Here’s how to approach your work as a lawyer as projects to be managed, apply the right skills for the job, and deliver a better finished work product.
Alex, Beth, and Chris are partners in a small law firm. They have been together for 30 years. They make all important decisions together. Recently, their office manager of 20 years abruptly quit. This unexpected event left the partners without day-to-day firm management. It also left them in shock and concerned about the integration of new practice management software that the partners had purchased. The partners were relying on the former office manager to lead the software integration.
They responded to this crisis immediately. After researching job descriptions for office managers, they drafted and posted a job description for their open position on a national job board. Responses came from all over the country, yet to the surprise of the out-of-staters, the law firm hadn’t planned to pay moving expenses for a new office manager. In addition, the salary offered wasn’t attractive to the candidates that seemed most promising. Finally, some candidates had the skills and experience they sought and others were far from that mark.
After Alex, Beth, and Chris shared these facts with me in my capacity as a law practice advisor, I asked them to think about three questions: (1) Why did their prior office manager quit abruptly? (2) What responsibilities and decisions do they need their new office manager to own to keep the firm running effectively and efficiently? (3) What experiences and skills do they want their new office manager to have? These questions led them to break down their project into discrete tasks:
- Figure out why their office manager of 20 years quit abruptly.
- Call or e-mail the former office manager and ask.
- Ask whether there was anything they could have done differently to keep her.
- Identify a list of tasks for their office manager that they didn’t want to do or lacked the skills to do well, including having experience with the practice management software they had just purchased.
- Create a business model with critical tasks necessary for efficient and effective operations.
- Determine which tasks the partners can’t do.
- Determine which tasks the partners want someone else to do.
- Identify the skills and experiences that are vital to performing the tasks of office managers in a firm.
When they slowed down their process and approached it as a project to manage, they improved their chances of solving their problem. Instead of using an example of an office manager job description they found online, they adjusted that example to attract the right people for their unique situation.
PROJECT, TASK, AND TIME MANAGEMENT BASICS
Almost every solution to improve the performance of your small or solo law firm has an element of project management involved. Regardless of what you need to change in your law firm to improve your effectiveness and efficiency, implementing your solution begins with a plan, and every plan involves decisions about what to do and when to do it. If you need to manage a heavy workload, start by breaking down complex tasks into discrete tasks, prioritizing them, and finally calendaring in a completion date for each one.
Project management skills involve learning how to manage yourself and other people. Like many other skills, they are made up of a collection of competencies, all of which you can learn and—with practice—transform into a habit. Project management comes down to managing your work and time, breaking down complex tasks into simpler ones, prioritizing your tasks, knowing which tasks to delegate and when, and tracking performance outcomes.
Start by understanding these five definitions. Get a deeper dive in this 3-part productivity series on our blog.
- Project management is a process of taking a complex task, breaking it into smaller, discrete tasks, assigning due dates, delegating different tasks to different people, and improving peoples’ performance and task outcomes through effective feedback.
- Task delegation means clearly communicating each of your performance expectations to each person you give an assignment or ask for help.
- Time management is task prioritization and follow-through on your commitments to yourself and others. When you say that you will complete a task by a due date, your follow-through on that promise is a measure of your character, which is an aspect of leadership and your personal brand. Any strategy, including one to manage projects and people, should be distilled into discrete, time-bound, action plan steps. A good test of whether you have included appropriate time management into any project management plan is to fill in the blanks of the following sentence: If it is (insert date), then I will (insert action). In the prior sentence, the action could be to do something yourself or receive a finished product or confirmation of completion of an action by someone else. It must be a discrete, measurable, specifically described, time-bound task.
- Effective feedback is a means of providing specific information about your expectations of others. For example, if you have delegated a task to a person, who then delivers a product to you that doesn’t meet your expectation, effective feedback would be an explanation of what the person did and its negative impact on you and your responsibilities, plus what you need the person to do in the future that would have a more positive impact on you and your responsibilities.
- An action plan is a series of tasks that are required to achieve any goal. It explains what must be done, what must be in place, and what must happen for you to attain a specific goal.
The biggest obstacles with mastery of a new skill are those that are embedded in our beliefs, assumptions, and preferences. As lawyers with lives outside of work, you may be balancing multiple responsibilities while trying to build a book of business, keep clients happy, and deliver work on time. Your life and what matters most to you is unique to you. This uniqueness means that project management that works for someone else may not work as well for you. This uniqueness blends into your personal vision for a successful and happy personal and professional life.
Time management, arguably the most important of the competencies listed above, requires self-awareness. It is the art of knowing your vision for a successful and happy personal and professional life, the ability to identify the key goals and specific tasks in the near and long-term future to realize your vision, and the willingness to prioritize your tasks on a regular basis. Time management obstacles are often invisible because we forget that time is the resource necessary to plan for and practice the behavior changes that lead to specific goals.
It’s easiest to manage your time if you remove obstacles first. Time management is the process of repeatedly answering the question: How do I divide and use my time to attain my goals? At its core, it is about making choices and prioritizing. Eight common obstacles to making those choices are:
- Preferring not to plan in advance and to keep options open;
- Adopting an overly rigid stance and feeling uncomfortable changing a written-time-management schedule when change will best support you in achieving your goals;
- Failing to plan for time to relax or to do the activities that are an expression of your identity so that you recharge and are able to focus effectively on work-related challenges;
- Failing to accurately identify and address urgent interruptions by over-identifying or under-identifying them (how frequently are you checking e-mail? how much time lapses before you respond to a client? how much time do you allow to lapse before checking in on a client that is quiet?);
- Striving for perfection when unnecessary;
- Not clearly identifying goals and tasks on an annual, monthly, weekly, and daily basis;
- Not scheduling time for time management; and
- Putting too much on your “to do” lists.
