Guide to Time Management for Lawyers
By Janice Mucalov, LL.B.
If you’re like most lawyers, you no doubt wish you could bill more, work less, and leave the office feeling that you’ve put in a good day. But inevitably, you’re apt to waste time hunting for documents or procrastinate over starting a task.
Knowing and practicing good time management skills will help you be more productive and efficient. Think. If you could seize just 30 more billable minutes a day, that would add up to more than $26,000 a year in revenue (assuming a rate of $225 an hour) – without spending any more time at the office. Effective time managers also feel less stressed and more satisfied with their work.
DO A SELF-ASSESSMENT
To be more effective at managing your time, you must first assess where you are now. How do you spend your time each day? What amount of time do you spend on billable work? On personal phone calls or chatting over coffee with other lawyers down the hall? Track your time for a typical week and enter everything you do during the day. Also record your high and low energy times.
Once you’ve created a profile of your time, you’ll be able to see where you waste time and what things you can cut back on. You’ll also know if your peak energy periods are, for example, the first three hours of the morning or from 4:00 until 5:00 in the afternoon. This information will help you to better schedule your time.
5 KEY TIME MANAGEMENT TIPS
1. Plan Your Time
Good time management starts with planning how to spend the time you allocate to practising law.
Prepare weekly and daily “to-do” lists: Think ahead to what needs to be done in the coming months. To-do lists are crucial if you want to accomplish tasks in a timely fashion. Each Monday, determine what matters must be accomplished that week, and prepare a weekly to-do list. Each day, devote 15 minutes at the start of your morning writing your to-do list for that day.
Prioritize and schedule tasks: Block out and schedule time in your diary for attending to tasks. Separate out crucial tasks from less urgent ones. If the project is a large one, break it down into sub-tasks that can be completed in one-hour or 90-minute chunks. Create artificial deadlines to help move a task to action.
Set aside a reserve of time: Plan for the unexpected, and leave time for genuine emergencies and last-minute matters that inevitably arise. Don’t over-book yourself. “Under-promise and over-deliver,” says Irene Leonard, a professional development coach who practiced law for 18 years. If you think you can prepare the contract by Tuesday noon, tell your client you’ll have it done by Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. Then if you deliver it on Tuesday, your client will be especially pleased.
Allocate work according to your high and low energy periods: Work on the most important or complex tasks (preparing for an examination for discovery, drafting a new agreement, etc.) during your peak energy periods. Deal with less crucial or demanding matters (brushing up on CLE materials, signing correspondence, etc.) when your energy sags.
Record your time: Build in time for docketing your time! Keeping good time records can lead to higher billings and a more productive law practice.
“To-Do” Lists That Get Done
Keep your to-do lists short: Your weekly to-do list should be no more than one page long, advises Meg Spencer Dixon, a lawyer and time management consultant for legal professionals. For your main daily to-do list, pull out the three or five most important things you want to accomplish that day. This will force you to prioritize. You can also write down everything else for the day on a secondary list.
Stick to your list: Each day, focus on working only on those three or five main items until they are done – unless it’s absolutely clear that your time would be better spent on a real emergency.
Add more items if you have time: If and when you’ve finished your essential to-do list for the day, turn to the matters on your secondary list.
2. Learn to Say “No”
Being able to say “no” diplomatically is an essential skill to have to be an effective time manager. Leonard offers the following as examples:
- “I already have a meeting at that time.”
- “I can start that next week and deliver something by ….”
- “I am not able to handle your matter for two weeks. May I suggest someone else? Or would you like to wait for me to handle it?”
- “I’m in the middle of something now. May I get back to you ...?”
- “I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend. Thanks for asking.”
- “Let me call you back at 3 p.m. when I have more time to give you the attention you deserve.”
3. Organize Your Office
A tidy office and clutter-free desk will save you time searching for documents. And you’ll be able to focus on the task at hand without being distracted by miscellaneous letters or magazines lying around.
Use your desk diary or electronic calendar: Record both business and personal appointments, so you only have one organizer. Insert the dates of events from invitations and dental appointment reminders, then throw the paper away. Devote a section of each day in your organizer/calendar to your daily to-do list.
File incoming paper: Promptly file all documents and telephone slips in your Inbox. Leonard suggests creating a hanging file folder system, with files numbered 1 to 31 for the days of the month. Put the CLE notice of the upcoming bankruptcy course in the 15th day file, so you can consider it then. You could also use coloured folders for different documents. For example, incoming mail can be placed in a blue folder for you to deal with at the end of the day. Correspondence for you to sign could go in a red folder, and so on.
