One of the ways we can establish a productive work day is to create a simple routine that we perform at the beginning and end of the day, every day.
One great technique I started to use a few years ago is what I call an "Open Up / Shut Down Checklist."
In a nutshell here’s how it works: I have a notecard on my desk that lists the 4-5 things I need to do every morning as soon as I get to the office, as well as the 4-5 things I need to do before I leave every night. I don’t start or end my day any other way--I always follow the checklist.
The concept is similar to warming up before you exercise and cooling down afterward. Having a routine in the morning allows you to smoothly transition yourself into work mode, and having one in the afternoon allows you to put a period on the end of the workday so you can walk away with confidence and unplug.
What kinds of things should you put on the list? I'd suggest two categories:
OPEN UP CHECKLIST
Here's an example of what my Open Up Checklist looked like when I was practicing:
Other sample tasks could include meeting for 15 minutes with your assistant or supervising attorney, returning urgent phone calls, etc.
Notice that I don’t open email and start firing off responses until my planning for the day is complete, and even then I’m only responding to those that I Identify are “urgent.” If I start my day with emails, I’m going to get sucked into the never-ending email vortex and it’s much less likely that I will plan anything.
SHUT DOWN CHECKLIST
And here’s a sample of my Shut Down checklist:
Here's why this will be a game changer for you: An Open Up Checklist helps you get into a routine that sets you up for success for the day and addresses your most urgent and primary responsibilities first--instead of just knocking out the low hanging fruit. And having a Shut Down Checklist allows you to walk away with peace of mind that you know your schedule and that you're on top of your work. And maybe most importantly, it gives you permission to end the work day with confidence.
Understanding time management techniques are an important part of being efficient with our time. But one of the most overlooked keys to creating more space in our day is making sure that we're consistently, and without exception, delegating work that is squarely within the job description of someone else on our team.
For many lawyers, we know that we're completing a task that should be done by a paralegal or secretary, but in the moment we choose to do it ourselves because it feels easier to “just handle it."
But if you think that "just handling it" makes more sense than delegating, you're seriously hurting your ability to get things done. Spending even 20 minutes a day doing someone else's work can have a dramatic effect on your productivity.
Here's why. Let’s say there is one task a day that you’re currently doing that could be delegated, and that task takes 20 minutes of your time:
In other words, if you can identify just one 20-minute task a day that you can delegate to the right person at the firm, you’re opening up almost two full weeks of work time.
Delegating can be difficult because it requires us to break old habits and GET INTO NEW ROUTINES. But the best way to start delegating is to take a close look at everything you do on a daily basis for three days in a row and for every task ask yourself: am I the right person to be doing this? If you're not, stop what you're doing and work with the person who should be doing it to transition that task.
If you want to really maximize your time saving: come up with a system that allows you to identify delegable tasks in advance, and work with your team to train them on how you want it done.
Delegation is not only important for your productivity, it's an important part of making sure the firm runs smoothly. When people consistently work outside their job description, the firm's work systems become jumbled and people become confused about who is responsible for what.
Here's the takeaway: in the abstract, identifying and delegating a 20 minute task feels like we’re talking about insignificant gains. But when you multiply those gains over the course of weeks or months, they free up massive amounts of time.
George Bernard Shaw cautioned that:
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
How often do we get tripped up in our communication with clients, colleagues or staff because:
We may be communicating this way because we're in a rush or trying to save time. But it turns out that the amount of time we spend clarifying requests or correcting the work of others usually outweighs (significantly) the amount of time it would have taken us to engage in clear and thorough communication in the first place.
Here's a few circumstances where you may be under the illusion that you're communicating properly:
It's natural to want to take communication shortcuts. But rather than blindly firing off directions or requests, consider doing the following:
Here's the takeaway: Spending just a few extra minutes to clearly map out your ask is an INVESTMENT--and the return is a better relationship with your clients and colleagues, and time saved over the long run of a project. See this additional time and effort as the value add that it is.
In 1955, philosopher C. Northcote Parkinson coined an adage that is now known as Parkinson's Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
In other words, the amount of time we give ourselves to perform a task will be the amount of time it takes us to the complete the task. For example, if we're given two days to complete a project we probably would take the full two days. But if we were given just one day to complete it, we'd find a way to get it done in that shorter time frame.
