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Allocation of time for each case and effective time management in legal firms

published April 02, 2007

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New cases with new responsibilities are constantly cropping up; such is the nature of the business, but two objects can't occupy the same place at the same time, and the same goes for tasks—only one project can take top priority.

Paralegals are the workhorses of the legal world. Unlike the attorneys they assist, paralegals and legal support professionals play a largely behind-the-scenes role. While feats of productivity and grace under fire can force many paralegals to take on superhero proportions, even Superman has to eat, sleep, and have a life outside of work.

Everyone has heard the phrase "I need this yesterday." In almost all situations, it is intended to convey a sense of urgency and an impending deadline. After "Is this billable?," this is probably one of the most frequently uttered phrases in the entire legal world. Yet for many legal support personnel, the phrase inspires a sense of confusion cum frustration. How can every task be the most important?

Along with solid research and client-relations skills, the ability to organize and prioritize tasks is among the most important qualities a paralegal or legal support professional can possess. Almost without exception, job postings for paralegals require applicants to have the ability to organize and prioritize projects. Some postings go so far as to require the ability to prioritize independently. Yet what most employers really want is the ability to organize and prioritize tasks superhumanly.

Nevertheless, paralegals should take their prioritization cues from the associates they are currently supporting. Ideally, upcoming or ongoing projects ought to be prioritized in a team environment each week. If urgent projects crop up during the week, as they so often do, the associate should tell his or her support team how the new projects fit into the ranking scheme introduced during the meeting. Often, by the time assignments are handed to support staff, they have been thoroughly vetted by law associates or firm partners and judged for merit.

The time crunch can be exacerbated when one paralegal is actively supporting more than one attorney. Overtime can become a way of life during high-importance cases, and these work demands can extend the brain drain to other aspects of one's life. In such an environment, a paralegal can inch closer to burnout and loss of morale each day.

Sadly, this problem can quickly compound. If a paralegal actively seeks more responsibility, is driven, and consistently produces results, that person is going to become the firm go-to for all high-priority projects with tight deadlines. Don't let your aptitude get the better of your attitude!

You might find yourself in a situation where you have to either save Lois Lane from the earthquake or save humanity by redirecting a nuclear missile toward the sun. Superman had the ability to reverse the earth's rotation and, thus, rewind time like a VHS tape. Although you are capable and motivated, you probably cannot do this. In the end, it will be worse for your reputation if you accept projects on too-short timelines only to miss deadlines again and again.

As always, cool heads prevail. The best way to confront an overzealous associate is to calmly and assertively ask him or her to help you prioritize your work or tactfully decline time-sensitive work that you cannot reasonably complete. Attorneys are busy people, but try to explain that taking two minutes to re-prioritize tasks in a way that does not give each project highest importance will increase your own productivity and ensure that the project that is most important gets completed first.

Unless you are Superman, lacking the ability to do everything for everyone all at once is not a sign of weakness; it is a reality!

Some paralegal advice publications suggest keeping the superhero cape at home—or, at most, pulling it out in only the direst of situations.

According to an online publication called "The Stress Doc Letter," "A potential danger is the belief that you are the center of the law firm solar system. All organizational matters of the case or matter depend on your energy source. Paralegals must realize when certain crises are outside his or her sphere of productive 'hands-on' influence and resist the 'solo-savior-syndrome' role."

Put differently, try as you might, you can't be all things to all people all the time. Only through good communication, a reasonable estimation of your abilities, and cues from the associate you support can you juggle and complete all your tasks, keep your morale high, and ward off burnout.