How to be Productive: A daily plan for a more efficient and relaxed week.

This week, let’s talk about productivity.

Much of the stress I felt as a young lawyer stemmed from the feeling that I had little control over my days.  I would love to tell you that I devised a system to eradicate that feeling completely.  In reality, that’s just life as a junior attorney. It can take a while for work to trickle down to you. And when it does, you will have little or no input in the deadlines imposed.

But! Over time, I developed a system to help organize my schedule and take control where I could. It’s super easy to implement and in about fifteen minutes a day, you can enjoy more focused days, productive weeks, and relaxed weekends.

So what’s my grand plan? It’s simple, really: (1) a detailed to do list and (2) a commitment to reevaluate your priorities on a regular basis throughout the week, starting on Sunday.

Stay with me: I know nobody wants to think about work on the weekend. But let’s get real, you probably already do. Maybe because you had to work over the weekend. Or because on Sunday evening, emails about the next week start filling your inbox.  Or you’re still stressing about projects you didn’t finish last week.

Whatever the reason, I want you to set aside 10-15 minutes every Sunday and create a to do list for the week. Here are some guidelines:

  • Draft a bulleted list of all of the matters you anticipate working on that week.
    • Under each matter, list the specific tasks you need to accomplish.
    • Break out each project into chunks. So you are not just writing a memo, your tasks are: (1) research the issue, (2) draft the memo, and (3) finalize and submit the memo to your boss. If you’re really having trouble motivating yourself, make the tasks super specific, like “draft legal standard section of memo.”
    • Include meetings and calls from your calendar. They eat up time in your day.
    • Are you working on a long-term project like a document review? Break it out into smaller steps. Think about your pace – how many documents do you want to review per hour? Or how many assignment batches do you need to review per day in order to meet the project targets? If you have trouble staying motivated in the face of unending doc review, focus on billable hours. Set a goal of 3 hours billed on the review by lunch. Whatever your barrier to efficiency is, your to do list can help overcome it.
  • Break up your list by day.
    • What tasks do you want to or need to finish on Monday? Tuesday?
    • If you are having trouble figuring out how much you can get done in a day, estimate how much time you think a given task will take and jot it down on your list. You don’t necessarily need to stick to it, but it can help you structure your day.
  • Order each day’s list by priority of task or the order in which you need to get things done.
  • Keep the list somewhere you can access and edit it easily.
    • I keep my list in a draft email in my inbox. Keeping an electronic file allows me to shift things around as I draft it or as my priorities change.
    • Sometimes I also put each day’s tasks on a post-it note on my desk. I can reference it easily, and as I complete tasks, bask in the minor joy of physically crossing items off my list. I also jot down my time next to each task so I can track my billable hours more easily.

That’s all there is to it! On Monday morning, just take a look at your list and get to work.

Feeling a little lost? Here’s a sample list for a few days, following the above guidelines:

Monday

  • Smith v. Doe
    • Team meeting to discuss privilege review (9am-10am)
    • Review two document review batches (2 hrs.)
  • Jones v. Lee
    • Draft update letter to client and send to partner for review (2 hrs.)
  • Green v. Red
    • Client memo: research issues X and Y (3 hrs.)

Tuesday

  • Smith v. Doe
    • Review two document batches (2 hrs.)
  • Jones v. Lee
    • Finalize client letter and send (1 hr.)
  • Green v. Red
    • Client memo: Draft memo (5 hrs.)

Wednesday

  • Green v. Red
    • Client memo: Review and finalize memo and send to partner (1 hr.)
  • Smith v. Doe
    • Review two document batches (2 hrs.)
  • Attend litigation department training (2 hrs.)

Tomorrow: check back here for tips about how to follow through on your list and adjust to new demands as they arise.  Because life as a junior lawyer is nothing if not unpredictable.

Pic Credit: Glenn Carstens Peters (via Unsplash)

The Big Picture: You are responsible for your own career.

In “The Big Picture” posts, I discuss issues and ideas focused on your long-term career.

During the first few years of your career, a lot of your time is going to be focused on figuring out how to make it through the day. You’ll be in the weeds, so to speak. And it will probably take a couple of years for you to feel like you have a clue about what you’re doing and how to practice law.  Putting your head down and focusing on the day-to-day job is necessary, but make sure you act strategically when you can so that when you do pop you for air, you like where your career is headed.

And it is so easy to feel aimless at the start of your career.  For the first time in your life, you might not have a concrete goal.  You had been on a clear trajectory: (1) high school; (2) college; (3) law school; (4) bar exam; (5) get a job; (6) show up. And then…what?

You might not be able to answer that question, and that’s okay.  But don’t let the unpredictable schedule, crazy hours, and total newness of life as a young lawyer stop you from taking control where you can.  Because nobody cares about your career as much as you do. And it’s up to you to take it where you want to go.

So, even when you have little to no autonomy in your daily work life, here are a few things to try:

  • Take on new work strategically.
    • Keep an eye and ear out for opportunities. Talk to other young lawyers in your office, talk to formal and informal mentors, and talk to whomever is in charge of work assignments.
    • Want to work with a particular attorney? If you see a gap in your schedule coming up, reach out to them and ask if they have any opportunities.
    • Interested in a particular area of law? Figure out who in your office works on those matters and ask to get involved.
  • If you work in private practice, take on a pro bono case.
    • Pro bono work is awesome for all kinds of reasons. From a purely career-driven standpoint, it can:
      • Help you learn new skills before you would get a similar opportunity on a billable matter;
      • Provide leadership opportunities;
      • Provide experience in a different area of law, helping you figure out what you like and what you don’t; and
      • Help you make connections for the future.
  • Target your continuing legal education (CLE) credits to issues you care about.
    • This can also help you take on new work strategically. Let’s say you want to break into your firm’s antitrust group. If you attend a great CLE on emerging trends in antitrust law, write up a short blurb about it and reach out to an antitrust attorney you know (or one you don’t) and offer to circulate the course materials to your firm’s antitrust group.
  • Attend office events.
    • You will stay engaged in your company or firm, make connections, hear about new and interesting matters, or at the least, just enjoy a free glass of wine.
  • Take advantage of freebies.
    • Many bar associations offer free membership for at least your first year of practice.

Pic Credit: Jonathan Simcoe (via Unsplash)

Welcome to This Lawyer Life

This Lawyer Life is a website for junior attorneys looking for tips to help navigate the early years of their legal career from someone who has been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale.

Why should you listen to what I have to say? Well, I am currently a senior associate in NYC biglaw with prior experience in a legal services organization. I have worked through the glory days pre-recession and made it through the scarier times afterward.

Most importantly, not too long ago, I was in your shoes, navigating the workplace as a new lawyer. It’s not always easy to figure out how to translate three years of legal education aimed at teaching you how to “think like a lawyer” to practical application as a working attorney in a way that is helpful, efficient, and error-free.  I have made the mistakes, or seen them made, and I’m here to offer you my tried and true methods for everything from increasing your productivity to figuring out how to set boundaries and maintain a personal life. In doing so, I hope I can help make your job not just manageable, but enjoyable.

I also hope to hear from readers with their questions or advice.  I encourage respectful discussion in the comments.  If you would like to submit a question, see the “Ask Me a Question” page for my contact information.