IDENTIFY YOUR TIME MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES
Identifying your challenges to time management enables you to create your first set of tasks. Time management is a series of strategies for segmenting available time in the most productive and advantageous ways. Use these questions to locate your time-related challenges:
- What are your biggest time management challenges?
- How does this affect your ability to live the life you want to live?
- How do these challenges affect your ability to build business or lead effectively?
Identifying your challenges leads to creating your first set of tasks. You need plans to address these challenges. What will you do to develop an awareness of when you are experiencing these challenges? What will you do to address each challenge when it arises?
PRIORITIZE YOUR PROJECTS AND TASKS
To reach your most important goals first, you need to prioritize your projects and tasks accordingly. Years of coaching teams and individuals has shown me that assigning goals and tasks to due dates on a monthly basis is helpful and easy to do using any calendar function, such as Outlook, Apple’s Calendar, or even a paper calendar. I also have noticed that maintaining a daily “To Do” list helps most people keep track of and complete tasks.
Decision making is difficult when you are forced to consider whether to eliminate an unnecessary task that serves as an emotional crutch. Two examples of crutches are double-checking the work of colleagues who have demonstrated their trustworthiness and treating all tasks as if they are urgent instead of prioritizing them. Priority status should be given to projects and tasks that are important for you to attain your vision of success and related goals.
- What is your vision for your personal and professional success?
- What do you need to do this month do get there?
- What are you doing that consumes time and doesn’t contribute substantially to your vision that you can give up?
Don’t underestimate how effective simple TO-DO Lists are when you have your priorities in order. I recommend starting every day or ending every day by creating a list of tasks to complete during the day ahead.
DELEGATING OFF YOUR LIST
When you find yourself in a position of team leader or leader of a small firm, you’ll be responsible for the timely completion of projects. A project is a goal that comprises a group of tasks or smaller goal. As a team leader, it’s your responsibility to assign tasks to the people on your team. Effective task delegation is a consequence of strong communication skills.
You must be able to explain with clarity exactly the outcome you expect each team member to produce. Imagine a project that you need help to complete and then answer the following questions:
- Think of a project that requires help. Describe the project.
- Identify one task to delegate to someone else? What is it?
- What skills must the person have to complete the task?
- What would you say to the person to delegate that task effectively?
In addition to delegating specific tasks, it’s your job as team leader to create a time line so that the overall project is completed by the due date. This means that you must build in time for team collaboration and review of deliverables before the project is in a final state to pass off to your client, regardless of whether your client is a senior lawyer in your firm, organization, or the person paying your invoices. To do this effectively, use a calendar system with your team to schedule due dates for the project.
Check out this edition of Webinars for Busy Lawyers to get the best practices of champion delegators – in 30 minutes.
GIVE EFFECTIVE FEEDBACK
Managing projects and people requires strong communication and organization skills. Delegating tasks with clarity and specificity and sharing calendars with due dates are necessary, but not sufficient, to keep the project on schedule. You also need to provide constant feedback to avoid the pitfalls of common miscommunication. People think differently in subtle ways such that misunderstandings should be expected. Plan for them. This last exercise is designed to help you think about how you would give someone performance feedback. There is a four-step process to giving effective feedback.
- Evaluate the situation. What are the facts? What actually happened? What was right and wrong with the performance?
- Be curious about why the results were not as expected. Was there a miscommunication or misunderstanding? Or is there a need for performance improvement?
- Describe the impact on you of the behavior or outcomes you received from the person.
- Provide feedback that identifies what you want the behavior or outcome to be in the future.
Below are additional tips for how to plan, think about, and phrase the feedback:
- Deliver it as close in time to the event as possible.
- Be clear, specific, and constructive.
- Focus on work product or behavior, not the individual.
- Use “I” statements. You are asking for what you want.
- Listen, check for understanding, clarify, paraphrase, summarize, and ask for feedback on your feedback.
- Treat feedback as a gift. Do not argue but ask for examples of the position argued.
- Review progress after feedback to evaluate its effectiveness
Review the outcomes to improve your delegating skills. Imagine that you have delegated an assignment to a team member. Assume the assignment was delivered late and with many mistakes. How would you handle the situation to get your project back on track as soon as possible?
- Make a list of the type of problems that you can imagine might occur. What are they?
- Write a script of the feedback session, including setting, your dialogue, and what you could expect to hear in response.
Review outcomes even when you are the person responsible for the project or task. How close did the outcome match your intentions? What other measures of effectiveness and efficiency should you use for evaluation? Are your clients pleased with the outcome? Are you?
Check out this edition of Webinars for Busy Lawyers to get key factors, examples, and tips to improve how you deliver and receive feedback – in 32 minutes.
Project management is a strategy, and as with any strategy, reflection after implementation is the only way to learn more about yourself, the project, and anyone else involved or interested in it. It’s the way to find problems in your strategy and improve on strategy performance for the next project. Take the time to reflect. In fact, use your project management skills to make project performance reflection a task that gets assigned to its own regularly scheduled date and time.
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©2017. Published in Advising Small Businesses, GP Solo Magazine, Vol. 34 No. 5, by the American Bar Association as But I’m a Lawyer, Not a Project Manager! Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder. The substance of this article was originally developed for presentation at ABA TECHSHOW 2017.