In-house legal departments often serve multiple departments across their organisations. This means you will, at times, receive requests to complete tasks from multiple sources, many with competing time-frames. Prioritising these tasks and managing internal client expectations is an important part of your role as an in-house lawyer.
Tackle your tasks with a personalised tool
In a busy in-house legal department, you’ll find yourself juggling with multiple issues for your 'clients'. This can become overwhelming without a strategy to prioritise requests and manage your inbox and client expectations.
Your workload will, essentially, fall into two main categories:
- Tasks set by you or that are part of your management role. They're not 'client' driven and may not have deadlines, other than those you set yourself. Examples include improving your work systems, creating spreadsheets to automate calculations and generating reports. Build these tasks into your diary and workflow schedule; and
- Tasks requested by clients or other stakeholders, including your line manager. These are likely to have deadlines, even if they're not spelled out. They're also likely to have competing deadlines, so you'll need to prioritise what you do when.
Follow and adapt the steps below to create your own personal task prioritisation tool.
Dealing with your client-driven tasks
Assess these tasks in three steps:
- Identify the deadline, determine how realistic it is, and how much work the task will involve;
- If you can do the task in five minutes or less, do it now; or
- If not, file the task as:
- Urgent, such as a court deadline or request from the CEO;
- Important, as in business critical but with no immediate deadline; or
- Neither of these. File in a 'Next 10 days' file.
Use your judgment and consider who and where the request came from to assess how important it is.
Check the urgent and important files daily
Decide which tasks, if any:
- Need doing now (i.e. are both urgent and important - if it is not important then, even if it is urgent, do not do it as you have too much to do already);
- Can be recategorised into the ‘next 10 days’ file; or
- Can be deleted as no longer relevant.
Prioritising your urgent and important tasks
Put up to five tasks into a ‘today or tomorrow’ file (and do them!) and include at least one non-client task (like personal development, training, personal networking, reading up on business or legal plans, or just taking a "stock take" on whether you are happy with or need to make changes).
Review your ‘Next 10 days’ file weekly
For each task in this category, ask yourself:
- Has it become urgent or important? or
- If not, can I delete it?
Set up an email folder system
Use email folders or tasks to create a filing and reminder system relevant to your clients and imminent tasks. This will save you time in sorting through your inbox and help you keep track of anything outstanding.
Emails and time management
If you let them, emails will consume valuable time. Here are the two main email pitfalls - and how to avoid them:
- Email squash, where emails are bouncing around in your inbox rapidly and from all directions. Don’t get caught up in these – wait for things to slow down, then reply to all the points in one go; and
- Email table tennis, where you and one or two others send quick fire replies to each other. Again, don’t answer immediately. Instead, take time to craft a measured and considered response and write with the same care you would take in writing a letter and try to close as many points off as possible in one go.
Prioritising tasks is easier said than done when things are busy and requests are flying in from all directions. Creating a personalised task management system that helps you grade tasks in terms of their urgency and importance and builds in personal development time will help you keep on top of your workload and to manage your role and your career. Reclaiming time lost to excessive email activity will also help you manage your time, your productivity and the quality of your communications.