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The Friday Five

5 Organizational Skills for Lawyers

By Camille Stell

When you think of organizational skills for lawyers, you probably think first of the physical things: an uncluttered office, pristine case files, and the ability to find exactly what you’re looking for exactly when you need it. But critical organizational skills also include time management, strategic planning, the ability to set priorities, and self-care. Here are five things hyper-productive people do every day to maximize their results and build successful law practices.

Lawyer Organization Tip No. 1: Stick With Daily Routines

Twenty-four hours in a day. We all have the same amount of time. But some people seem to get so much more done in their hours than others. Their secret: Consistency and routine.

Morning Routine

While many of us start the workday with online news or by immediately digging into emails, I suggest you ditch that habit. What starts as just a few minutes catching up can often turn into hours down a rabbit hole. A 2019 annual email usage study by Adobe found the average person spends more than five hours per weekday on email.

If you must start with email, make it a quick skim to ensure you aren’t missing an important message from a boss or client, then get on with your work.

I typically start my day with a three- to five-item priority list that I created the day before. This is not my entire “to-do” list. But the priority list reflects the things that absolutely must get done.

My favorite way to start work is with a writing project for a client or an article or book I’m working on. While my mind feels fresh and the day is full of possibilities, the writing seems to flow. After writing for an hour or two, I need to stretch, get water, and walk for a few minutes to get the blood flowing. Then I return to the writing project or use a scheduled block of time to return calls or emails.

While I don’t follow my routine every day, I am more productive on the days that I do. The productive morning then sets the tone for the rest of the day.

Nightly Wind-Down Routine

I got the idea of a wind-down routine from my writing coach, Daphne Gray-Grant. Daphne is a believer in the discipline needed for writing, but many of her suggestions work for anyone who needs discipline to succeed in their career.

The wind-down routine helps me clear my brain for the remainder of my evening — which is particularly important when working from home with only one flight of stairs as my commute. I make sure that I leave my desk neat, that I’ve checked items off my priority list and have created my priority list for the following day. The sense of satisfaction I gain during the wind-down routine is important for separating the workday from my personal time.

While Daphne acknowledges the value of using an end-of-day ritual to plan for the next day, she says, “I’ve never been drawn to that. I find it invigorating to plan my day in the morning so I can get excited about what I’m going to accomplish that day.”

While I appreciate her approach, Daphne is an admitted “morning lark.” I prefer to set my priorities the day before, so there is a plan in place when I sit down at the computer. With experimentation, you will find the system that works best for you.

I start my wind-down routine about 30 to 45 minutes before the end of my day. While your routine will be different, here’s a look at mine:

  • Do final review of email.
  • Review and check off today’s priority list.
  • Create tomorrow’s priority list.
  • Shut down computer.
  • Leave work behind and focus on family, friends and self.

Lawyer Organization Tip No. 2: Trade Your To-Do List for Your Calendar

Peter Bregman, the author of “Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Replace Counter-Productive Habits with Ones That Really Work,” suggests rather than working from a to-do list, we put the tasks on a calendar, which serves as our blueprint for the day.

“The reason we’re always left with unfinished items on our to-do lists is because those lists are the wrong tool to drive our accomplishments. Decide when and where you will do something, and the likelihood that you’ll follow through increases dramatically,” he writes.

Calendars help you prioritize, says Bregman. “A calendar is finite; there are only a certain number of hours in a day. That fact becomes clear the instant we try to cram an unrealistic number of things into a finite space.”

Daphne agrees that structuring your day is essential. “My productivity took a huge leap as soon as I started using time-blocking. Each morning I take five minutes to plan. First, I decide on my three to five priorities for that day. Then, I schedule when I’m going to do them by entering my tasks (not just meetings, but tasks) into a daily calendar that’s divided into 30-minute chunks. This is one of my best tips for writing from home.”

Daphne and I both love the Pomodoro method as a productivity tool. Pomodoro is the practice of devoting 25 minutes to a task. It’s perfect for writing, and it’s a great way to manage email. Most productive people only check their email a few times a day. Schedule email management on your calendar and use a Pomodoro timer to guide you quickly through the process.

Lawyer Organization Tip No. 3: Differentiate Between Important and Urgent

Productive people understand the difference between important and urgent tasks. In the legal field, we are often putting out fires. Sometimes these emergencies are real; they arise unexpectedly and have to be dealt with. But often, we become accustomed to constantly working on deadline, and it becomes our default. It is hard to innovate or take your practice to the next level if you are stuck in the moment. Developing a proactive mindset rather than a reactive mindset is an important skill for successful lawyers.

Lawyer Organization Tip No. 4: Work on Your Firm, Not Just in Your Firm

You’ve heard it before: Successful lawyers devote time to building their business, not just working in their business.

One of the best lawyer organization tips is to devote time to sharpening your business skills. Consider scheduling regular time away from your office to work on your law firm. Work from a conference center or hotel space or reward yourself with a trip to a resort. Every quarter or at least once or twice a year, take a few days to read the latest business book, attend a business-focused educational program, and devote time to creating a business plan, mission statement and yearly goals.

Lawyer Organization Tip No. 5: Practice Self-Care

Much has been written about the importance of getting enough sleep. During the pandemic, I have slept more than usual. In talking with my doctor about it, she assured me it was healthy. During sleep, our bodies rest, rejuvenate and heal. For most people, living through the pandemic has taken an emotional, mental and physical toll — getting plenty of rest is key to well-being.

Exercise is another key component of wellness and self-care. Because I have not been going to the gym during the pandemic, I bought a small set of weights to keep in my home office. I use the weights and floor exercises and stretching in five- to 10-minute increments three times a day. I use my Fitbit to provide reminders every 50 minutes to get up and move around. Sometimes, I just head downstairs for water or a snack. Other times, I’ll run out to check the mail. But at least three times a day, I perform my at-home exercise routine to keep me moving and my head clear.

Whether you add these skills to your routine or establish your own, organizational habits and schedules will improve your efficiency and productivity.

Photo by Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

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Camille Stell Camille Stell

Camille Stell is President of Lawyers Mutual Consulting & Services and co-author of “Designing A Succession Plan for Your Law Practice: A Step-by-Step Guide for Preparing and Packaging Your Firm for Maximum Value.” Camille is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management, a member of the inaugural Pro Bono Resource Center Advisory Board, and has been recognized by North Carolina Lawyers Weekly as a member of the inaugural class of “Leaders in the Law.” Follow her @camillestell.

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