Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks:  Practical advice for new lawyers

Q: I recently started my first law job. I am not used to getting multiple assignments from different supervisors and having to prioritize everything myself. I am feeling overwhelmed. Any advice?

A: Yes. Practicing law can sometimes feel like drinking from a fire hose if you will excuse the cliché. Managing time can be a challenge at all stages of practice. Feeling overwhelmed on occasion is normal.

Over time, you will become more adept at managing time. And investing the time to hone those skills is time well spent. Careful time management can help you reduce stress and ensure that you get everything done on time. 

Here are some tips to help tame time:

Don’t rely on memory. As soon as you get a project or agree to do a task, write down all of the relevant information. There is one exception. If you can do something in less than five minutes, try to do it right away. But never rely on your memory to keep track of tasks. It will fail you. And your brainpower is better spent on higher-value endeavors.

Plan daily. Take time every morning to plan your workday.  This will help you prioritize what you must do that day. As you review your projects, figure out ways to keep each project moving forward. Then decide when you will work on each one. You need to have a general idea of how to allocate your time throughout the day. Keep checking your plan as the day progresses.

Check in with your assistant. You may be able to keep some projects moving by delegating administrative tasks. You need to check in with your assistant early in the day about any help you may need.

Be proactive. To help with planning, regularly ask lawyers how much of your time they expect to need in the upcoming days and weeks. 

Expect the unexpected. You should also allow time in your day for unexpected projects or projects that take longer than you expect. They happen – all the time.

Plan weekly. As you review your projects in the morning, take a longer view and review what else you need to complete that week. That will help you give realistic responses to requests to help on new projects. Although “no” is not a career-enhancing option, over-promising leads to stress and disappointment.

Eat your peas first. If you start your day by doing your most difficult or most unpleasant task, your day usually gets better. With a nod to Mark Twain, some people refer to this as the “eat the frog” technique. He observed, “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.”

If you tend to procrastinate, use the energy you spend dreading the project and just start. Take a small bite of the frog’s leg. Go ahead. It won’t kill you. Start on the least objectionable part of your most objectionable project and keep going for at least 15 minutes. Once you are engaged, you may discover that the project is far less horrible than you imagined. Delay won’t make projects go away. The more they languish, the harder they become. Just start.

Complete time entries daily. For some people, their most unpleasant daily task is tracking time. But don’t let it languish. Tracking your time is part of the process of doing the work. If you delay, it will take more time in the long run. You’ll have to go through your calendar and emails trying to recreate your life. And without fail, you will have a massive backlog of time that you must submit on the very same day that you have a big work project. 

Good luck!


Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2010). He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on new lawyer career success at law schools and firms nationwide. Some of the questions in this column come from those presentations. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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