By Jenny Patten • September 01, 2019•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence, Careers, Other Career Issues, Issues, Other Issues
When someone asks what in-house practice is like, I often reply that it is like drinking from a firehose. The legal department is the starting and ending point for a lot of projects and issues, and tackling everything that hits your desk without a game plan can feel daunting. While everyone takes a different approach to managing their workload, I’ve outlined a few tips that I’ve initiated during my in-house practice that help me maximize efficiency while in the office.
1. Keep Organized. Staying on top of your various task lists, emails, meeting invites, updates and follow-ups can feel like a job within itself. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and frustration if you find a way to organize the primary areas of your work life, so that you don’t waste productive time searching for something, miss a deadline or forget to follow through on a task. For example, I maintain a paper filing system for hard copy documents I routinely use, such as templates with my annotated notes or agency guidance documents, and try to cull non-essential paper whenever possible to maintain a clean workspace. I keep my Outlook calendar up to date, maintain a comprehensive to-do list that I update at the beginning and end of the day, and use an email sorting technique that helps me keep tabs on communications related to issues that are not yet handled or resolved. During very busy periods, I may fall off one of these organizational methods, but I put in the time later to catch back up, so that nothing falls through the cracks.
2. Adopt Routines. Routines can be your best friend. I have a work arrival routine that I try to follow, and it sets the tone for my day. When I get into the office, I check my email and respond to low hanging fruit questions and tasks, check my calendar to get an idea of my meeting schedule for the day, then walk to our company café to buy a cup of coffee with my colleague while we compare notes and strategize on our shared projects. Then, I update my to-do list, block time on my calendar for any projects that require uninterrupted time, and dive in. Given the fast-paced, constantly changing nature of my work day, this may be the only real routine I can incorporate on a consistent basis. Trying to start my day the same way provides me a clearer understanding of what I’m doing, where I’m going and what needs to be a priority.
3. Create and Maintain a Notetaking and Note Retaining System. I established a habit early in my legal practice to always have a legal pad, a pen (and a spare), and highlighter on me at all times. I’m constantly taking notes during meetings and calls, and jotting down thoughts. However, all these notes would be useless if I did not have a system for retaining, shredding and organizing them for future use. Whether you use hard copy notes like me or prefer a more high-tech method, such as a tablet and note taking software, establishing your storage and classification methodology early on will allow you to easily find notes when you need them and put them to use.
4. Know Where You Spend Your Time. When I felt like I was treading water on some of my more complex projects and wasn’t making any progress, my general counsel at the time suggested I track my time for a few weeks to see what was taking up most of my day. During our next one-on-one meeting, I showed her my results, and we discovered that the time I was setting aside for these larger, more complex projects was constantly interrupted by reading and responding to emails. Armed with that data, I was able to retool my work process to include specific periods of time during the day when I would catch up on email. This approach has allowed me to devote greater amounts of uninterrupted time to my complex projects.
5. Understand How to Triage. Like most in-house attorneys, my work generally involves a mix of quick turnaround projects, like responses to questions, medium-range projects, like contract reviews, and longer-term projects, like litigation management and policy development. Each of these types of projects has varying levels of importance and urgency, so my to-do list can’t just be based on “first in, first out.” My daily list is fluid and ever changing, but it is ultimately based upon what I understand to be the company’s priorities at that time. I keep an electronic project list that is organized by “level” of project (quick, medium or long term) and date, and that is color-coded based upon relative importance/ urgency. This helps me see, at a quick glance, what is a priority, when it came in and when it needs to go back out. I add projects as they come in, and as company priorities change, I adjust my task list.
I hope these insights are useful. As readers, if you have others to share, please comment below!