for each task you kept for yourself, schedule at least one appointment for yourself, making sure to set aside blocks of time that are adequate to perform each task. Place these appointments on your calendar.
  • Treat appointments with files as seriously as you would an appointment with a client. Don’t allow interruptions for anything but a true emergency. If you miss an appointment with the file, immediately reschedule it.

Determining what steps to take in a particular matter, and setting aside enough time to do the kind of work that you can be proud of, is an exercise in professional judgment. Most lawyers run into trouble meeting deadlines when they simply create a list of what should “probably” be done on a given day, without reference to everything else that’s already scheduled, or the distractions that can arise. But if you calendar “real” appointments with your work and strive to keep them, you’ll be much more likely to complete the work on time and without stress, even if it turns out to be more complicated than you initially anticipated.

Try this for a few weeks. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that work is getting done on time, and that you’re enjoying it.

About the Author

Laura A. Calloway is Director of the Alabama State Bar’s Practice Management Assistance Program.