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12 tips to help you manage your time

How often have you wished for the day to be a bit longer? You can’t add hours to the day, but some simple time-management techniques can help you use those hours efficiently. We asked Missouri lawyers and other experts for their advice.

1. Put first things first.

Lawyers, like other people, like to eat dessert first. But it’s best to set priorities. Handle the most important tasks first — especially because you never know when a last-minute, urgent task is going to pop up, says St. Louis management consultant Wendy Werner, of Werner Associates. “I think it’s important to pay attention to what I would refer to as the big rocks,” Werner says. “If you are going to fill up a jar with a bunch of rocks, you want to put the big ones in first.”

2. Block out time.

Sarah Read, a Columbia attorney who specializes in mediation, arbitration and law practice management, says planning “core work periods” of continuous focused activity can boost your productivity. That means training your staff not to bother you with non-emergencies. You can deal with those during a set time for returning calls and e-mails. Core work periods allow you to increase your efficiency by grouping like tasks. “Make appointments with yourself, uninterrupted times where you are working through something so you are not picking it up and putting it down,” Read says. “It’s amazing in a two-hour block how much you can get through.”

3. Learn to delegate.

Spending a day labeling envelopes is not an example of a productive lawyer but of one who doesn’t use support staff properly. “Sometimes people think, ‘Well, I’ll just do this,’” Werner says. “‘It’s easier than trying to explain it to my secretary or my paralegal.’ That’s not sufficiently valuing what those people can do for you, and it forces you to spend your time on things that are not your strengths.”

4. Find the bottlenecks.

For any project, you must do certain things before your staff can take over. Before a paralegal starts to research, you should come up with a theory of the case. Identifying bottlenecks that hinder staff will clarify which tasks should come first, saving staff members from idleness or needless guesswork. “I can’t build the house until I’ve poured the foundation,” Read says. “I can’t pour the foundation until I’ve dug the hole. Even if I’ve dug the hole, I can’t start until the cement’s been delivered.”

5. Get in shape.

Exercise, along with proper diet and getting enough rest, can keep you running at peak efficiency. Not only does a poor lifestyle lead to slower work and time-consuming errors, but also it can leave you more susceptible to illnesses that can cost days or even months, says Jim Brady, of The Missouri Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program. “Fitness is not just so you can live a long time,” he says. “Fitness is so you can work harder right now.”

6. Analyze where you spend nonbillable time.

Brady recommends thinking in terms of “realized” hours rather than billable hours. In short, look at what you’re actually getting paid for. Nonbillable activities are often perfectly legitimate, but you should be aware of what they are and how long they take. “If you spend 10 hours at the office but only six are actually billable, what were you doing the other four?”

7. Don’t just wing it.

Create a comprehensive system that files items as they come in, Brady says.“There are a number of computer-based systems that help people organize their cases,” he says, “but a good system has to deal with all aspects of the office. How does information come in? How is it collated and distributed? There needs to be a systematic approach.”

8. Review your processes.

Consistency is good, but not at the expense of productivity. Processes that were useful five years ago may not reflect the needs of your office today. “A lot of lawyers have something they establish when they are just starting out,” Brady says. “Once the practice gets busy, does that simple system still meet the needs?”

9. Keep a research file.

Automating tasks and forms is a no-brainer. Put forms and letters you use often into template form. Research can work the same way. Build a knowledge base and know how to access it quickly. “One thing I do is keep a research file of past issues that are likely to come up over and over again,” Read says. “If you can pull something out of the file and update it four or five years, as opposed to researching back 15 years, you’ve saved a lot of time.”

10. View time as elastic.

Time can stretch more readily than many people understand. If you have a 20-minute break on a conference call, use it to return an important phone message or order Christmas presents online. “It’s like the party game where they put out a jar of marbles and ask if it’s full,” Read says. “All the kids say, ‘Yes.’ But then they pour water into it. Time is like that.”

11. Pick up the pace.

Unfortunately, elasticity can work both ways. Marie Lefton, a legal management consultant and principal with Hoffman Alvary, in Newton, Mass., says projects often expand to fill the time available. Lefton advises clients to approach tasks based on how long they should take rather than by their deadlines. That’s especially true in tough economies when business is down. “People may ask why they should become more efficient when they are worried about having enough billable work to do,” she says. “The effect is that people stretch out work for longer than it actually takes to complete.”

12. Ferret out leaks of time.

You should log your hours, both billable and nonbillable, and see if patterns develop that indicate a problem. “Every case is going to be different, but you would expect certain kinds of things to take similar amounts of time,” Brady says. “If that’s not happening, what’s creating the variance?”