Most lawyers can relate to the concept of Parkinson's Law in the context of filing or client deadlines. We've all been under the gun to finish something in an hour or 30 minutes and felt like there was no way we'd be able to finish on time, wishing we had just a few more hours to make it better. But in that circumstance--with the consequences of missing a major deadline staring us in the face--we somehow always rise to the occasion and simply get it done, even though we thought we'd need more time.
Although the squeeze of an upcoming deadline can be uncomfortable, we can use Parkinson's law to our advantage by applying structured time frames to tasks or projects we’re working on.
For example, instead of coming into work and saying “I need to finish this brief today,” take a few minutes to evaluate how long you think it will take to complete, decide on a specific amount of time (e.g., 1 hour, 2 hours), and choose a time in your day to complete it. Tell yourself that you'll "Take 2 hours between 1pm and 3pm to finish this brief", which will be a much more effective use of your time.
The goal is simple: define as many work time frames as you can throughout your day, and apply a light amount of pressure to finish within the boundaries you’ve set. You’re not trying to rush through, but you are applying a level of consistent concentration and effort that will aid you in sticking to the timeline. If we don’t apply this kind of pressure, projects can meander for hours or even days longer than they need to.
Here’s the takeaway: don’t start a project or a task with an open-ended timeframe. Provide yourself with structure by defining the scope of the work and assigning a definitive time to complete it.
We experience breakdowns in our communications with clients for lots of reasons, but here are three of the big ones: (1) we don't give them enough of the right information, (2) we don't tell them what they can expect from us, and (3) we don't explain what we expect from them as clients.
Take for example a contract or a motion you’ve prepared. If you send that document to your client with a simple cover email that says “Please review and let me know if you approve or have any questions”, then guess what? You’re either going to get a lot of questions, or worse have a client who doesn't understand what you sent them and stays silent.
If you want to improve your client service and set expectations, create and send a 1-2 page “Guide” or “FAQ” sheet along with key documents they need to review, requests for information, or in advance of important events.
Here's another example: if you represent clients who have never been to court before, why not send them a guide (or better yet, a short video) that explains (1) when and where to meet you the day of the hearing, (2) what to expect at the hearing, (3) what to wear to court, and (3) a description of all the other people who will be there (court reporter, clerk, bailiff, etc.).
The purpose of these 1-page sheets is to lay some foundation and guide them through the process.
Some sentences you might include in a guide like this are:
You can create a 1-2 page resource like this for just about anything you send regularly to a client:
Remember: Keep them short and simple, no lawyer speak, and think about it from the perspective of the client.
It's no secret: entering our billable time can be loathsome. The tedium of tracking everything we do in six-minute increments is enough to drive us nuts.
But as we know, most attorneys need to meet a minimum billable hour requirement to stay in good-standing at their firm or keep them on track to advance--which means practicing accurate timekeeping techniques is a must .
The importance of capturing time consistently can’t be understated. According to practice management consultant Ann Guinn, you fail to capture roughly:
That’s potentially dozens--and maybe even hundreds--of billable hours being left on the table simply by not having accurate timekeeping routines in place.
So if we’re bad at timekeeping, how do we get on track?
The answer: form a habit.
First, some basics. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that there are three parts to a habit: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
CUES triggers your brain to automatically take an action and are generally broken into five categories: a location, a time of day, other people, an emotional state, or an immediately preceding action. For example, a cue could be the smell of coffee every morning at 5:30am that gets you out of bed.
The ROUTINE is the behavior that you want to create or reinforce—or stop, if you’re trying to change a bad habit. In our coffee example, the routine would be getting out of bed and pouring yourself a cup of joe while you’re still half asleep.
The REWARD is, of course, the reason your brain performs this habit in the first place–it’s the “enjoyment” aspect of the habit that leaves the sensation of satisfaction and positive reinforcement that incentivizes repetition of the routine. For example, the caffeine rush you get from your first cup of coffee.
This "neurological loop” is at the core of every habit, and each of these parts is integral to the habit-forming process.
How do we apply this concept to timekeeping?
