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    Time Management 101: Let's Get Real

    Generic organizing and time management tips don't apply for every lawyer. Here are the basics for finding a time management system you can stick to while complying with the ethics rules and building your business.

    Gretchen G. Viney

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    Because the Code of Professional Conduct implicates time management principles in “diligence” (SCR 20:1.3) and “communication” (SCR 20:1.4), lawyers are bombarded with advice about time and life management, procrastination, and prompt response to client concerns, all coupled with dire warnings about the ethical consequences of poor time management habits. The volume of advice is overwhelming. For example, a 2013 American Bar Association publication by Amy L. Jarmon, Time and Workplace Management for Lawyers, contains a “summary” appendix of more than 130 “quick tips.” Likewise, if we google “time management for lawyers,” we raise more than 190 million hits.

    When lawyers seek out and review these time management resources, they should approach them critically. My experience raises a number of caveats:

    • Time management experts usually are not lawyers. Many, if not most, time management strategies are aimed at business managers; the strategies may not work for lawyers.

    • Context is important. Effective time management strategies for lawyers may depend on the type of law practice. What works for a probate lawyer may be quite different from what works for a general practitioner, and that may be quite different from what works for a litigator. Effective strategies may also depend on the size of the practice. What works in a huge firm with a burgeoning staff may be quite different from what works for a solo or small firm with little or no staff. Time management literature often fails to recognize the importance of context.

    • Time management people often wear us out with time management strategies and costs. Often, the strategy becomes the goal rather than the strategy being the means to a goal, not to mention that the strategy often involves buying a product or system that is almost always expensive.

    • Most sustainable, successful time management strategies are personal, developed by the individual lawyer based on what works and, unfortunately, what does not. While reading multiple resources is useful for gleaning approaches to time management problems, lawyers generally must pick and choose among specific suggestions to find a good fit. Some of the best time management ideas arise from sharing idiosyncratic stories about what works or what does not because personal style is often more important than one size fits all.

    • Lawyers may not have a choice about certain time management strategies or tools, even if those are ineffective or superfluous. For example, a malpractice carrier may require a double-write or triple-write calendar system even if the lawyer has never missed a deadline with a one-write system.

    Overview of Approaches

    Most time management literature adopts, or combines, one or more of these overall approaches.

    Gretchen Vineyedu gretchen.viney wisc Gretchen Viney, U.W. 1978, is a distinguished clinical professor at the U.W. Law School, Madison, where she is the director of the Lawyering Skills Program. She previously practiced law in Baraboo.

    Get Organized. This type of system focuses on organizing things, organizing tasks, and organizing people. The downside here is that sometimes it’s hard to herd cats.

    Set and Achieve Goals. Under this popular approach, an individual sets long-term, mid-term, and short-term goals, and then achieves, achieves, achieves. All activities are goal oriented and every task is evaluated by the filter: Does this help me reach my goal? People who know how to set and achieve goals generally do accomplish what they set out to do and often in a timely way. The weakness here is that, as Steven Covey and coauthors famously wrote in First Things First (Covey Leadership Ctr., 1995), it means little to climb the ladder if the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Also, life has a way of interfering with all these goals that we spend so much time setting.

    Acquire a Magic Tool. Often, time management systems are commercial, so someone is trying to sell the latest and best product: calendaring system, computer program, case management program, time-keeping and time-alerting systems, and so on. These mostly electronic tool-based systems work for people who like, and use, new toys. For the rest of us, these systems can be alluring but useless over the long haul because we quit using them.

    Learn More and Better Techniques. Under this approach, time management is a discrete skill that can be mastered by learning and applying the basic techniques of time management. These basics usually involve, in one form or another, the following: using a planner, creating “to do” lists, setting goals, delegating, organizing, and prioritizing. Intricate systems may result, or stand-alone “tools in the toolbox” may be advanced. The techniques are often interconnected: When one piece fails, the crafted system tumbles. The touted solution is that we must become better at using tools and techniques, but sometimes we become overwhelmed trying to master new techniques.

    Ideas to Ponder

    Given the importance of competence and diligence in the legal profession, we cannot afford to ignore the importance of “Time Management 101” skills. We also cannot achieve a higher level of life management unless we know how to use the clock. In the end, sustainable micro and macro time management strategy is relatively straightforward: 1) evaluate yourself and your goals; 2) look at creative ways to use existing time; 3) investigate ways to find more time in your day; and 4) learn to control yourself and how you spend your time. If you consider these four steps and create a realistic action item or two under each, you will improve your time management skills.

    Looking at 3. and 4., the following simple, basic suggestions may help create more time in the day and control how time is spent.

    Organize Your Work Area. One of the biggest time wasters is searching for things, rummaging around for things, moving stacks from one place to another, moving papers from one place to another, and generally shuffling stuff around in your office. The modern equivalent is searching through electronic files, folders, and indexes.

    To avoid the time waste, keep your physical and electronic work environments in some sort of order. When working on a number of files at once, those files (or parts of them) will be on your desk or open on your computer, or both. The goal is to make sure that nothing else is there, or that whatever is there is necessary to the current task.

    Do not spend inappropriate amounts of time on tasks that do not require that degree of accuracy or completeness.