File current work projects: Get those piles of paper off your desk. Spencer Dixon recommends a simple chronological filing system for active projects. If you have ten projects and ten piles, number ten files from 1 to 10, for example, “Project 1 – Agreement for Millennium Shopping Centre.” Then place them standing up on your credenza or in a filing cabinet in your office. Post the list of these files on a bulletin board in your office so you can easily see them.
Use the trash can: Don’t hoard material just because there’s a chance you might want to look at it again. For important subject information like research memos that you want to keep, develop a simple alphabetical filing system, and file the document under, for example, “Structured Settlements” or “Whiplash Damages (Minor).”
4. Minimize Interruptions
“Interruptions are par for the course for lawyers,” says Spencer Dixon. “The default standard mode is interruptible mode.” But you should choose a period of time each day (maximum of two hours), perhaps first thing in the morning – where you’re not interrupted – to work on the most pressing items. Close the door, and have your calls go to voice mail or your secretary. If necessary, give your assistant a list of special clients whose calls she can put through.
You can’t do everything yourself – you have to learn to delegate tasks to others. And as you become more senior, this skill becomes increasingly more valuable. Recognize that while it takes time at first to train others to do the job, there comes a point where time spent delegating does pay off.
Plan for delegation in your day: Make time for it, so it’s not an afterthought.
Provide sufficient information: Give a brief description of the overall file and the specific task you want accomplished, along with appropriate resources and the deadline, so the delegatee can properly address the task and hand it in on time.
Be clear in your expectations: If you want the task accomplished in a certain way, then be specific. For example, “I only want you to spend three hours on this. I want the information presented in bullet form. I want to see the answer first, then the law in the next section.” Then accept that what you get back will be different from how you would do it.
Refrain from micromanaging: “One of the goals of delegation is to develop your employees,” says Dixon. This can only happen if you give them the freedom to apply their own problem-solving skills. At the same time, when delegating to students and staff, ensure that you provide proper supervision according to the rules of professional conduct.
Promptly review completed tasks: Have a rule that you’ll look at work that comes back to you within 24 hours, suggests Leonard. You want to keep matters moving along.
Offer feedback: Acknowledge when someone does a good job. If certain aspects of the work could be improved, provide constructive criticism.
- Inform your clients and other lawyers as to the best time to contact you, i.e., when you usually accept or return calls.
- Make outgoing calls one after the other (perhaps during the first part of the morning or later in the day, when you’re more likely to reach most people).
- Jot down the points you want to cover before making important phone calls. Fax or email an agenda beforehand.
- Let people know how much time you have left to speak with them, or say upfront, “I have only five minutes right now to speak.”
- Limit routine calls to a pre-determined amount of time. When the time is up, tactfully end the conversation with something like, “Well, you must be busy, so I should let you go.”
- Reduce telephone tag by making sure that when you leave a message, you indicate when the best time is to call you back.
Procrastination is a common time-waster among lawyers. If you’re stuck, try these tips:
Ask 'what is stopping me'?: People often procrastinate because they don’t really know what to do next, says Leonard. Go brainstorm ideas with another lawyer in the office, or ascertain what research needs to be done to move ahead.
Break the project down into small parts: Another big reason people procrastinate is worrying about not having enough time to finish the whole project in one sitting, says Spencer Dixon. But, “all or nothing thinking is unhelpful,” she notes. “Instead, chip away at the project for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.”
Plunge in anywhere: Are you dragging your feet because you don’t know where to start? The beginning isn’t necessarily where you must start – most projects have several places to start. So start anywhere. Perhaps start at the easiest part, or tackle the hardest part first.
Reward yourself: Tell yourself that once you dictate that letter or return the stack of phone calls sitting on your desk, you can treat yourself to a café latte or go for a run at lunch.
Don’t worry about being perfect: Embarking on a project is not the time for your internal editor to take over. You don’t need to get everything right at this stage. One way to get your words out on paper or on the computer is to pretend you’re writing a letter to your mother, suggests Spencer Dixon (for example, “Dear Mom, Let me tell you about the case I’ve got right now and the brief I’m supposed to be writing. The facts are…”)
Don’t work for longer than 15 minutes: Limit your time to 15 minutes and, when the 15 minutes are up, decide if you want to quit or work for another 15 minutes. You may find yourself happy to continue working because you know that a break is no more than 15 minutes away.