FIRST, identify your timekeeping routine (the routine is Part 2 of the loop, but Duhigg suggests we start here). When you enter your time, how are you going to do it? Some of us enter it directly into our timekeeping software, others jot it down and enter it later, and others write it down or voice record it for staff to enter. Regardless of how you do it, focus on doing it the same way every time, period. Engaging in a consistent routine will help you overcome the inefficient practice of entering times in different ways at different times of the day.
SECOND, figure out the cue (Part 1 of the loop) that tells you it’s time to perform your timekeeping routine. I’ve seen people adopt three helpful cues that increase accuracy:
THIRD, identify the reward. Now you're probably thinking: what possible rewards could you connect with entering your time? Here are a few ideas:
Here's the main take-way: If you’re having a problem with timekeeping, invest a few minutes to identify the parts of your habit loop and build a routine that will set you up for success.
One of my favorite quotes related to planning and time management is one by Abraham Lincoln that you may have heard before:
This quote rings true because it’s a reminder that we can better manage our time and execute our work if we become disciplined in the way we plan and prepare.
How often are we quick to run headfirst into a project without taking the time up front to think about what the project entails, or be strategic about how we approach it? There’s any number of reasons why we don’t spend the time planning: we don’t find it valuable, we feel the urge to just “start” right away, or we don’t think we actually have the time to plan.
If you want to improve the way you manage your practice, here's what you need to do first: Adjust your mindset when it comes to planning. Before you rush into your next project, be intentional about spending time up front to map it out. Acknowledge that even a little bit of planning up front can save you massive amounts of time later.
Here are a five aspects of planning to focus on:
THE TAKEAWAY: be intentional about sharpening your axe before you get to work.
Learning how to delegate is a huge part of effective practice management for law firm associates. But in order to delegate effectively you must first define the job descriptions of everyone you work with at the firm.
The reason behind this is pretty simple: If you don’t understand with precision who is responsible for what, then how can you ever get clear on what constitutes delegable work?
And it’s not enough to define those roles simply by outlining a job description. You have to get a clear understanding of the specific tasks your secretary, paralegal, case manager, and colleagues are responsible for, and make sure that these roles are clear to anyone working on your team. They can change depending on the type and size of project and team members involved.
When you have a crystal clear sense of what’s in your job description and what’s in the job description of those you work with, then delegating becomes systematic–-and you eliminate miscommunications or time spent doing tasks that you are not responsible for.
The most difficult part of delegating is maintaining discipline. Sometimes we see an easy task in front of us–-something that's clearly in the job description of someone else at the firm–but we decide instead to spend 25 minutes to "just take care of it ourselves," thinking that it will make life easier.
But consider this: there are at least three major problems with this kind of thinking, and they’re all preventing you from being more efficient with your time:
To recap: understand the job descriptions of others, be disciplined in delegating, and put to good use the two hours of additional time you just created in your week.
How often do you find that your progress on a case has stalled or that you're in danger of missing a deadline because your client won't respond? Every attorney has experienced the frustration of waiting on clients to collect documents, approve a draft, or track down the information you need to move a matter forward.
While some of this is a client issue, often times this problem can be traced directly back to an attorney communication issue--one that can be prevented.
Consider building some of the following into your calendar and your communications with clients:
Explain What’s In It For Them, and why the delay is preventing you from moving forward with the divorce, estate plan, lawsuit, or insurance recovery that's keeping them up at night.
Not only will these practices be helpful in moving your case forward, they'll help set expectations and improve your client's experience.
Looming deadlines and juggling dozens of open cases are a constant source of stress for associates.
If you’re looking for a simple way to decrease your stress level and increase your practice management efficiency, start by creating a master case or matter list that includes every single active matter or task you’re managing.
Here's the idea: create a single place (maybe an excel spreadsheet, or a tool on your firm's practice management software) that lists the key information, case name/number, deadlines, major filing dates, etc., for each matter you handle. Once the list is created, review it regularly. Print it out and carry it with you to every case or staff meeting. Put it in a prominent spot on your desk. Make reviewing it one of the first 5 things you do every morning (BEFORE you crack open your email), and one of the last 5 things you do before you leave for the day.
Here's why a Master List is a must have tool for every associate: