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Time Management for Lawyers

03.01.14  |  By William T. McCaffery

This article appeared in the March 2014 edition of Nassau Lawyer, Vol. 63, No. 7.

When studying time management, it is important to appreciate the fact that time cannot be managed. An attorney cannot “make time” or “find time.” What is called “time management” is, in fact, personal management: planning, organizing and delegating in order to make more effective use of the constrained time attorneys are afforded.

It is also important to understand that becoming a better time manager is not advantageous simply to get more work accomplished in the office, the true benefit of good time management is gaining more personal time to spend away from the office.

Innumerable articles, books, and seminars have been written and presented about time management and many of the tools and techniques espoused by those experts are herein discussed. What follows are some fundamental tools and techniques of time management that have been proven effective for generations of attorneys.

“To Do”

Many attorneys make use of a “to do” list, but a simple “to do” list alone is not sufficient. Every task that is performed by an attorney is at the expense of getting something else done. It is for this reason that it is not enough to have a “to do” list; in order to maximize its effectiveness, it is imperative that the list be prioritized. While it may be tempting to do several easy tasks before one big task on the list, if the bigger task is the most important task, it must take priority.

There are any number of ways to prioritize a “to do” list. The late Dr. Randy Pauch, famous for his “Last Lecture,” would assign each task on his list a number from one to ten. Those tasks with the lowest numbers were those of the greatest importance and those that were urgent. The tasks were then completed in order of priority.

Motivational speaker and time management expert, Brian Tracy, uses a letter system, “A, B, C, D, and E.” Each task is labeled in priority “A,” “B” or “C.” Those labeled “D” are “delegated” to someone else and those labeled “E” are “eliminated” from the list.

In the book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen R. Covey recommends a “quadrant” approach to organize a “to do” list, based upon importance and urgency. Tasks are either: important but not urgent, urgent but not important, not urgent and not important, or urgent and important. Of course, those tasks that are urgent and important are to be done first; those that are not urgent and not important are done last (if ever). Of note, however, is what experts like Stephen Covey recommend for those tasks in the middle of a priority list. While it may seem that the second priority level should be those tasks that are most urgent, experts recommend that the next items on the list instead should be those that are most important. The thought is that it ultimately will not matter if a task that is not important is timely accomplished.

Plan Ahead

The key to effective time management is to plan ahead. At the end of each day, the priority of tasks on the “to do” list should be reviewed and a schedule should be made for the following day. This allows for only minimal time to be lost the next day determining what to do.

Scheduling the day includes not only the cases on which to work, but should also include time set aside for other routine and necessary tasks, such as administrative tasks, reviewing and responding to mail, email, and telephone calls. Experts suggest that similar tasks be grouped and done together, contending that doing the same type of tasks at the same time ultimately saves time. For example, rather than responding to and making telephone calls randomly throughout the day, experts recommend grouping these types of tasks together. Unfortunately, rather than adhering to a prepared schedule, most attorneys allow their email inbox to become their “to do” list. This constant distraction from important work must be minimized and allotting certain scheduled time for it can help reduce the loss of productive time.


Not only is it important to plan the next work day each evening, it is just as important to make efficient use of diaries and calendars to efficiently plan the weeks and months ahead. Lawyers need time in the office to work, but most lawyers do not have the luxury of spending every day in the office. Attorneys are pulled from the office to go to court, depositions, meetings, etc. In order to ensure that there is enough time to handle the office work, it is important to achieve a balance of time in the office and out of the office. A calendar/diary is the most useful tool in helping to accomplish this balance.

Every lawyer should carry a calendar and use it. In today’s world, it should be easy for every attorney to have a manageable balance of time in the office and out of the office since every attorney carries a smart phone and every smart phone has a calendar.

It is imperative to review the calendar when scheduling appointments. All lawyers have had weeks where they are out of the office every day and cannot complete the work that is waiting for them in the office, but there is no reason to ever have one of those weeks when proper use is made of a calendar. Doing so can ensure sufficient time is allotted for office work.