DEALING WITH THE E-MAIL DELUGE
If you’re drowning in a torrent of e-mail messages, any gains in productivity can quickly be wiped out unless you have a system for managing your e-mail. It’s also helpful if you know shortcuts for saving time when preparing outgoing e-mails.
Check your e-mail infrequently: Check it as infrequently as you are comfortable with, for example, three times a day or only after completing a task.
Use folders to automatically sort incoming e-mails: Use the “Rules” feature of your e-mail program to automatically sort incoming messages into folders. In Microsoft Outlook, this filtering feature is called the “Rules Wizard” (under Tools). Incoming e-mails can automatically be sorted by sender, subject, text and other filters. For example, if you subscribe to a newsletter or are on a list which always has “LegalAlert” in the subject line, e-mails can automatically be removed from your Inbox and placed in the appropriate folder. Unread messages will show up in bold print.
Create “action” and storage folders to further organize e-mails: When checking your Inbox, reply to messages that can be dealt with quickly (in two minutes or less), then delete them if possible or move them to the appropriate storage folder. Storage folders for each client or file make it easy to review messages relating to that client or file. For messages that require some thought, send a quick reply acknowledging that you’ve received the message and indicating that you will respond as soon as possible. Then put these e-mails in “action” folders, for example, “Urgent,” “Important but Not Urgent” and “Not Important.” Just click on the message header and drag and drop the message into the folder.
Move “to-do” and event e-mails: If an e-mail requires you to carry out a task like researching an issue or reviewing an agreement, drag and drop the e-mail to your electronic “to-do” or task list. The e-mail will appear in the details window for the task. If the e-mail schedules an appointment or event, drag and drop the e-mail to your electronic calendar. The subject line of the e-mail will show up as the description of the appointment (but you can change this if necessary), and the e-mail will show up in the appointment details.
Have your e-mails screened before you see them: Ask your secretary to vet your e-mails and organize them in folders in advance. Your secretary could also reply to routine inquiries. For personal e-mail, use a different e-mail address if you’re concerned about privacy.
Use message templates: In Outlook, to save a draft of a message to use as a template (for example, an acknowledgement of a received e-mail), type the message in a new window, leaving the To (recipient) line blank. Then select File, Save As…, and name the template in the subject line. To use the draft message, open the Drafts folder, and copy and paste the contents of the saved draft message into your new e-mail.
Create group mailing lists: For example, if you’re frequently communicating with the same group of lawyers on a leasing project, you could create a distribution list for this group in Outlook. To send a message to everyone, you’d just click on the name of the group list rather than each and every individual lawyer.
Practice management programs can help law offices run more efficiently, saving you time and money, and as a bonus, reduce errors that lead to malpractice claims, says Dan Pinnington, Director of PracticePRO for Ontario’s Lawyers' Professional Indemnity Company. “Practice management software is a tool that can become the central nervous system of your entire office.”
Designed for lawyers: Practice management programs are specifically designed for lawyers to help them manage their law practices (they were originally developed for litigators and formerly known as case management software). Amicus Attorney, one of the most popular programs for small Canadian law offices, was designed by a lawyer. The screens set out information in a way that you can understand.
File- or matter-related: These programs are “matter-centric.” Unlike, for example, Microsoft Outlook (commonly used as a general purpose e-mail/calendar/organizer system), all information related to a file or matter—client data, parties and lawyers on the other side, limitation and closing dates, scheduled appointments, billings, e-mails, correspondence, electronic research—is connected together. Everything about that matter can instantly be found on the virtual file.
This means you save time wasting billable hours looking for physical files and what they contain. When a client phones, you can call up the complete history of the file with a click, and refresh your memory in an instant. If you want to see a letter you sent on a particular date, you can pull it up instantly.
Calendars and to-do lists: Calendars and interactive to-do lists with alarms and reminders are standard features of practice management programs. One advantage of an electronic calendar is that you can better synchronize appointments with your secretary and others in the office. No longer do you need two diaries (one for your secretary and one for yourself). You’d take your PDA or laptop to court, enter any new court dates, then synchronize this information with the central data base back at the office, so everyone else’s computer would automatically be updated as to your current schedule.
