Posts Tagged ‘Time Management’

“Deluge of information” flows downhill

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

ABAJournal.com posts on a Law.com 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 Law.com 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 Law.com 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

ABAJournal.com 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.

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 ABAJournal.com 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.

Who is in charge of your career?

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

Chere Estrin of the Estrin Report and Know: The Magazine for Paralegals has an interesting article on Examiner.com entitled “In Search of the Rest of Your Career.” It is well worth reading in its entirety, but my attention was drawn to her statement,

I am emphasizing career-changing rather than changing careers. This means taking charge of your present career and changing it around to best suit your needs rather than switching careers all together.

This attitude is the essence of empowerment. Empowerment does not come from the outside. It comes from within. It is not granted, it is earned. The empowered paralegal gains that power  and the confidence that comes with being professional, and by being a competent, effective and efficient member of the legal team.  The primary benefit that accrues when a paralegal learns to manage time, files, workload, clients and their relationship with their attorney is that the paralegal can take charge of these essential elements of their profession. The paralegal controls their time rather than time controlling them, and so on.

Tracking Time for Non-Client and Non-paralegal Work – A Follow Up to “Paralegals: An Asset to Your Team”

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

It is, of course, necessary to keep time records for all of your billable time. There are also reasons for you to track your time that are more practical to you. They involve non-billable time, that is, time not necessarily spent on client work or time spent on non-paralegal (and therefore non-billable) tasks.

One reason is that it allows you to advocate for yourself as an asset to the legal team and the law office. Time management often entails delegating tasks that may be better handled by someone with less skill than you. This may require hiring another full or part-time staff member. Convincing your attorney or office manager that this was the right thing to do may require some initiative on your part. Tracking your time may very well give you the ammunition you need.

Really, did you get your paralegal degree to spend time filing?  That alone is enough reason for you to track the time. But we’re not done yet.

A Job Description Sheet that includes estimates of the amount of time you spend doing particular tasks is a good starting point for time management. From that point you can move on to making plans and schedules to structure and manage time in a way that makes sense given the work you do.  However, the plans and schedules should not be matter of guess work.

The guess work is quite educated because you have a good grasp of your job and what it entails. After all, you do the job day in and day out. However, really effective time management requires that you know how much time it takes to do a task. You can’t plan an allotted amount of time for filing each week if you don’t know how much time you actually spend filing each week.

Finally, it’s your time. You can gain a great deal of satisfaction from knowing how you are using it and knowing you are managing it well.

No one said it would be easy…

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

but no one said it would be this hard. (My apologies to Sheryl Crow ):

In what is characterized as an emotional appeal a Colorado Springs D.A. plead for more money to run his office including $58,302 for a second paralegal in the special victims unit, noting inter alia, “. The unit’s only paralegal juggles 390 cases at once for six attorneys, prepares for trials, lines up witnesses, files motions and tracks court schedules.”

Many paralegals experience a great deal of stress at work.  I like to use this video to illustrate the way may feel at the end of a typical day. The professional paralegal can and does learn how to minimize the stress through time, file, docket, client and attorney management techniques. In the end, though, it doesn’t hurt to have sound stress management techniques among the arrows in your quiver.

Note: As an attorney I suffer from “Latin Phrases Disorder.” We depend on paralegals to understand us when we use terms like “inter alia, ” but not to use them yourselves. Someone has to be able to speak English to the clients.

Note 2:  If one of you knows how to embed youtube videos into a blog post, please take a few moments to instruct me. You can leave a comment or email me at TheEmpoweredParalegal@live.com

Note 3: Here’s a link to Sheryl Crow doing “No One Said It Would Be Easy” in concert.

Professionalism Requires Time Management

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Time is the mainstay and main product of a law office. The importance of time management rests not only in its monetary value. Managing your time and helping you attorney manage time not only increases productivity and efficiency, but also increases accuracy and job satisfaction. It also reduces ethical and malpractice complaints. However, many people do not have a clear understanding of what it means to manage time. The effective, empowered paralegal knows how to organize, protect, and track time, making time theirs rather than belonging to the time demands of the job.

The Professional Paralegal and Fees

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Brian Craig at the Globe University/Minnesota School of Business Paralegal Program Blog posts an update summarizing recent cases upholding paralegal fees. He starts by noting:

A number of recent cases have upheld fees for paralegals when awarding attorneys’ fees to prevailing parties. Courts look at the reasonable prevailing market rate for awarding fees for paralegal services. Recent cases have upheld awards ranging from $50-$100 per hour for paralegals. In Nadarajah v. Holder, — F.3d —-, 2009 WL 1588678 (9th Cir. Jun. 9, 2009), the Ninth Circuit affirmed an hourly rate of $100 per hour for paralegals.

There are, however, limits to paralegal fees. Courts may reduce the hourly rate based on the given evidence.

This recognition of paralegal professionalism by the courts comes with a corresponding obligation on the part of the paralegal to be profession, effective, efficient and ethical, in performing the work.  There are many aspects to this including time management, solid knowledge of substantive law, and a firm grasp of how to do what needs to be done as well as what needs to be done. Perhaps the best short answer is that  in order to be considered a professional the paralegal must develop and demonstrate a professional work ethic.