Managing obstacles to productivity in law practice

Susan Letterman White
Letterman White Consulting

Mastering productivity is critical to the quality of your work and life — and it can be a serious challenge. When you feel like you need at least 25 hours in every day, sleep has become an elusive concept, and you’re missing important deadlines, it’s time to stop fighting with chaos over control of your time. After all, you own it and chaos is stealing it from you.

Time management is the process of repeatedly answering the question: How do I divide and use my time to attain my goals? At its core, it is about making choices and prioritizing tasks to attain the most important goals first.

Decision-making is difficult when you are forced to consider whether to eliminate an unnecessary task that serves as an emotional crutch, like double-checking the work of colleagues who have demonstrated their trustworthiness, or giving priority status to an unpleasant or burdensome task.

Priority status should be given to projects and tasks that are important for you to attain your vision for success and related goals.

Your colleagues and clients will judge your competence on the basis of what they observe, and how you manage your time has myriad observable components.

Time management, in the eyes of your colleagues and clients, is the optics of how you prioritize your tasks and follow through on your promises.

People tend to make decisions about your character and competence as a lawyer based on what they notice, which is whether you do what you promise, when you promise, and in a manner that appears as though you are well-rested, relaxed and confident.

Whether you deliver what you promised, when you promised, and whether you appear calm or frazzled, people will draw conclusions about your character and personal brand by those actions. It’s one way that people decide whether you are a trusted adviser, which should be your aim.

If you can identify your time management obstacles and address them, you will be well on your way to becoming a trusted adviser in the minds of your colleagues and clients.

Time management obstacles are often invisible because they seem to be about something other than how we use our time. They tend to be about fundamental preferences about how we live our lives without thinking.

Eight common obstacles:
• Preferring not to plan in advance and to keep options open;

• Adopting an overly rigid approach and feeling uncomfortable changing even when it’s the best option;

• Failing to plan for time to relax so that you can recharge and focus effectively on work-related challenges;

• Failing to accurately identify and address urgent interruptions. How frequently are you checking email? How much time lapses before you respond to a client?

• Striving for perfection when unnecessary;

• Not clearly identifying goals and tasks on an annual, monthly, weekly and daily basis;

• Not scheduling time for time management; and

• Putting too much on your “to do” lists.

Questions to use in addressing challenges:

• What are your biggest time management challenges?

• How do they affect your ability to live the life you want to live?

• How do these challenges affect your ability to build business or lead effectively?

• What one thing can you do right now to address your biggest time management challenge?

Years of coaching teams and individuals has convinced me that assigning goals and tasks to due dates on a monthly, weekly and daily basis is helpful and easy to do using any calendar, whether it’s a digital program or an old-fashioned paper calendar.

A daily “to do” list helps most people keep track of and complete tasks. Ultimately, good time management relies on a daily “to do” list that changes every day.

A good test of whether you have included appropriate time management into any project management plan is to fill in the blanks of the following sentence: If it is (insert date), then I will (insert action).

If you know what you should be doing every day to complete your projects on time, then you have included appropriate time management planning.


Susan Letterman White works with lawyers and law firms to improve leadership, organizational and team performance, and marketing and business development. She is a practice advisor at Massachusetts LCL/ LOMAP, an adjunct professor at Northeastern University, and the principal consultant at Letterman White Consulting. She practiced employment law for more than 20 years.