Work at Work

Another time killer is the simple act of wasting time. Some attorneys surf the internet, some make phone calls, email friends, or spend time chatting with others in the office. There are any number of ways to waste time at work, but all of them prevent the timely completion of work. Experts contend that once interrupted, it takes anywhere between five and fifteen minutes to get back to the level of work that was achieved prior to the interruption. Accordingly, a five minute phone call could cost as much as twenty minutes of productive work time. It is for this reason that attorneys must not only avoid unnecessary interruptions, but also avoid the temptation to multitask.

The term, “multitasking,” implies that more than one task can be done at a time, but it is simply untrue. Trying to do two things at once (like talking on the phone about one case and drafting an email at the same time about another case) ultimately does not save time. It will generally take longer to do both “at the same time” than if each task was performed separately with full attention.

Not only should attorneys avoid those habits that waste time, they should also look to make use of otherwise idle time. While there is not much “down-time” in the profession, there are some opportunities to make use of otherwise lost time. For example, when commuting on the train to the office or court, attorneys can use that time to work. Similarly, when going to court, the prudent practitioner should bring work to do in anticipation of time spent waiting during delays in court. Working during this otherwise lost time allows an attorney to capitalize on this valuable down-time.

Attorneys keep track of time for billing purposes, but in order to see where time can be used more efficiently, attorneys should keep track of all time, not just billable time. This exercise will show in black and white terms where time is wasted and how better use can be made of the attorney’s time.

Use Available Resources

It is of supreme importance to make proper use of the expert skills of secretaries and office staff. Dictating is like riding a bicycle; it is difficult at first, but then becomes second nature. Many younger attorneys today, who were raised on computers, often believe that they can type faster than they could ever dictate; however, regardless of how typing proficient they may be, it is unlikely that they can type faster than they can speak. 

Typing is but one example of an attorney wasting time, but similarly, an attorney with a staff should not be wasting valuable time making photocopies, faxing, mailing, or doing other time consuming tasks that do not require a lawyer’s attention. Not only must appropriate resources be used to handle routine office tasks, but appropriate work must be delegated to associates, paralegals, messengers, court services, etc. Such delegation affords an attorney more time to do the work that requires his or her particular attention.

Stop Wasting Time

Procrastination is a significant cause of wasted time. Usually, a particular task is delayed because it is big, difficult or complicated. Of course, the best course of action is not to avoid these tasks; they do not go away. The best course of action is to confront the challenge of the task. The best way to approach a significant task, however, is not to look at the totality of the task, but rather to break the task into smaller, more manageable tasks. Rather than being intimidated by writing a long, complicated motion, break that motion into separate, manageable tasks such as research, writing a statement of facts, and separately writing each point of law. Breaking a daunting task into smaller, more manageable tasks can help minimize procrastination.

When attorneys are overwhelmed with work and short on time, there can be a temptation to just “slap something together” and get it out the door. This haste may ultimately take more time if the task has to be re-done. It is said, “If you don’t have the time to do it right, then you don’t have the time to do it wrong.”

Conversely, there are times when there is a temptation to spend too much time on a particular project to make the work “just right.” However, there does come a time when the work is “good enough.” Consuming too much time on a project to achieve perfection takes valuable time away from other matters that need attention.

When working on a project, lawyers will generally work on it for however long it may take to complete. However, rather than spending an unlimited amount of time on a project, it is important to schedule a reasonable amount of time to complete each project; set a deadline. There is a principle in time management called “Parkinson’s Law” which says a task will take as long as the time one has for it. If an attorney has three days to write a motion, all three days will be used to write that motion, but if that same attorney only has one day, the same motion will be written in just one day. It is important for attorneys to avoid this pitfall and the best way to do so is by scheduling appropriate time for each task on the daily calendar and sticking to it.

These are but a few time management (or personal management) techniques that can be used by practicing attorneys to minimize wasted time, maximize productivity, which may help avoid malpractice claims and grievances. Of course, while more effective time management allows attorneys to get more work accomplished in the office, the most rewarding benefit of effective time management is that it affords attorneys more free time to spend away from the office.

Carpe diem

William T. McCaffery is a partner at L'Abbate, Balkan, Colavita & Contini where he practices legal malpractice defense.

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