During recent workshops on time management, we asked approximately 100 paralegals to write down something that they wished their bosses knew. As highlighted here, the issues they flagged are instructive and sometimes poignant. The tips offered for changing your habits and responses in dealing with paralegals should help make your working relationship, as well as your law practice, go more smoothly.
1. Understand that I have a life outside of work.
The reason many paralegals have work/life balance problems is that the lawyers they work for don't have a balance either. There are many explanations for this, but the bottom line is often that lawyers are afraid to say "no" to work. The simplest, but perhaps most difficult, way to learn balance is to go cold turkey: Pick a specific time to leave the office every day and do so no matter what, even if it is only five minutes earlier than you now normally leave.
2. Recognize and appreciate what I do.
Many lawyers are so busy that they don't realize everything their paralegals actually do. And because they are too time-stressed to notice, most lawyers fail to show much appreciation. Each day, pick one specific thing to thank your paralegals for or to acknowledge in their work.
3. Give me clear instructions.
Lack of clear communication is often another result of time pressures. You must decide who is going to run your business: you or your clients. Have a brief morning meeting with your paralegals to go over priorities and to answer questions.
4. Get organized.
Disorganization is a time drain. In addition to holding a regular morning meeting, confer periodically with your paralegals on the issue of how to improve office organization. You can also ask them, "What do I do that gets in the way of your efficiency?" Asking that question also opens the door for you to tell them what they do that gets in the way of your efficiency.
5. Stop constant last-minute requests and interruptions.
Interruptions will dominate your time if you let them. You then follow suit and interrupt your paralegals, short-circuiting their productivity. Make room for a "priority hour" every day-a block of time to work when you allow no interruptions. Let your paralegals do the same.
6. Realize that I am competent and want to help you.
The "tyranny of the urgent" not only fosters several of the complaints noted above but it also prevents you from recognizing what a valuable asset you have in your paralegals. Recognize their competence, and exchange information.
In addition to the morning and organizational meetings mentioned, hold weekly or biweekly meetings to make sure your paralegals are clear on priorities for the upcoming caseload, and to ask if they have any advice for handling the office and the workload more effectively.
7. Recognize that it takes time to complete work tasks.
Logjams are often caused by unrealistic estimates of the time needed to complete work. Once again, daily communication with your paralegals will give all of you a better handle on the workload.
8. Give proper training.
By now, the concept of communicating with your paralegals should be sinking in. Use joint working sessions as a teaching method. Commit time to walking them through a process until they learn it.
9. Stop procrastinating and set priorities.
Last-minute assignments and constant interruptions are often caused by your procrastination. You can reduce the problem immediately by using the Worst First Technique. The first thing in the morning, make a list of everything you have to do for the day. Decide which task you least want to do-and do it first.
10. I need some help.
Your paralegals may be overworked because you are. Perhaps it is time for all of you to get help. Push work down to the person with the least training or experience in your office who is capable of doing it. If you are not working on billable matters or higher priorities because you are stuck doing routine or administrative activities, delegate those to your paralegals. But rather than overburden them, let them have an assistant, even part time, to whom they can delegate their lower-level activities.
Frank Sanitate, principal of Quality Time Pros, teaches Time Mastery telephone seminars for both lawyers and paralegals. Douglas Gillies, a private practitioner in Santa Barbara, conducts seminars and town meetings for Concensus Designs.