Experienced associate, Ryan Cooke, shares a few tips for organizing your workflow and managing your day-to-day schedule with less stress.
How a lawyer manages time is crucial to their practice and well-being. When you’re juggling client meetings, memos, presentation decks, and witness prep, it’s easy to feel like there is never enough time in the day.
There are, however, some ways to make the day-to-day feel a little more organized and manageable. Ryan Cooke, an experienced associate at a boutique litigation firm in Denver, has drawn on his experiences from various legal workplaces to develop a system that helps him stay organized, streamline his workflow, and ultimately manage his day with less stress.
Here’s his advice.
Keep track of your global outstanding projects and schedule your daily action items from there.
Whether you use project management software, a whiteboard, or a spreadsheet, it’s critical that you develop a consistent method to track your active matters, projects, and other work in a way that makes sense for you. But too many let their daily (and always growing) to-do lists take over, failing to prioritize or plan over the longer term. That is why Ryan uses an Excel action item sheet to keep track of all outstanding projects. In creating a central database of ongoing work, Ryan is able to schedule action items by the day and by the week.
“I have an Excel action item sheet. For every matter, I log information about each project I’m assigned, when it’s due, how many hours I expect the work to take, and other notes. Having everything in one place allows me to plan far ahead and to prioritize projects across matters."
Pro-tip: Consider including other details you might want to consistently have on hand (e.g., matter associated numbers or billing codes, links to key reference files or folders, and key contacts for each project or assignment).
Have a “go folder.”
When he was an associate at his previous firm, a partner taught Ryan the importance of having important information readily available at a moment’s notice. In addition to developing a system to centralize your assignment details, you’ll also want to figure out a way to make sure that pertinent information for active projects is easy to find—especially during meetings.
“If anyone asks me, ‘Do you have time for this?’; ‘What are you working on for this case?’; or “Where did we land on that analysis”; I have the answers at my fingertips and don’t need to worry about leaving anything out.”
Pro-tip: These days, Ryan has supplemented (and modernized) the classic Redweld folder with file folders on his iPad. If possible, try to use a secure, employer-approved device that travels easily for better efficiency.
Gain control over your day with your “top five.”
“What I find when talking with friends and colleagues is that so many of us struggle mightily with feeling in control of our day. It is easy to feel like you’re constantly putting out fires,” shares Ryan.
A remedy: make a recurring, daily calendar appointment for each morning. Here, you should list your top five “to-do’s” in the notes section as well as anything that was pushed from the previous day.
Pro-tip: Review the previous day’s “top five” before planning for the next day. Doing so helps you make sure that you don’t miss any follow-ups or items that you didn’t get to the day before.
Set realistic productivity goals with time blocking.
Once you’ve created a space for your daily priority items, it's essential to figure out what you have time for. For Ryan, the easiest way to do this is to block tentative appointments on his Outlook calendar with enough time to complete each task. That way, if he already has other meetings set, he can visually map out when he will actually fit in the additional work.
“It isn’t groundbreaking, but this does a couple of things,” says Ryan. “One—it helps me hold myself accountable for my daily “top-five” and gives my day some structure. It also helps me be realistic about what I can accomplish each day, and when I can get it done. I’ve found that it’s especially helpful when my days get jam-packed. Doing this a few days, or even a week ahead also cuts out the anxiety that comes with wondering, “Am I going to have time to get to everything?’”
Pro-tip: This method of time-blocking and tracking your daily activity can also help you track your time for each matter accurately and consistently.
Take notes electronically whenever possible.
Opting for an electronic note-taking method can be a huge time saver and makes it easier to stay organized. Not to mention that you will never have to worry about forgetting which legal pad you scribbled your notes on. If you use Microsoft Office Suite, you may opt for a built-in program like OneNote.
Pro-tip: When taking notes regarding a client matter, or other sensitive information, it is critically important that you follow your firm’s guidelines and best practices. Always use applications that you’ve confirmed are secure and are approved by your employer.