Time recording: Most programs can either be linked to your firm’s time and billing accounting program or they come with their own integrated program, so you can enter and record your time as you complete phone calls or various tasks on your to-do lists. The programs can also automatically track the time of your ingoing and outgoing phone calls, making time docketing easier.
Implementation and Training
Get the office to “buy-into” the new technology: Ensure that everyone understands how the new program can improve the firm’s productivity and is excited about adopting the new system.
Hire a consultant: While it’s possible to install a practice management product like Amicus Attorney yourself, it’s best if you hire the product vendor or a consultant to assist with the implementation and necessary training. With some programs, you can call on a network of authorized independent consultants throughout North America. Many who work remotely have the capability to share your screen, keyboard and mouse, so they can teach you the skills needed without being physically present.
Budget training time: “These are powerful complex tools, but you have to spend time learning how to use them,” stresses Pinnington. How much time? At least six hours in initial training. Then plan for advanced training one or two weeks later after you and the other lawyers and staff have had a chance to become familiar with the new technology. “Once you get to the next level, that’s where you’ll see the most advantages,” Pinnington adds.
Plan for ongoing technical support: Once the program is up and running, you don’t need full-time technical support. But you should encourage someone in the office to become a “power user” – a person who is proficient and knowledgeable with the software and can help others.
You can buy a basic practice management software program for some $300 per user. But a small firm should be prepared to spend several thousand dollars – not just for the initial software price, but for training and product implementation.
Choosing a Product
Hire a consultant: A good legal technology consultant can help you sort out which product is best for your firm.
Look at product reviews: Check out reviews and articles in legal technology publications. Law Office Computing Magazine (www.lawofficecomputing.com) is an excellent source of information, says Pinnington.
Try out the program: Most software vendors offer demonstration copies that can be downloaded, so you can try out the program to see if it suits your needs.
Find out what other firms are using: What programs are your colleagues in similiar-sized firms and practice areas using?
Consider your existing technology: Don’t start from the ground up if you don’t have to. Look at what hardware and software you already have, and see if the application you’re considering will fit into your present technology mix.
Popular Practice Management Programs
“Time Matters and Amicus Attorney are the most widely used practice management programs in law offices,” says Dan Pinnington, Director of PracticePRO.
Amicus Attorney is more widely used by solo and very small law offices, and it’s easier to learn than Time Matters, he says. “With Amicus Attorney, most people can point and click and get to use it very quickly,” notes Pinnington.
Time Matters, on the other hand, can be more intimidating at first, as it has more information on its screen, he says. It’s also harder to learn. But it has greater ability to be customized and comes with customization for 13 different practice areas, such as bankruptcy, construction law, elder law, tax law and workers compensation. It also offers Billing Matters, which is a fully integrated billing system.
There are some 150 additional practice management software programs on the market. Other popular products include:*
*List adapted from Practice Management Face-Off, by Dan Pinnington and David Bilinsky (see below in Resources).
Best Features of Amicus Attorney & Time Matters
Quick and comprehensive conflict searches: After receiving a phone call from a potential client, you can quickly carry out a comprehensive conflict of interest search. The search accesses a much wider database, than for example, Microsoft Outlook, because you can input all parties related to a file, such as witnesses, lawyers on the other side, directors of a company, etc.
Good e-mail utility: You can quickly check the history of a file before responding to an e-mail. With Time Matters, after opening an e-mail with an attachment, you’d save the attached document to the client or file matter. Then you’d click on the Timeline tab – which lists chronologically all records of phone calls, notes, e-mails and correspondence – to review the file. Once brought up-to-date, you could properly respond to the e-mail.
Efficient phone call management: The programs can automatically dial phone numbers for you. For example, if you have Amicus’ Telephone Pro installed, and you want to return a phone call, you’d click on the telephone icon next to the caller’s name in the phone message that shows up in the ComCenter (Amicus Attorney’s place for storing communications). Both programs also keep track of the time you spend on a call and can automatically record the billable time of each call. They can also suck out abbreviated notes you’ve typed in on the call and put that in your time docket.
Document assembly automation: You can generate, for example, a standard file-opening letter in seconds, through a template that yanks out the client’s name, address and other information recorded.
Summary screens: Both programs have summary screens showing all your to-do’s for the day, ticklers, calendars, etc.
Janice Mucalov is a freelance writer in Vancouver.
Neither the author nor the CBA should be construed as endorsing any product or website listed in this article. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CBA.|
In this document, any reference to "jurist" or "lawyer" includes, where appropriate, "Québec notary".