WFH: A Paralegal’s Guide
Some helpful tips for legal professionals seeking to stay productive and manage their time whilst working from home.
Adapting to new life as a legal professional near the beginning of your career during a pandemic outbreak can be tough, and working from home is no easy feat.
I cannot speak for everyone, but my experience has been that lockdown has brought an increased workload. At the time of writing, I have worked every day for the past 24 consecutive days, including weekends and bank holidays! (I do not recommend or advocate for this!)
If we’re not careful, this can result in a dramatic decrease in the amount of time we can dedicate to the other important non work related things in our lives. This includes sleep, exercise, creative hobbies or spending time with friends and family (lockdown guidelines permitting).
Depending on individual circumstances, the flexibility of the organisation in which you work or the area of law in which you practise, paralegals all over the world will have been facing all kinds of different practical and logistical challenges over the past several months, and will continue to do so over the coming months as we get used to life with Covid19. As a result, time management is ever more important if you want to keep balance between work and your personal life.
With this in mind, I seek to offer some suggestions as to how paralegals (and any other legal professionals) can have better control over their working days, adapt to the new ways in which we communicate whilst working from home and how we cope with working from home generally.
1. Plan your day
It is always a good feeling to start work knowing exactly what we have to do and how to do it. It is also a good feeling to finish work knowing exactly what we have accomplished throughout the day and what to expect tomorrow.
Getting into the habit of planning your day before it starts has the advantage of providing clarity and a sense of direction as you rumble through your to-do list. I have found that the benefits of taking 10 minutes at the end of my day to set out what I intend to accomplish the next day, and 10 minutes in the morning reviewing my objectives for the day help me to keep my productive momentum.
It is also a good way of holding myself accountable. Sometimes tasks are not completed within the desired time because other urgent things pop up which are out of my control. But the ability to be able to take stock of what I have and have not been able to accomplish keeps me organised and helps me to adapt and reprioritise when necessary.
2. Email Auto Responses
Whilst working from home we lose the luxury of being able to quickly pop our heads into the offices of our colleagues, or inform them of an update as they walk past our desk. This means that during the lockdown we have had to think differently about using the tools at our disposal to maintain a good level of communication and manage the expectations of our colleagues.
I have found that email auto responses are a convenient way to do this. For example, if I am in the middle of a task which requires my full attention for a while (see the paragraph below about doing one thing at a time), it helps to be able to provide my current status update and an indication as to when I may be in a position to respond to new requests. This way, communication and managed expectations are maintained without having to break your focus.
An example could be:
“Thank you for your email. I am currently carrying out a disclosure review task on the ABC matter and I therefore have limited sight of my emails.
I will be reviewing emails at approximately 12pm and 4pm between today and Wednesday 3 July 2020.
If the purpose of your email is urgent, please call me on 01234 567 891. Otherwise, I will get back to you when I have capacity to do so.
Alternatively you could send out an email to your team at the start of each day, setting out what is on your to do list and what you’ll be focused on for the day. However, there is the chance that they won’t see or read this email, whereas an auto response notifies them as soon as they have tried to contact you.
Adjust the parameters and elements of the message to suit your needs. In my experience, keeping everyone in the loop regarding how you’re spending your time and when they can expect to hear from you is greatly appreciated by colleagues. This can be especially important when you’re not in the office together. Taking this step also means you don’t have to worry about constantly checking your email throughout the day, which can be distracting and counterproductive.
(NB: 99 times out of 100 they never really call unless it absolutely is an emergency!)
3. Complete One Thing at a Time
One way of describing productivity could be “the state of efficiently completing tasks in an order which accounts for their level of priority and proportionate use of resources”. If this is true, then laser sharp focus on one thing at a time, instead of thinly spreading attention over multiple tasks, is paramount to getting the important things off of your desk.
However, during a lockdown when everyone is communicating via email, phone calls and conference apps, we’re all likely to have our inboxes flooded with requests. It can be easy to get into the bad habit of simply reacting to whatever appears in our inbox, rather than having a plan at the start of the day and sticking to it as much as possible. Obviously, when working as part of a team there needs to be some room in our schedules for flexibility, but we should be actively guarding the access to our attention so that our focus is not constantly shifting. This approach is beneficial for the productivity of your whole team.
From prior personal experience, I can attest that some very junior paralegals can have the tendency to start working on one thing, and then become distracted or interrupted by a new task and end up taking much longer to complete either task. This is often because the skill of adequately assessing the level of priority has not yet been optimised, and we can often overreact to superficial pressure exerted on us by colleagues.
