List your work; Work your list

April 13, 2020


A gazillion years ago, a friend and colleague opined that every time management program in the world could be summarized in two simple sentences:  1) List your work; and 2) Work your list.

When I asked if I could steal his words of wisdom, my colleague insisted that “stealing” was unnecessary.  I should share his insights freely, which I have done over the years with hundreds of lawyers.   

No one person can successfully manage time.  The only thing that we can manage is what we choose to do next.  Successful professionals maintain a running to-do list of everything that they must accomplish. Then, they focus on accomplishing their top priority tasks when their brains are primed to work most efficiently and effectively.


Everyone needs a running to-do list

Every successful professional has one central location (a legal pad, journal, composition book, or app) where they record every task that they cannot forget.  Most quickly recognize that, if a task is not recorded, it will be forgotten.  While working with my own clients, I often remark, “As long as I write it down, it’ll get done.  If I don’t, it won’t.”  That’s the real value of a running to-do list:  it acts as a backup to your memory and thereby reduces worry that you might fail to follow through on an important commitment.

If you are a new associate, organize your to-do list in sections.  At a minimum, keep one section in which you record all work-related items and a separate section for your personal need-to-dos.  As your responsibilities increase, you will likely need to further segment your lists.  For example, a third-year associate might create to-do Lists for each partner with whom he or she works.  A junior partner who is also a parent might segment his or her professional list to include separate sections for key client tasks as well as another section for business development.  His or her personal running to-do list might be segmented to reflect family and community commitments.

Once you add an item to your to-do list, add an estimate of the amount of time you believe a particular task will require.  This will help you determine whether the task is something that you can tackle during a quick break as contrasted to one that requires a significant amount of mental effort and/or time.  If you are a new associate, the accuracy of your estimates will likely be off … significantly.  This is simply a reflection that you’re in a learning phase.  As I told one new associate recently, the first time I ordered an airline ticket online, it required the better part of an hour.  Now I can do it in my sleep.  By checking your actual performance against your estimates when you complete of each task, you will quickly improve your accuracy.


Everyone also needs a daily plan

Your daily plan must be recorded on paper or electronically.  Why “must”?  Every lawyer knows that a written contract beats an oral agreement, even one sealed with a handshake.  Written contracts create a legally enforceable commitment.  A written daily plan reinforces your mental and emotional commitment to accomplishing certain tasks.

If you’re a new associate, set aside five minutes before you leave the office each evening to create your daily plan for the next day.  Then, go home.  Or go exercise.  Grab a bite to eat.  Watch an episode on Netflix or catch a quarter of the big game.  Before you head to bed, check your voicemail and email and add any new assignments to your running to-do list.  If the task is a top priority, add it to tomorrow’s daily plan along with your estimate as to the amount of time it will require.  Then, go to bed.  In the morning, after you complete your morning wake-up routine, and before you head into work, check voicemail and email again.  Add any new assignments to your running to-do list or to our daily plan. 

Your objective is to arrive at work knowing the most important task that you must accomplish that day.  This is critically important, because for the vast majority of us, our brain’s operate at peak efficiency between about 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.  This is not to say that you can’t develop a brilliant legal argument at 4:00 p.m.  However, unless you are a genuine night owl, you are most alert, accurate and creative first thing in the morning.  From then on, your efficiency and accuracy diminish throughout the day.

Make it a habit to arrive at work and immediately turn to your top priority project.  Not the project that’s easiest to do.  Not the project that seems most interesting.  And definitely not email and voicemail.  Tackle your top priority.

Learning how to prioritize projects is another skill that new associates must quickly develop, if for no other reason that any lawyer who gives an associate an assignment automatically assumes that his or her project should be the junior lawyer’s top priority.  Factors to consider include:

  • Which task is best linked to the practice group’s or firm’s goals?
  • Which task has the earliest deadline?
  • Which task presents the greatest cost to the firm if it’s not handled immediately?
  • Which task could generate the greatest profit to the firm if handled immediately?
  • Which is the oldest matter?
  • Which task is an over-due expectation of an important client?
  • Which task offers the best chance for new firm business?

At the end of each day, as you develop tomorrow’s daily plan, review the tasks that you completed.  Check the accuracy of your time estimates, which will help you make future estimates that much more accurate.  Move any tasks still undone onto the next day’s daily plan, unless some priority shifted, for example, a court filing initially targeted for tomorrow has been delayed by a month.

If you are is search of an App or software that can help you with this process, check out >KanBanFlow project management, which uses a visual “smartsheet” to help teams manage projects.  Any new associate could develop a similar smartsheet (four columns in an Excel spreadsheet, each one bearing one of the following four labels:  To-Do; Daily Plan; In Progress; and Done.  What goes in the “In Progress” column?  Let’s say you drafted a section of a memo and forwarded it to a senior associate for his or her review.  If you anticipate that your draft will be returned to you for further work, it goes in this column.

Creating a visual smartsheet yields two additional benefits for new associates.  First, if you primarily work with a practice group’s assigning partner/coordinator, you can share your smartsheet with that person daily.  When he or she sees that you are already operating at full capacity, you may eliminate some of the workplace interruptions that naturally occur in the absence of this knowledge.  Second, if you keep a running record of what you accomplish daily, you will develop a valuable resource for you to review prior to your first performance evaluation.  Your smartsheet will help you document how you have started to contribute to the firm’s productivity and profitability in your first year of employment.




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