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Understanding how to manage your practice and your time is a constant challenge for summer associates and practicing attorneys alike. Learning how to juggle multiple projects, manage expectations, and build an efficient and productive workday are not skills that are developed by chance—they’re the result of implementing a consistent practice management strategy that sets you up for success.
So as you head into your summer, consider using some of the following strategies to manage your work the right way from the start.
1. Capture Work with a Master Project List
The first key to managing your workload is to identify a single place where you’ll capture all of your assignments, projects, and tasks.
Using a tool on your firm’s practice management software or an excel spreadsheet, create a Master Work List—a list that identifies the case, assigning partner, key information, and deadlines for each of your assignments. Use this place, and only this place, to capture all of your work—and avoid using your email or calendar as your to-do list.
Once the list is created, review it regularly, bring it with you to every case or staff meeting, and put it in a prominent spot on your desk. This list is a great tool because it gives you a full and clear picture of all of your responsibilities and timelines for completing your work, allowing you to plan and prioritize effectively.
When every deadline you're responsible for is at your fingertips, you won't be sitting up at night worrying whether something is slipping through the cracks.
2. Prioritize Planning with Open Up and Shut Down Checklists
One of the best ways to establish a productive work day is to create a simple routine that you perform at the beginning and end of your day, every day.
As an associate at a large law firm and now as a business owner, I like to use what I call an Open Up and Shut Down Checklist. I have a notecard on my desk that lists the 4-5 things I need to do every morning as soon as I get to the office, as well as the 4-5 things I need to do before I leave every night. I don’t start or end my day any other way—I always follow the checklist.
The concept is similar to warming up before you exercise and cooling down after. Having a routine in the morning allows you to smoothly transition into work mode, and having one in the afternoon allows you to put a period on the end of the workday so you can walk away with confidence and unplug.
Your list should include routines that help you prioritize planning and emphasize accomplishing your most important work.
Here's an example of what my Open Up Checklist looked like when I was practicing:
And here’s a sample of my Shut Down checklist:
If you struggle with prioritizing planning, these lists will be a game-changer for you.
3. Distraction-Free Time Blocks
Block off a few work periods during your day that are uninterrupted and distraction free. Uninterrupted time blocks allow you to work on your most cognitively demand projects—like drafting and difficult research assignments—where concentration and deep thought is essential.
If you're serious about getting work done, start by choosing a time frame (or two shorter frames) each day that you’ll devote to your most difficult work. Start with one hour each day and try to build up to 3 or 4. Create a distraction free environment by turning off your email notifications, putting your phone in the drawer, and closing your door. Set a timer and don’t stop working until the hour is over.
4. Use Time Budgets
In 1955, philosopher C. Northcote Parkinson coined an adage that is now known as Parkinson's Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
In other words, the amount of time we give ourselves to perform a task will be the amount of time it takes us to the complete the task. For example, if we're given two days to complete a project we probably would take the full two days. But if we’re given just one day to complete it, we'd probably find a way to get it done—and done well—in that shorter time frame.
Use this concept to your advantage by applying structured time frames to tasks or projects.
Instead of saying “I need to finish this brief today,” take a few minutes to evaluate how long you think it will take to complete, decide on a specific amount of time to allot to the project, and choose a time in your day to complete it. Tell yourself that you'll "Take 2 hours between 1pm and 3pm to complete this brief", which will be a much more effective use of your time.
5. Plan for the Unexpected
One thing you can count on as a summer associate: a lot of unplanned interruptions and projects will enter your day. Despite the plans you’ve made to have a productive day, more often than not the unexpected will arrive and foil your carefully-planned day.
When the unexpected shows up, it’s challenging from both a scheduling and a mindset perspective. Not only do we have to account for work and time that we didn’t budget for, but more importantly we have to get over the poor mindset the Unexpected puts us in.
So what do we do about it? Instead of meticulously filling your day from start to finish with things to do, build chunks of time into your schedule that are reserved for things you can't currently account for, but that you can logically say are going to happen based on experience. Don’t plan to fill your day with 8 hours of work. Instead, plan for 6 hours and anticipate that the unexpected will arrive.
Drew Amoroso is the founder of Move Associates, a legal learning company that helps lawyers and law students achieve their performance goals, accelerate their growth and development, stay professionally fulfilled, and add value to the firm and their clients. He’s a Visiting Lecturer at UC Davis School of Law, Golden Gate University School of Law, and the University of San Francisco School of Law where he teaches a Practice Ready Seminar.
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