How to Manage a Small Law Firm: To-do Lists, Intimidation, & Productivity

Jun 3, 2019 | Blog

Starting a small law firm is an exciting opportunity. It’s something that you have the opportunity to build from the ground up. Dreaming of how you’d establish and run a small law firm is one thing. Actually getting in there and doing it can be incredibly overwhelming.

There are certainly a lot of components that shouldn’t be overlooked. In this post, we’re going to look at some of the items that are involved in the day-in and day-out small law firm activities.

Related: Addressing the Most Common Problems Lawyers Have with Their Problems Before They Happen

Tackling the To-Do List & Beating Intimidation

Small law firms have more than one to-do list. There should be a to-do list for business management and a to-do list for every matter. Then, of course, every person working for the firm will have their own daily list of tasks they need to accomplish before end of business.

We can all attest to the fact that it feels like there are times that those lists seem to grow instead of ever getting shorter. For every one or two items we manage to check off (or even just make progress toward), it feels like at least twice as many new items get tacked on to the bottom.

There are two main issues with the never-ended to-do list:

  1. It creates the possibility of truly important tasks falling off your radar and into oblivion.
  2. It creates the feeling that you just can’t get enough done. This may start off as mild anxiety, but it can eventually leave you feeling burned out and like you just can’t do anything right.

Related: Getting Practice Management Back on Track and Why It Matters for Lawyers

Maybe you don’t think that handling your to-do list is really that big of a deal. The items on your to-do list directly affect your small law firm success and failure to stay on top of your client matters could cause you to become the focus of an ethics complaint.

Here’s how you can begin tackling your to-do list:

  • Review the list. Remove the non-essentials. To-do lists are great, but they often become the graveyard of where good ideas go to die. They also become a source of stress because we continue to add things to them. The more you add, the more intimidated you’re likely to feel. Review your to-do list and remove the non-essentials. You don’t have to toss away perfectly good ideas. Just start a new list for those ideas. Keep your actual to-do list for essential small law firm business.
  • Don’t be afraid to start over on a project. Sometimes, we get intimidated and things fall to the wayside because although we started on them, we sat the project to the side for a while. Getting back on track feels totally overwhelming. Sure, you worked on it. Sure, you got some things done. Yet, you may feel totally unprepared to just jump back in. And that’s okay. Start the project over. If that’s not realistic, review all of your work and notes from the initial starting point to the time you sat the project to the side. Starting over or refreshing yourself can help you get back on track.
  • Step away from the list and do something that helps you get centered. Intimidation is no joke. It leads to burnout. It leads to poor workmanship. Sometimes, the longer you stare at an unforgiving to do-list, the worse the overwhelm becomes. Step away from the list and take some time to do something that helps you feel more centered. Get outside. Take a walk. Meditate. Go fishing. Go take a yoga class. Finish a personal project. Then, come back to your list. You’ll be refocused and have a better sense of what it will take for you to make progress.
  • Take it one item at a time. Small law firm to-do list intimidation happens for several reasons. One of the most common reasons is that we look at the entire list with a sense of impending doom instead of looking at what we really need to accomplish today. Learning to take the list one item at a time can help you feel more in control.
  • Set reasonable deadlines. As a lawyer, you’re not always in control of when a deadline occurs. The good news is that you have some options with the deadlines set by the court. You can talk with opposing counsel about extending a deadline. You can ask the court to extend the deadline. You can break your big projects down into smaller tasks with the ultimate deadline in mind and work the list in accordance to self-imposed deadlines. The key with self-imposed deadlines is to make sure that they’re reasonable. You know the general amount of time that certain tasks should take. You know how much you can reasonably finish in a day without overstressing yourself. Set your deadlines accordingly.
  • Consider delegating some of your to-do list. As a small law firm, you are a team. Yet, because you are also responsible for the success of the firm as a business, it’s easy to think that you alone must remain solely responsible for everything. Consider delegating some of your to-do list to others who have the experience and drive to help.

Related: How an Accountability Partner Can Help You Run a Better Law Practice

Small Law Firm Productivity

It is hard to be productive when you’re feeling intimidated. Feeling intimidated directly impacts your law practice management plan. Here’s how you can begin improving your productivity as a lawyer:

  • Know why you feel intimidated. Is it the length of your to-do list? Is it all the deadlines? Is it just one or two things on your list? Finding the root of intimidation is key. Otherwise, you won’t be able to make the necessary changes to improve your overall productivity. If it’s your entire to-do list, review it. Take off the things that really aren’t necessities. Move them to a new list. If it is just one or two things on your list, ask yourself why those items intimidate you. Much like dealing with deadlines, develop a game plan that allows you to complete smaller activities that move you closer to the overall goal.
  • Plan ahead. Take time once a week (such as Sunday night) to consider your workload for the upcoming week. Look at your calendar. If you’re not using your calendar, it’s time to start. Add any absolute deadlines and existing appointments to your calendar. (It’s also important to schedule time for yourself.) Then, look at what you have left. Consider delegating where possible.
  • Review your calendar every day. Take 15 minutes every morning to review your day. That’s only 1% of your day. That 1% of your day is a simple way that you can take better control over what’s happening (and what needs to happen).
  • Eat the frogor don’t. There is a productivity concept known as eating the frog. The theory is that if you do the thing you find most intimidating first, the rest of your day will feel like it’s smooth sailing. The idea is that by tackling that which you least enjoy, you’ll no longer have the dread hanging over you. However, that concept doesn’t work for everyone. Another common productivity concept involves first accomplishing one or two smaller items on your list before you take on that one thing you really dread doing. The thought with this theory is that by accomplishing one or two items from your list, you’ll carry that sense of success with you into the bigger item. Try both and see which method works better for you. Then, embrace it.
  • Deep work is your friend. Deep work is a productivity concept that creates ultra-focused time for a specific project. You choose the project and choose the amount of time you plan to work on it. Turn off your cell phone (not vibrate mode where it will disturb you; turn it off and put it away). Do not check your email. Do not veer off onto other projects. During this time, you work only on your project with the most pressing deadline. Your email, social media, and messages will still be there.
  • Dump distractions. Living and working in an age where we can now communicate with others practically anywhere in the world in mere seconds, most of us think that it doesn’t take us but just a few minutes to check email, respond to something, and get back to work. Unfortunately, statistics beg to differ. According to The Washington Post, the average worker in the United States spends more than four hours per day just on their email. And social media? Statista reported that the average person spends at least two and a half hours daily. If that time was during the workday, and combined with email use, that’s six and a half hours. No wonder we don’t feel like we’re as productive as we could be.

Active Management Is Key

If you’re running a small law firm and looking to get control of your to-do list, beat intimidation, and improve productivity, active management is key. Take active control of your calendar, get objective about your to-do list, delegate where possible, and dump your distractions!