Archive for the ‘Time Management’ Category

Reaching for the ‘One File’ Ideal – UPDATED

Friday, December 4th, 2009

My “One File at a Time” post is one of the most popular since I started this blog. It has drawn a larger than normal number of views over the last couple of days apparently due to a reference to it in The Paralegal Mentor‘s most recent newsletter in which Vicki Voisin questions asks “Is ‘One File at a Time’ Realistic?” in her feature article. Vicki recognizes that for a working paralegal One File at a Time is a, perhaps unreachable, ideal but advocates taking steps that will bring that ideal closer to reality. Of the ten tips she offers my favorite is:

5. Become an instant decision maker. When an assignment, a document or a file comes into your office, decide immediately how to deal with it. Never place it in the ‘put it here for now’ pile. That pile will just continue to grow.

If whatever you’ve been given to do won’t take long, take care of it right then and there. You’ve already been interrupted so you might as well complete the task before you go back to your work. If you don’t need to do it immediately, put it away, or place it in the incline file sorter.

All of her suggestions are good, so check out the article in her newsletter.

UPDATE: Vicki’s entire article is now available as a post on her blog.

“Deluge of information” flows downhill

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 posts on a article with suggestions on how attorneys can “streamline the flow” of information deluging them each day, especially information delivered electronically. One of the suggestions is to delegate initial email reading to others. And who in the office can be trusted with the confidentiality issues while exercising sound judgment, knowledge of law and understanding of both office and legal process?

Shifting of initial attorney email reading to paralegals makes sense, but only if it is not going to overload and overwhelm the paralegal. Doing so will only pass the deluge down to the paralegal who, one presumes was fully occupied already. Of course, a deluge rolls down hill, so perhaps the paralegal will shift initial reading of their email down that hill! I prefer the use of email rules and other technological solutions before simple task shifting.

I also prefer some of the other suggestions of the article better. Suggestions such as eliminating unnecessary information flow at its source. And I certainly agree that a team approach to solving the information overload problem is best (although the article using the team approach in a different context than I intend here.)

In The Empowered Paralegal I focus on eliminating and controlling not only information overflow but other distraction based on my conclusion that multi-taskers, even young multi-taskers, really do not work as well as uni-taskers, and certainly not as well as multi-taskers think they work.  So, it is nice to find some confirmation of this in the article:

A recent study of 100 students concluded that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time. The heavy multi-taskers couldn’t help thinking about the tasks they weren’t doing. These high multi-taskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds. One researcher reportedly stated that heavy multi-taskers are “suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.”

Thus, my goal of having only one file on the desk at a time. If you can stand a bit more information check out the Law.comarticle for more tips on controlling electronic information deluge.

Checking Email – Email Rules

Monday, October 19th, 2009 reports on a law associate who was reprimanded by a senior partner for failure to check his email.

… He didn’t check his e-mail.

As a result, he missed a senior partner’s instruction that he should send out a draft document for client review before calling it a day. Partner A. William Urquhart notes the mistake in an e-mail he sent the next morning to firm attorneys, which is reprinted in Above the Law, and exhorts the troops to pick up the pace as far as electronic message review is concerned.

Lawyers should be checking their e-mail hourly, unless they have a very good excuse for not doing so, Urquhart says, such as being in court, in a tunnel or asleep.

“One of the last things you should do before you retire for the night is to check your e-mail. That is why we give you BlackBerries,” he writes.

I’m not in a position to opine on whether the senior partner was correct in reprimanding the associate (although he could and should have done so privately rather than using it as a “teaching moment” for the entire firm and using the associate’s name.) I am aware that this is a price associates pay at many firms for the salary they receive.

I am hopeful, however, that paralegals can avoid similar demands. At the very least, paralegals should talk frankly with their attorneys about such expectations and make it clear that there are limits to the extent to which the office can reach into non-office hours.

In general even at the office, email and email checking have to be controled and managed lest it become an overwhelming source of stress, distraction and wasted time. Even if you must check email at regular intervals, you need not read every email or respond to everyone you read at each check interval.

Establish what the attorney’s expectation are and then establish rules for meeting those expectations while managing all emails not related to those expectations. 

Many email programs have a “Rules” function even if it’s called something else. Since the most popular program is Outlook, I’ll focus on it.  The goal is to immediately move all email other than that which requires your immediate attention out of the “Inbox.”  Since we don’t want it in the “Inbox,” we need to create a place for it to go. The good news is we can create several such places.

In Outlook 2003, for example, click on “Inbox,” so that it is “selected,” i.e., highlighted.  Then click on “File” in the toolbar. This will bring up a menu that includes “New Folder.” Click on “New Folder.”  You can name this folder whatever makes sense to you. Are many of your “I don’t need to deal with this now” emails from the paralegal down the hall? Name the folder after that paralegal.  Or simply name it “24 hours” indicating you will deal with the email within the next day.  You can have other folder for other people or other folders indicating the relative importance of the email.

Now we get to the fun part. You can, and should, create Rules that govern your email.  In the “Tools” menu  click “Rules and Alerts.” Now you can create a rule governing how your email will work.  All emails from particular persons or with particular subjects can be directed never to enter your “Inbox” at all! You can read them and respond to them when you want and if you want.   You can create a rule directing emails to your “Junk Mail” folder, but be careful with this one. Establish regular intervals for checking the “Junk Mail” folder to be sure only junk is going there.

You even have choices on email that is important. For example, every email I sent my paralegals was, of course, important. I expect each one to be read and, if appropriate, to engender a response.  However, my paralegals chose how to deal with that expectation. My emails can go directly to the “Inbox” with an alert announcing their arrival, or they can go to a folder with my name – a clear indication of just how important they are.

Then there are emails in the middle. Now that offices run on email communications, it is often necessary to communicate by email. But you don’t have to communicate with the sender every time they chose to communicate with you. If you create a folder and rule for each sender with whom you want to communicate regularly, you can check that folder periodically. Outlook lets you know how many new messages you have from that sender.

If you create folders and rules for emails from people you want or need to communicate, you need to let them know. For this communication personal contact is better than email. Before you speak to them, figure out what will work for you. If you are going to check their folders when you start the day, at 11:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and at the end of the day, let them know what you are doing and why.

It’s best not to make this personal. Discuss it with your attorney first. Then let each person know you are establishing these rules for everyone so you can control your day.  While they may not like the fact that they will not receive immediate attention, they will at least know why they are not receiving immediate attention. Be prepared though, for them to do the same. They may decide to create a folder for you and only check it at times that makes sense in their day.  That’s O.K. The more people doing this in your office, the better it will work.

If you work with this for awhile, you’ll discover more ways to control your email. In fact, many of the concepts used to control email can be used to control other interruptions.

One File at a Time

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

I recently had a request for my article on having only one file on your desk at a time. I do not have a formal article on the topic, but I do cover the topic in The Empowered Paralegal using principles established and advocated by several time-management strategists, and I had once before posted a section from the chapter covering the topic. Because of that request and because I have a busy, busy day today including a mid-term (I teach law, but I am taking courses towards my Masters in Philosophy, so I’m taking this test not giving it.) I’m taking the easy way out and re-posting the previous post with an emphasis on the goal of getting to an office Nirvana: One File on the Desk at a Time:

In almost every office of moderate or larger size and in many smaller offices, there is an office that has it door closed all the time because it would be an embarrassment for clients to see it. Let’s call the owner of this office “Joe.” There are files, documents, unopened mail, ancient unread copies of the ABA Journal, Wall Street Journal, the state bar journal and advertisements for legal and non legal journals of every type and description on every horizontal surface. Unopened boxes of USCA pocket-part updates are stuck in the corners and under chairs. There is not even a few inches of open space on the desk. When visitors enter the office Joe, somewhat embarrassed, gestures futilely towards a chair. The gesture is futile since there is far too much clutter on the chair for anyone to attempt sitting there.

It is not the workplace of an empowered, effective paralegal. This workplace controls the worker even to the extent of requiring him to move sideways to avoid knocking papers onto the floor. The empowered, effective paralegal controls the workplace, rather than let it control her.

You can control your workplace by establishing a few basic and easy procedures.
Deleting: The basic operating principle is that each item belongs in recycling unless there’s a good reason to put it somewhere else.

Sorting and Prioritizing: Deleting is part of the overall organizing process. As we noted before, some of the remaining papers may still need attention right away. As you delete, place items in on of four piles which are likely to be small enough in number and bulk to put into file folders. Try manila expandable folders if the standard manila ones are not quite large enough. Label one “Today,” one “To Be Determined Today,” one “This Week,” and one “To Be Filed.” The various piles of rubble have now been reduced to four folders placed neatly on the desk! That’s too many folders to have on a desk.

Planning: Since we can only work on one item, there should only be one item on our desk. In most instances the item will be a client file. In some instances we can “cheat” a bit and call “the mail” one item. The other folders can be put away until you are ready to work on them. Select a time to deal with them and enter that time on your calendar. Stuff in the “To Be Filed” folder is more likely to move out of that folder and into the files if a time, say tomorrow at 10 a.m., is set for getting it done. In the meantime it should be removed from the desk and put in its place.

Just Do It: Before stating the final option, let’s take a look at the common factor in all the previous options. Whether you are deleting an item or placing it in one of the folders, you are disposing of the item fairly quickly. There will be some items, possibility the majority of the mail, where the action required by you is not much more time consuming that, say, placing the item in the “To Be Delivered” folder and doing the delivery. In these cases, just do it.

Keep Control: Survey your new domain. It’s well organized, neat and clean. In fact, it may be a bit too sterile. You’ve taken control, the work and the workspace is yours, but it isn’t quite “You.” Add in a few of the photos, plants or knick-knacks that make you feel at home while at work, keeping in mind that you are a professional and you are at work, not at home or in your college dorm. The key word here is “few.” You do not want to replace paper clutter with tchotchkes.

Now you are ready to get to work. But first, add a time to your calendar near the end of each week to re-establish your office organization.

The (100) Buck(s) Stops at the Lawyer, but…

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

I’m thinking about starting a new category for reports of consequences resulting from mistakes in documents filed with courts. Today reports that a A Wisconsin lawyer has been fined $100 for getting a citation wrong in a brief submitted to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

The lawyer cited an unpublished case that supposedly upheld a stipulated damages clause in a vending machines contract. But a search for the case based on the name provided by the lawyer turned up a misrepresentation case brought by newlyweds against a wedding photographer.

The cite wasn’t helpful, either. It was listed as “2005 AP 160,” which sent the appeals court to 2005 WI App 160 and another “dead end,” the footnote said. When the court finally found the real case—which had an entirely different name—it learned “2005 AP 160” was the docket number.

“Different name, different citation, different district (District IV) but, as promised, unpublished,” the court said in the footnote.

The reports source, Legal Blog Watch notes both the viral way in which blog post spread and an interesting note on sloppiness:

OK, now there is a small kicker to this story of a sloppy cite. I learned about it from a post this week at WisBlawg. WisBlawg credited its source as Law Librarian Blog. Law Librarian Blog said it got it from Legal Writing Prof Blog. And Legal Writing Prof Blog identified its source as Lisa Mazzie at Marqette.

At where? Yes, it seems that Legal Writing Prof Blog forgot that u-after-q rule and mangled the name of a major law school. That was not the only error in this short Legal Writing Prof Blog post. It identified its quote of the court’s opinion as taken from footnote 5. It then cited the quote as “2008 WI App 160, ¶ 14 n.4.” Was it footnote four or footnote five?

As professionals we must strive to eliminate sloppiness from everything we do in our professionals lives. I encourage my students and all praticing paralegals to maintain professionalism even in emails and other communications that are done at work or relate to work. We cannot be correct 100% of the time. (I now have one kind hearted reader who proofreads most of my posts and emails me when I need to make a correction. Thanks, Lauren. ) but the standards for court pleadings are high as discussed in previous posts here.

In this case, the consequences could have been higher than $100. Not all courts will track down a citation the way this one did. Many will simply not read the case and discount the argument. Afterall, if the case was not important enough for the legal team to get the citation right, it couldn’t be important enough for the judge and her clerk to spend time searching for it.  If the case was not important to the argument, then one wonders why it was being cited at all!

While the lawyer will pay the court imposed penalty, it is likely that any paralegal working on the brief will also suffer some consequences.

The long-term solution is for the legal team to have an established and enforced procedure for cross-checking all citations, and proofreading all documents submitted to the court, other counsel and clients. This solution requires that the office also have a time-management system in place to ensure that work is completed in time for cross-checking and proofreading. Remember the dance!

Now that I’ve finished this I have decided to make a new category for these legal parables: Consequences of Sloppiness is the working title, but I’m open to suggestions.

Planning on Reaching Goals

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

Attaining goals requires more than wishful thinking. If I want to get to Memphis, I can set off in that general direction and wander around in hopes that one day I’ll make it there, or I can plan.

The first step is to identify goals. This requires some thought and specificity. A goal that simply says, “I want to be happy,” “I want to be successful,” or “I want to be financially stable,”  while understandable, is too vague to be helpful. What will it take for you to be happy? What is success for you? In the academic arena success if often measured by attaining tenure. But even “I want to make tenure” is too vague of a goal. What does it take to make tenure? For many it requires (1) excellence in teaching, (2) service to school and profession, and (3) Scholarly research and publication. These serve better as goals and it gives some framework – one goal, “success” has become three specific goals, each of which can lead to a specific plan for attainment. There are specific ways to measure and improve teaching excellence. Service to school and profession can be accomplished in specific ways, and so on.  So to achieve each of these components of the tenure goal, we can

