Florida Bar News
Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis

Q: My to-do list is so long that I don’t know what to tackle first. Everything looks important to me. Can you help me to prioritize?

A: Prioritization is a critical component of successful practice management. Attorneys often find themselves overwhelmed by demands, and this anxiety begins each morning as they look at a to-do list that seems inexhaustible. They choose a task to begin and hope that nothing else falls through the cracks.

This is a painful way to work since most attorneys are goal-oriented individuals who strive to do everything all at once — and do it well. But the simple truth is that having too many priorities is the same as having no priorities. And in the face of no clear priorities attorneys will often pick an urgent, seemingly important item that is easily done, just to quickly knock one off the list.

Be aware, however, that urgency quite often masquerades as importance. It is not always easy to tell the difference. Just because something is urgent, does not automatically make it important. Often, tasks that are urgent seem much more compelling than those that are important. Think of the squeaky wheels among your clients. When you stock your practice with high-maintenance or impossible-to-satisfy C and D level clients, you’ve introduced a lot of urgency into your life, without much long-term gain. In such a practice, it is entirely possible to spend your day responding to the latest crisis, and never really getting any important work done.

To keep yourself on top of what is truly important, triage your to-do list. Examine all of the items on your list and then rank them according to their importance. How can you tell what is most important? Ask yourself the following questions as you read through your tasks. Tasks should be given the highest or “A” priority if one or more of the following qualifications are met:

  • Does this task forward your long-term goals?
  • Are there pending legal deadlines associated with these files?
  • Are there client expectations attached to this file or matter?
  • Are there cash-flow needs that should dictate your next step?

Once you have pulled out the “A” priority tasks, look over the remaining tasks on your to-do list. Rank each item as either a “B” or “C” priority, according to the guidelines below:

  • B priority — Tasks that don’t require your unique talents or abilities and can be delegated.
  • C priority – Tasks that are not worth your time and attention and should be delegated.

Once you have the tasks on your to-do list labeled as “A”, “B” or “C” priorities, delegate the “B” priority tasks and seek to eliminate as many of the non-essential “C” priority tasks as possible. Then you can label the “A” priority tasks with a 1, 2 or 3 in the order that you should work on them. Let your legal deadlines and client expectations drive your decisions here.

Though it may sound like a lot of work initially, once you are in the habit of triaging your tasks, you will automatically know their priority on the list. Use this systematic approach to lift you out of the chaotic “catch-up” game in which many attorneys find themselves. Prioritization will enable you to define what is really important to you and to the success of your practice.

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