Lessons for lawyers working from home Pt.1

March 13, 2020

In an unprecedented climate of uncertainty, new best practices are emerging.  In this bi-weekly series, we will highlight tips that lawyers can use to successfully work from home with a strategy in mind to maximise potential during this period. 

Part 1 – Priority Setting

Professional time management, always a challenge, is all the more difficult at home, particularly where it collides with personal obligations and that DIY project you’ve been putting off since last year. Without strategic goal setting, you may become anxious, struggle to concentrate, and easily distracted.

Time stressors usually happen where you have too much to do, in too little time.  But, with restrictions around COVID-19 gaining momentum daily, the opposite may also be true –a perceived abundance of time, leading to a lack of productivity.  Typically lawyers tend to make everything “top priority” so when matters are not immediately pressing, we procrastinate.

The “Eisenhower Principle” (popularized in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey) provides a useful system for separating true priorities from what are essentially distractions.

Good time management means being effective as well as efficient. To feel good in ourselves, we must spend time on things that are important and not just urgent.

Important activities have an outcome in which we achieve our goals – professional (building out your pro bono practice alongside your client work), or personal (spring cleaning your closet). They are key to our sense of well-being. 

Urgent activities demand immediate attention, and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s (the Firm/Company, the client, or a family member)‘s goals. We tend to concentrate on these and they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate. 

At their cross-section, there are four ‘buckets’ –

  1. Important and urgent

Do first – this will always be the case for a pressing and/or unforeseen client deadline but try to distinguish the tasks you could have foreseen in order to avoid them creeping up on you next time.  A consistent example here is frantically back-posting your billable hours (VERY important!) because you didn’t keep on top of your time recording.  These ‘foreseeable’ tasks belong in the next bucket. 

  1. Important not urgent

Do later, but bear in mind that this category will build up significantly in the current climate because timelines are consistently being pushed out at work, while you may also be asked to do more at home since you are physically there more.  Continuing priority setting within this bucket, professionally and personally, is key.  Examples here include posting your hours, preparing for a deal or case that is on hold but likely to become active again, business development during this downturn, or developing a strategy for your pro bono ambitions.  On the personal side, examples could include personal finances administration, editing your resume, or looking at job opportunities if you’re considering a change.  We will be providing more advice on this later in the series.  

  1. Not important but urgent

Reschedule or if possible, delegate since these do not contribute to your goals.  If you can’t, try to confine to a specific time period.  Using timers is a very effective way to compartmentalise (and therefore limit) your time spent on these activities if they are unavoidable.  Ironically, the time recording example could comfortably sit in this bucket here too – since it is necessary for the Firm’s business, rather than your individual career growth, it may not be important to you, but the Partner urgently requires your time posted in order to issue a bill to the client.  On the personal side, that home organisation project your significant other asked you to do two weeks ago has all of a sudden become urgent…!  Set yourself a timer for a specific period and look forward to finishing this task and feeling lighter as a result.

  1. Not important not urgent

Eliminate if possible  – these may also be activities that other people have asked you to do, even though they don’t contribute to your own desired outcomes – for example, a request to attend a conference or join a professional committee that is not sufficiently relevant to your practice area.  Try to say “no” politely.  If people see that you are clear about your objectives and boundaries, they will more likely avoid asking you to such activities in the future. This is not always possible with loved ones you are currently at home all day with – use your best judgment here, but as with the home organisation project above, such requests may belong in the previous buckets on the understanding that if they are important to a loved one, they are important to you.

When we know which activities are important and which are urgent, we can overcome the natural tendency to focus on unimportant urgent activities, clearing time to do what’s essential for our personal success. In this way, you can stop “firefighting” (or conversely at the moment, procrastinating) and instead grow your career during this slower period, and even tackle those niggly home projects playing on your mind in your new working environment. 

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