  1. Make a list of the component parts necessary to meet the component part of the goal. What are the school’s specific requirements for teaching, publication and service.
  2. Record essential time requirements on your calendar. Record not just the dates on which you need to have accomplished the goal, but also the dates on which each essential component must be accomplished.
  3. Make a plan for accomplishing each component on your list. If necessary, break these tasks down into smaller components with their own plan. Again, a plan is more than a vague statement of intent such as, “I will study hard.” What specific acts constitute “studying hard?” What time needs to be allocated to each one of those tasks, in what order should they be done, what materials are needed, what other people must be involved (even if their involvement is simply that I have to see they are taken care of first, e.g., hungry kids.)
  4. Record the date on which you must START each part of your plan in order to complete it on time. Build in time for the unexpected.
  5. Establish reminders for each for each start and end date. It’s not enough to mark the calendar. We all need “ticklers” to remind us as we go along. In fact, we sometimes become complacent about deadlines because they are on the calendar. 
  6. Review your entire calendar and integrate the new plan into the overall management of your life. Look at events before, during and after the deadline.  If the new event will chew up time you had planned to use completing a task for meeting another deadline, you may need to change one or both plans.

Planning for Happiness: The Happiness Project

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

This weekend I returned to  a post on entitled, “For Happy Life, Do What You Want to Do; Lawyer Explains How.” It caught my attention because during the course of my career I’ve run into a lot of unhappy attorneys. As the post notes about attaining happiness, “It isn’t easy to do so, though, especially when money and prestige pull you in one direction and your own interests take you in another.” As students in my class know, I put a high premium on setting goals, making plans and maintaining key principles, such as those advocated by Gretchen Rubin in her book The Happiness Project and her Happiness Project Blog.

The process of setting goals, making plans, managing time and workload, seem themselves like a lot of work. As noted by Rubin, it can also be scary at times, “It’s painful to acknowledge a dream, because as soon as you acknowledge it, you also acknowledge that you might fail.” After one goal setting and planning exercise in my professionalism course, a student noted that acknowledging her goal for three years down the road and starting to plan for it, felt like a commitment and realizing what she had yet to do to achieve that goal was somewhat overwhelming.

Yet, I think that if you being a professional paralegal is what you want to do, implementing the techniques of professionalism will lead not only to professionalism but happiness. Much happiness comes from achieving goals and you are much more likely to achieve goals if they are clearly identified and there is a plan for reaching the goal. If you want to get to NYC, you are far more likely to get there is you set a date and map out a route than if you just wander aimlessly in the general direction of NYC.

Goal setting and planning when combined with time, calendar and workload management have another benefit. You can plan for, and free up time for, the other “good things” in life, whatever those things are for you – time with your family, time away from your family, blogging or just no pressure knitting. In any case, take a few minutes to check out Rubin’s blog and The Happiness Project Toolbox.

That’s all for me today. I’m heading out to work in the garden and go to an Ole Miss soccer game. Hope to see you there or wherever you want to be doing what you want to do!

Do you have slackers in your office?

Monday, September 7th, 2009

The New York Times“Career Couch” yesterday had some sound advice for anyone who works in an office with colleagues. The article is entitled “When A Colleague Doesn’t Pull His Weight.” However, its first question and answer asks us to consider the possibility that we are mis-judging the situation when we feel that a colleague is not pulling his weight:

When we compare our own work with that of others, we can easily overvalue ourselves and undervalue them, said Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist in New York and founder of Dattner Consulting. That’s partly because we know much more about our own work, he said, and partly because most people have a self-serving bias, believing that they’ve made greater contributions than others recognize.

“How much time you perceive someone is working is not necessarily a valid reflection of the effort they are expending or the results they are achieving,” he said. “They may have terrific time-management skills, stay late or work weekends.”

They may also have legitimate personal reasons for their behavior — for example, the stress of dealing with an ill relative, problems with a spouse or the foreclosure of a home, he said.

To avoid overreacting, ask yourself why you are so angry. “Did you miss a deadline because of this person?” said Rick Gibbs, a senior human resources specialist at Administaff, a human resources outsourcing firm in Houston. “Did you have to stay late because he left early? Your goal is to establish the impact on your performance.”

I’ve emphasized the comment regarding time-management skills above because time management is such a large part of the discussion on this blog and in The Empowered Paralegal. I agree with much of what the Career Couch says in this column. When I first started applying time-management skills and techniques after attending a time-management workshop, I found myself with time at the end of the day rather than a pile of unfinished work. I’m certain office colleagues would have wondered what was going on except for the fact that I was continuously marveling aloud at how much can be accomplished through time management!

