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In Pursuit Of Priorities - Time Management: Not An Impossible Dream In Law Firms

by Ed Poll

A coaching client called me, frustrated because she was afraid of missing critical litigation dates. In fact, she even awoke in the middle of the night on more than one occasion, wondering whether a document had been filed timely. She had explored case management software programs, but found them too expensive and cumbersome. She also didn’t have sufficient staff for complicated record-keeping notations.

Does this sound familiar? I recognized her frustration because I had heard it many times before. More important, I recognized that she had tried to find a solution on her own, and that her past experience would make her more open to experimentation.

Lawyers – and the firm managers and administrators with whom they work – must realize that while time cannot be technically “managed,” priorities can be set, and then systematically addressed. Most folks who claim they have too little time generally 1) fail to make a list of priorities, 2) hop around the list, or 3) allow themselves to be distracted by “urgent”, but not “important,” other tasks. They then fail to get “back on the wagon,” revisiting the priority list to pick up where they left off.


I suggested to my client that she create a form – one that I outlined for her – and that she use this form not only to track tasks to be done, but also as a tool to develop the strategy for each case, step by step. For each new matter, a strategy is created for it. By doing this, you then can set forth each task, one basic next step after the other, as you envision the matter’s progress. When you do this, you achieve several things:

  • Creating the strategy when you first receive the matter helps you to envision the successful outcome of your representation.
  • As the tasks are each listed, and assignments to staff are made, you have a mechanism to know when each task is to be done and by whom.
  • Greater peace of mind is achieved ... as is a defense against negligent omission of dates/tasks required for the protection of your client.
  • Generally, the cost of legal services to your client will be lower.

A copy of this form can be used not only for each matter/case, detailing all of the known tasks into the future. But, it can also be used as a summary of all of your matters, with only two or three of the next tasks listed so as to have one sheet(s) to check on any given case/matter when you are in doubt or need confirmation that a given task is being handled by someone in your office.


Having all of your steps and activities documented as suggested has additional advantages. Many firms find it difficult, if not impossible, for example, to send detailed status reports and timely billings to clients, to develop accurate budgets for a matter, and to analyze the firm’s cost structure. Documented task/time management techniques described in this article make each of these essential activities possible. They force lawyers to think through and visualize their work processes, with better analysis as the result.

Take, as our first example, the task of sending regular updates to clients, showing what is being done on their matters and what the next steps will be. Status reports can be particularly valuable because they demonstrate that you are on top of your job and are actively working to accomplish what the client wants. The goal is to show clients what you are working on now, which is exactly what time management forms can facilitate. The reports need not be any more detailed than this management form. (See Figure 1: Time Management – Strategic Planning Delegation Plan)

For instance, a litigation status report could have boxes to be checked showing current activities (case evaluation, research, pleadings, motions, etc.), what you might need from clients, and what your next steps will be, including how much money the client owes.


The time management form, when combined with the information contained in periodic status reports, also makes it much easier to construct detailed invoices that itemize exactly what services clients have received for their money. Because legal services are often intangible, the more information you can provide about your work and accomplishments, the more likely the client will be to perceive the bill as fair and to pay it promptly. Rather than just billing, for example, “work on motion for summary judgment, 20 hours,” detailed task records make it possible to break any such charge into its basic elements, with the amount of time needed for each: review key documents and deposition testimony, draft statement of uncontested facts as required by court procedure, research precedents in four similar cases, and so on. Such itemization does not try clients’ patience – it helps them to understand just how much you did on their behalf, particularly if you have kept them in the workflow loop during the engagement.

Detailed invoices are particularly powerful when they reflect a budget that a lawyer and client agreed to before the matter began. A budget may be only an estimate of what’s going to happen, but it still can provide a framework to anticipate the events, time, and money an engagement can be expected to require.

In estimating time, use common sense, be realistic, and communicate accurately about the amount of time it will take to complete any work. Err on the side of caution, and be sure to build in more than adequate time. Except when you are dealing with statutory or deal-making deadlines, the client is less concerned with exact time and more concerned about surprises. If you’ve done time management reports for similar matters, it makes the estimating process much easier. As every legal professional knows, past results are no guarantee of future performance. But an informed guess, which time management recording allows, is always better than a wild one.


Ultimately, a law firm that has detailed all the tasks that make up matters has the means to analyze the firm’s entire cost structure. This is vital for many reasons, from providing a roadmap for creating budgets and reducing expenses, to making it easier to address client requests for alternative billing arrangements. The challenge for most firms in doing such analyses is that lawyers, generally, don’t know their costs of operation. Thus, they often must bill a “by guess, by golly” fee, not one based on a cost/benefit analysis.

Your firm cannot aspire to set budgets and fees unless you understand the firm’s operational processes and how each attorney determines firm profitability by his or her activities. Such detailed knowledge of the interaction between costs and fees makes it easier for clients to accept the value that the fees represent.

Time management forms and the activities they facilitate – status reports, detailed invoices, budgets, and cost analysis – may cause some discomfort at first. Lawyers tend to believe that providing their services depends on too many variables that can’t be anticipated (for example, what motions opposing counsel will file, or what problems might turn up when performing due diligence) to allow for ongoing documentation and tracking. However, individual time sheets (whether paper or electronic) already do this on a day-by-day basis.

The beauty of the time management approach outlined here is that there is a central repository of information for analysis. This is a very powerful tool that delivers peace of mind – and great defense against malpractice!

© Copyright 2010 Edward Poll. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from Ed Poll.

About The Author

Edward Poll is America’s leading coach to the legal profession; he writes and speaks extensively on law practice management issues. Ed is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management; and recently inducted into The Million Dollar Consultant(tm) Hall of Fame. He is also President of the National Speakers Association, Los Angeles chapter. He can be reached at, and; (800) 837-5880.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.