It’s All in the
management is about prioritizing and managing your workflow.
By Denise Templeton
Jul/Aug ’02 Issue
Ever notice how the
second hand on a clock is in continuous motion, jumping nervously from
one second to the next? Never pausing, it conveys constant activity.
Compare it to the big hand, which moves imperceptibly but steadily
forward, marking large chunks of progress hour by hour. Which hand best
describes your work style throughout the day?
Unlike the mechanical predictability of a clock, most
people’s workday is subject to a vast array of starts and stops, often
at the hands of others. Consequently, time management has become the
holy grail of the 21st century corporate workforce.
Time management implies balancing workflow and achieving
goals within prescribed time periods. But for many paralegals, time
management efforts are deadline-focused rather than action-oriented. The
former, although a familiar mode, requires one to react according to
external constraints set by others. An action-focused approach, on the
other hand, requires conscious thought and intentional planning. First,
you must think about what you are doing, and then act on what you are
This strategy sounds much easier to implement than it is.
“There can be a temptation to fill up your day doing
easy, but nonessential things, and bill your eight hours, versus
tackling more substantive work that requires more brain power — often
what really needs to get done — even if you don’t end up billing as many
hours for the day,” said Jennifer Holden, legal specialist with Merchant
& Gould in Minneapolis.
Choreographing the flow of your workday ironically takes
time. Holden assesses her work at the beginning of each day and
prioritizes each task according to its deadline or logistical status.
“I try to figure out what I need to accomplish and then
break down the different steps I need to take to get there,” she said.
Still, the best-laid plans can be thwarted when newer,
more urgent deadlines emerge. “I can have my plans set for the day, and
that’s great, but we all know it seldom turns out that way,” said Lee
Ann Riordan, paralegal with Altheimer & Gray in Chicago.
But prior planning still pays off. Instead of hitting the
panic button when she gets thrown an unexpected task, Riordan said, “I
look at my list, reevaluate my projects and deadlines, and figure out a
strategy — either pulling in new people for support or seeing where I
can buy time on another project.”
The important part is having prioritized goals in the
first place. Research has shown people who plan and set goals
effectively suffer less from stress and anxiety, concentrate and perform
better, show more self-confidence, and are happier and more satisfied.
According to David Allen, president of David Allen & Co.
(www.david.co.com), a management consulting and training company based
in Ojai, Calif., there are several good practices for managing one’s
Get everything out of your head, then process your
thoughts into outcomes and actions
Make decisions about actions required when they show
up, not when they blow up
Organize reminders of your projects and the next
actions on them in appropriate categories
Keep your system current, complete and reviewed
sufficiently to trust your intuitive choices about what you are doing
and what you are not doing at any point in time.
Liz Montanez, paralegal and program manager with
Navigation Technology Corp. in Chicago, makes great use of these
techniques. Together with others in her work group, she captures,
processes and organizes information using the electronic task-action
register in Microsoft Outlook.
“We can track project status, time, details, billable
hours and more — it’s very helpful,” she said. The group then reviews
each project in weekly status meetings, determines next steps and
assigns new tasks to key players.
In reality, such practices are played out everywhere, and
many paralegals are happy to share their successes and insights, as well
as their struggles and concerns.
Other reliable practices include:
Invest in concentration. Create uninterrupted time. Shut
down your browser and forward your phone for an hour. If you are in a
high-traffic area or cubicle, relocate to a closed-door, quiet workspace
for a block of time so you can focus.
Ask questions. At the outset of an assignment, make sure
to get details so you can accurately estimate the amount of time it will
take. Establish the “real deadline,” so you can prioritize it
accordingly. If you are unsure, ask your supervising attorney or
paralegal manager how to prioritize.
Riordan said she recalls feeling overwhelmed at times
when she began her paralegal career seven years ago.
“Balancing a caseload is not something you learn
overnight, but over the years, I’ve learned to handle it,” she said. “My
advice is to find a more experienced paralegal whom you feel comfortable
with and ask a lot of questions. At the same time, I try to make other
people feel comfortable around me so they can ask questions. I know how
it feels to be there.”
Offer support. Creating a collaborative work culture can
be one of the greatest antidotes to feelings of stress and overload.
“I feel really blessed to work in such a team environment
— you can just raise your hand, ask if anyone else has extra time, and
people will help out,” Holden said. “I seldom feel stressed because I
never feel like I’m not going to make it through the day.”
Group similar tasks together. Flip-flopping between
multiple projects throughout the day means you are reacting instead of
being in control of your workflow. Try organizing your time to approach
similar tasks in the same block of time. You will be more efficient and
focused, generate better work product, and achieve a calmer, more
composed work style.
Delegate. Even if your highly organized to-do list gets
scrapped, which is likely to happen at times in spite of your best
efforts, you still can retain a consistent sense of your priorities.
That includes judging when others can step in and help out.
“As paralegals we often think that no one else does
things the way we do, so we have to do it all ourselves,” said Shannon
West, paralegal with Looking Glass Networks in Oak Brook, Ill. “I try to
give up ownership on certain tasks and have others help accomplish them.
But we all have our own standards, so that’s hard.”
Adapt your method and mode to your audience.
Communication is one of the most powerful tools for effective time
management, but it also can bog people down on both sides of the
equation. Some people prefer phone or face-to-face dialogue, while
others prefer e-mail or written memoranda. Tailor your approach to the
person and situation, but always be clear and concise.
“E-mail can be either a great help or a great
distraction. Sometimes a simple question ends up becoming an all-day
back-and-forth adventure,” Holden said. “Be cognizant of what you’re
trying to get done and be sensitive to other people’s time in helping
you accomplish it.”
Know your limits. A side benefit of goal setting involves
seeing what you have accomplished and learning what you are capable of.
Seeing your own achievements gives you confidence, but at the same time,
it should provide a reality check for when you are up against the
“We tend to believe if people keep giving us projects,
it’s because we ought to be doing them,” West said. “We forget that
other people’s expectations might be unreasonable and that sometimes
we’re asked to do the impossible.”
“Also remember that there are people with different
strengths and weaknesses all around you,” Riordan said. “I’m not perfect
in the least, but I always suggest things that have worked for me, and I
ask for suggestions from others — I’m always eager to learn something
Reliable practices such as these can help balance your
time. With practice, using an action-focused approach subjects you less
to the starts and stops of the workday, and provides you with a stable
way to manage workflow under the constant tick tock of the clock.