It is, of course, a different situation if work is not being done, especially if the colleague’s failure to complete work on time delays your work. The Times article has several good suggestions for dealing with that situation. However, I would like to examine this a bit more not from the standpoint of the slacker, but from the standpoint of the person who, through the utilization of sound time and workload management techniques is able to complete their work efficiently and effectively. There are many questions to ask, many of which relate to personal integrity and work ethic.

What is the purposes of efficiency? What are the benefits and who gets them? If I can complete a “full day’s work” in seven hours and it takes the paralegal next door eight, do I get to “slack” for the extra hour? These questions cannot be answered fully here and there is good reason to doubt that there are firm “right” answers to them that apply in all circumstances.

Certainly the primary beneficiary of sound time and workload management is the person who engages in the management. It relieves that person of stress. A “good life” is one of balance between work and non-work. Time and workload management provide the possibility of reaching that balance.  That balance requires that work not be overwhelmingly stressful. It also requires that there be non-work personal time.

However, both personal integrity and work ethic should dictate that the non-work time not occur on the job. You will not be viewed as a professional if you do only what you are told to do, no matter how efficiently you do it.

I’m not suggesting that you don’t do what you are told to do by your attorney, but if that is all you do – put in your time, do what you are told efficiently and wait for the next task to be assigned filling in time by surfing the internet, you will not be considered to be professional. Take the initiative. Suggest ways you could be helpful. When your assigned work is done, don’t just pass the time – let the attorney know you are ready for the next assignment. Just being there is not enough. Make yourself useful.

If you truly have “down time,” learn something. Find out how to do something you do not already know how to do that will be useful to you in your capacity as a member of the legal team. Use this time to participate in professional associations, rather than just be a member of one. Offer to help others who are busy. Avoid distracting other staff by talking about topics unrelated to whatever they are working on.

The goal is to be viewed as a terrific time manager who is efficient and effective while minimizing stress, without being viewed as a slacker. You can have it both ways.

Paralegal Stress

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

Several readers have arrived at this blog by searches including the words “paralegal” and “stress.”  Certainly paralegals, like all professionals, are subject to multiple professional stress factors in addition to those arises from private life such as spouses, children and finances. This is especially true in situations where they are overworked.

Stress factors include time pressure, workload, docket control, client management and relationships with co-workers including attorneys. The bad news is that there is no way to eliminate these factors. They are part of any profession and of many non-professional careers. The good news is that they can be controlled by paralegals rather than the paralegal being controlled by them.

The primary factor in controlling stress lies in the way the paralegal approaches any and all aspects of paralegal practice. It is a proactive rather than reactive approach. It seeks to understand and manage even those aspects of practice that the paralegal cannot control. This principle involves taking a rational empowered approach to time, file, workload, calendar, client and attorney relationship management.

While the specifics are different with regard to each stress producer, the paralegal can identify the areas of concern, analyze each aspect of that concern, set priorities that address those concerns, obtain a greater understanding of the area of concern, investigate solutions and barriers to those solutions, and establish procedures for implementing solutions and removing or overcoming barriers to those solutions. This can, and should, be done in a direct, rational and professional way – a way that honors our own need to be efficient, effective and empowered, and honors the interrelationships and responsibilities of the legal team.

When a paralegal applies these principles, that paralegal becomes empowered. The empowered paralegal is an essential member of the legal team in any office. In particular, the empowered paralegal not only survives, but thrives in the American law office.

Six Easy and Essential Steps for Meeting Deadlines

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

 Deadlines. Dreaded deadlines. Deadly deadlines. Damn deadlines. We could spend the day repeating the many alliterative references for deadlines. 

Deadlines seem to run directly opposite to our efforts to manage our work. Most of them are imposed by someone else – a court, a client, a bank, a boss. We have little or no control over them.  You can control how you manage them and plan for meeting them.

  1. Make a list of the component parts necessary to meet your goal.   
  2. Record essential time requirements on your calendar.  Record not just the dates on which you need to have accomplished the goal, but also the dates on which each essential component must be accomplished. 
  3. Make a plan for accomplishing each component on your list.   If necessary, break these tasks down into smaller components with their own plan.
  4. Record the date on which you must START each part of your plan in order to complete it on time. Build in time for the unexpected. 
  5. Establish reminders for each for each start and end date.  It’s not enough to mark the calendar. We all need “ticklers” to remind us as we go along. In fact, we sometimes become complacent about deadlines because they are on the calendar.  
  6. Review your entire calendar and integrate the new plan into the overall management of your work. Look at events before, during and after the deadline.  If the new event will chew up time you had planned to use completing a task for meeting another deadline, you may need to change one or both plans.