It goes without saying that we are able to work a lot more efficiently when we are not distracted. Therefore, developing the habit of focusing on one thing at a time will always lead to greater productivity.
Here are three tips for creating an environment in which you can focus on one thing at a time:
i) Check your emails at specific intervals throughout the day, and avoid constantly reading incoming mail.
ii) If you have a busy schedule, carve out a set time for ad hoc tasks which can crop up throughout the day. This way, if you’re in the middle of an important task and you’re notified of something else which needs to be done today, you can continue with your original task assured that you have already carved out the time to address the new task later.
iii) Communicate your capacity and priority tasks to colleagues, so that they don’t send you potentially distracting requests at a time where you’re unable to fulfill them.
4. Control your time
We’ve all heard the cliché that time is our most valuable asset. If you have noticed that despite having more time in your day (owing to not having to travel and get ready for work) you have less time for yourself, it may be that you have lost control over how you spend your time, and importantly, who and what has access to it.
(This is a vast topic, which is why I’m making a podcast series to discuss it. Watch this space)
Perhaps because we are all at home, it feels more acceptable to spend parts of our day doing the counterproductive and distracting activities that we wouldn’t be doing as much if we were in the office. Many of us are procrastinating now more than ever. Maybe the change in working environment from one which we associate with professionalism and productivity, to one in which we are used to reclining and relaxing presents a psychological tendency to stray away from our work. Or maybe we have (perhaps understandably) lost discipline whilst the surreal events around the globe distract us from our daily objectives.
Either way, at the end of the day when you end up having to work late into the night because you were only half engaged for half of the day, its not a great feeling. The seemingly insignificant lapses in discipline throughout the day can quickly snowball into you not being able to take the time to engage with the people and activities you care about. If you have experienced this, you may feel like you’ve cheated yourself a little bit.
If you have experienced this, think back to the last time it happened. Do you feel like you could have had a nice relaxed evening and completely switched off from work had it not been for the lapse in discipline earlier in the day? If the answer is yes, then maybe it’s time to treat your time like it’s the most valuable commodity you have to spend — because it is.
Here are three very simple suggestions which I have found can help maintain control over our use of time, and keep us disciplined throughout the working day:
1. Social Media Time Limits: There are now thousands of apps which help you keep track of the time you spend on social media and, if necessary, lock you out completely. You can either schedule your time to use social media (which might be useful for staying on top of current legal affairs) or you can cut it out completely until you’ve finished your work for the day.
2. Do Not Disturb: Our phones are built to ambush us with addictive dopamine triggers. Eliminate your phone’s hold on your subconscious by using DND, with the exception of emergencies or work messages. An extension of this idea is to set your phone to DND, but with a loud ring setting in case someone does need to contact you, and leave it in another room. That way, you won’t even be tempted to idly pick it up when it’s sitting silently next to you.
3. Google Calendars: Automatically schedule periodic blocks of time to complete steps towards long term goals, and allow the app to intelligently inform you as to when you have time to complete things. This is especially effective for personal goals that you’d like to fit around your work schedule. For example, if you want to write one legal article per week by sitting down for 30 minutes 4 times per week, the google calendars app can automatically schedule this for you. This often means that your days are already planned in advance, and you know exactly when your goals will be complete.
5. Schedule time for YOU
Last but not least, scheduling time for yourself is the key to ensuring you maintain balance between your work and personal life. Whether it’s going for a walk, spending time with your kids or working out, this “me time” is the most important part of your day because it is what allows you to recalibrate and reset before you start working again.
If you have been working hard and serving your clients and your team well, you do not need to justify to others why you’re taking an evening or a weekend off. If you stick to the principles above, and communicate to your colleagues when they can expect to hear from you, you’ll rarely have a problem with keeping this promise to yourself.
There will inevitably be scenarios where the consequences of not getting a work task done during your scheduled “me time” are too great to ignore, but these are few and far in between. Having a robust stance towards protecting your time is an extremely effective way of encouraging others to respect your time, and to guard against burnout.
We are all works in progress. But remember, regardless of how intelligent you are, you’re less valuable to your team and your clients if you’re burnt out, unproductive or disorganised.
Over the past few years I have observed some great high performing colleagues, and I’ve learnt to apply the above principles to become more effective with my work, and happier when I’m not working. You may not always get it right, but by implementing the above steps as much as you can, you’ll be in the process of becoming the efficient, productive and balanced legal professional you want to be.
Aaron is a future Pupil Barrister, Writer and Public Speaker.
If you would like to contact Aaron about any of the topics in this publication, or for writing and speaking enquiries, you can contact him directly on the following platforms:
LinkedIn — Aaron Mayers
Twitter — @MayersSpeaks