    Plan Your Day. We can plan life goals and five-year goals and year-end goals and monthly goals and weekly goals, but if we do not know what we need to do today, the planning is for naught. You may have a to-do list, you may have notations on your calendar, you may have sticky notes (paper or electronic) on your desk top. In whatever way you plan for today, stick to the resulting plan. If you decide not to follow the plan, make that a conscious decision, not a “whoops.” Some people prefer to plan the day first thing in the morning; others plan for tomorrow at the end of today.

    Schedule Your Tasks. At least until you have a feel for how you spend your time, it probably is a good idea to schedule nearly all the tasks of life on your calendar. Schedule the unbudgeable appointments first: court appearances, meetings involving other people, obligations that are outside motivated or that involve others. Then schedule long-term and short-term projects, broken into small tasks, if possible.

    For example, if you know you must write a brief, break that project into tasks and schedule each task as an appointment on your calendar. You can always reschedule these “task” appointments should your priorities change or outside-motivated obligations impose, but then your choice will be a choice, not a “whoops.”

    Remember, you must also schedule your life. If you do not work at certain times, cross off those times. If you have a standing obligation, cross off that time. If you have a family event, cross off that time. Keep your home calendar transcribed onto your office calendar if you are permitted to do so. That way, you will not accidently schedule over your mother’s birthday dinner or your child’s school program. This does not mean that you may not choose to do so, but at least you will be making a choice.

    Choose When to be a Perfectionist. Many time management resources advise “don’t be a perfectionist.” That’s great advice for a middle manager in a huge company, but not such great advice for a lawyer. For lawyers, I would revise the advice: Do not spend inappropriate amounts of time on tasks that do not require that degree of accuracy or completeness.

    The issue, of course, is identifying which tasks those are and how to define inappropriate. Lawyers must quickly learn what tasks must be close to perfect and which can be good enough.

    The volume of email increases exponentially each year; handling the onslaught is an ongoing project, and problem, for lawyers and law firms.

    Embrace Interruptions. This advice is not the same as “practice procrastination.” Of course, do not look for distractions. But to be effective, we must learn to work despite interruptions. Frequently, interruptions are not time wasters but opportunities arriving at inopportune times. A quiet hour may be useful if the reason it is quiet is because no one is calling – like at 7 a.m. or 7 p.m.

    An artificially constructed do-not-disturb hour may be a good time management tool but may be a terrible practice management tool. Do you really want to be uninterrupted if the interruption is a new, valuable client? Expect interruptions and do not let them derail you.

    Manage Your Email. The avalanche of email will crush you if you do not come up with a good system to sort, read, respond, and save. The obvious best practice is to automatically sort incoming email into separate folders via “rules” or other built-in programs and then follow a systematic routine to review the various folders. After review, the email is moved from the in file to a permanent resting spot in accordance with your practice management or law firm rules. The volume of email increases exponentially each year; handling the onslaught is an ongoing project, and problem, for lawyers and law firms.

    Schedule Social Media and Internet Time. If you keep up with colleagues, friends, current events, professional events, and emerging legal issues by visiting social media and internet sites, you can preserve time by strictly scheduling these visits and ending them when the metaphorical bell rings.

    Respect Others. A popular time management strategy is to delegate work to others. Perhaps the advocates of that strategy have never been in the position of delegatee or have not noticed the effect of thoughtless or clumsy delegation. A good rule of thumb is to remember that people are not time management tools. These “delegatees” are people who have their own schedules and who have presumably engaged in their own goal setting, planning, and scheduling. Managing my time more effectively by interrupting someone else is arrogant.

    If by “delegate” we mean sharing the load in a team-building, cooperative way, then this may be a healthy way to run our practices and manage our time. If by “delegate” we mean that we have too much to do and we intend to dump some of it on someone else who also has too much to do, then we may be helping our personal time management problems but we are creating other, probably more serious, problems along the way. People are not time management tools, they are people.


    In the end, lawyers manage their time so that they can serve their clients diligently and competently, not so they can support the world of self-help management resources. Evaluate your goals, find a few tools that address the specific time management problem you encounter, evaluate the process periodically, and focus on what works in your personal and professional life.

    Meet Our Contributors

    What did you do to survive this long, snowy winter?

    Gretchen VineyI commute to work from Baraboo to Madison, so my primary strategy involved snow tires and an intrepid Corolla with 193,000 miles on the odometer. Beyond that, the Badger women’s hockey team (to which I am currently the U.W. Athletic Board liaison) kept me in excellent spirits. I attended 22 of 23 home games and also traveled to away games at Ohio State, Bemidji, and St. Cloud; to the conference tournament in Minneapolis; and to the NCAA Frozen Four in Connecticut, where they won the national championship!

    More mundanely, I also read (mostly mysteries and fiction), sang in the church choir, listened to opera, and generally tried to keep myself from hibernating, at one extreme, or overreacting to national and world events, at the other. At this point, I am pining for summer and walleye.

    edu gretchen.viney wisc Gretchen Viney, U.W. Law School, Madison.

    Become a contributor! Are you working on an interesting case? Have a practice tip to share? There are several ways to contribute to Wisconsin Lawyer. To discuss a topic idea, contact Managing Editor Karlé Lester at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6127, or email org klester wisbar wisbar klester org. Check out our writing and submission guidelines.

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