Save This to the File – Priorities!

In larger firms, most secretaries support more than one attorney. If you’re lucky, you’re in a solitary practice group, with a team that focuses on the same cases simultaneously. However, many of us, due to attorney departures and new arrivals, support multiple practice groups, making the juggling act more difficult. While prioritizing the workload seems like a no brainer (Work on things in the order that you get them! Duh!), this gets hairy when you must put out multiple fires at once. You have the option of running through your office wall like a Looney Tunes character, or:

  1. Establish a morning routine – Start your morning with the series of daily tasks to get your mind in gear and analyze what your day will look like. Start off with checking your attorneys’ calendar. You’ll not only get a gauge for their availability, but also see possible meetings, deadlines, or whether they will be in the office that day. Check your emails, with a particular focus on how they may coincide with upcoming calendar items. Flag emails that contain tasks and assign them an appropriate deadline with an alarm if it something you are not tackling immediately.[1] Enter your attorneys’ time (or wrestle with them to give it to you) first thing in the morning. Even if they don’t have it every morning, ask for it every morning. Set the tone so that it’s not an avalanche of time at the end of the month.
  2. Sort in chronological order – The first prioritization filter is simple: sort your work in the order you receive it and keep a running list of those tabs. One person gives you something, you work on it. The next person gives you something, you tell them “I’m completing [task], and I’ll be on this in [X] minutes.” When you receive an assignment via email, acknowledge receipt and give an estimated completion time. The more assignments I get, the more communicative I am with my attorneys regarding the time of completion.
  3. Know when to skip the line – While chronological order is one filter, discernment is essential. Certain things are obvious: if you received three weeks’ of time entries at 9:45 and they’re due at noon after you received a letter that has to go out by day’s end, the time entries should definitely go first. Time sensitive tasks like travel arrangements and reservations should be weighed against more routine duties and given priority. If you are in doubt about what can be skipped, talk to your attorneys. When I have all of my attorneys breathing down my neck, I tell them the assignments that I have and clarify the order. Sometimes you just have to let them scrap it out among themselves.
  4. Utilize your resources – Every attorney wants their secretary to handle every one of their assignments. It’s not realistic on busy days. If you are at a larger firm, utilize your office services (OS) and word processing (WP) departments. This is a life saver when your team has a filing deadline. OS is great for binding, copying, and labeling documents. I use WP most when it comes to arduous tasks like PDF conversions, forms, and to offer a fresh proofreading eye. They don’t have to deal with the interruptions that come with dealing with attorneys directly and answering their phone calls, so their ability to focus is clutch on days where your desk is going HAM, sausage, and bologna.
  5. Play favorites – If you’re having a helter skelter day and there’s no real rhyme, reason, or order to your workload, do the assignments you like for the attorney you like best. It’s a cold world, but everyone has favorites. Except for me. (If I have ever supported you I love you all equally and distribute my work equitably. Check the halo.)[2] Starting with the work you like keeps you in gear and ready for the tasks you don’t like. It’s easier to stay in a busy mind frame and just knock the work out when nothing is pressing.

Feel free to drop your tips in the comments section. If you have any questions that you would like answered in my monthly Q&A post, or topics suggestions, please email me at Next week, we’ll cover fighting through the work that you hate.

[1] I give myself 30 minute increments for menial tasks, and 2 hour increments on larger ones. This allows for interruptions and offers a reasonable outlook on how a regular day’s work flow looks. This is good data to collect when it’s time for your annual review.

[2] Summers and first years would do well to become the favorite, since often their work gets pushed to the back. Any secretary worth their salt will do your work well. If you want the extra mile and made to look great rather than just good, treat your secretary like a human being. Don’t just address them when you need something. Say good morning, and keep them in the loop regarding your comings and goings. Treating your secretary like a team member rather than a mindless underling is the difference between the partner you are trying to impress being told, “S/He stepped away from his desk but I’ll make sure s/he gets back to you shortly,” and “I haven’t seen them since lunch,” when you miss their call.

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