Managing To-Do's

Attorney Time Management: Managing Deadlines as a Civil Litigator

Attorney Time Management - computer with keyboard, mouse, and glass of water

May 12, 2021

I’m Kelly Nolan.
I'm an attorney who'd been decently organized through law school but got quickly overwhelmed as a actual attorney. After nothing else worked for me, I created this system – and kept on practicing law. Years later, I found out others were interested in learning it, so that's what I do now! Let's get this realistic system in your hands so you can start living a life that feels more calm, doable, and that lights you up.
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Why didn’t someone teach us attorney time management in law school? As someone who felt decently organized through law school, I quickly got overwhelmed by managing deadlines when I became an actual attorney.

The sheer number of active cases, deadlines, and all the work that went into hitting those deadlines threw me for a loop. While I looked like I had it together on the outside, inside, I felt stretched too thin and constantly anxious I’d drop a ball.

Over time, I figured out a system that greatly reduced my stress and last-minute scrambles and now works for my attorney clients. Let’s dig in.

Attorney Time Management - computer with keyboard, mouse, and glass of water

Attorney Time Management Step 1: Obviously, calendar any deadlines – and double-check them

I don’t think I’m knocking your socks off by telling you that you first need to schedule case deadlines in your calendar.

I recommend scheduling full-day events with the format “[The name you use to internally refer to the case]: Deadline to file/serve [xyz].” For example, “ABC: Deadline to file/serve motion to dismiss.”

Whether you do this or have your assistant schedule deadlines, double-check the deadlines. In addition, think through any deadlines that may not have been caught by the assistant/associate/legal scheduling software you use.

For example, I once won a motion to dismiss (hooray!) but failed to calendar the deadline to answer the surviving claims (oof). Luckily, we fixed the issue, but it was a good lesson to double-check not only the clear, court-given deadlines but also think through any deadlines that may not be obvious to your assistant or associate.

In short, whenever any paper is filed or served, ask: Is a deadline triggered by this? Make sure it winds up in your calendar.

Attorney Time Management Step 2: Break Down Your Deadlines

Now that your deadlines are in your calendar, break down each deadline into bite-size steps.

For example, when responding to an opening brief, you may need to:

  • Read the opening brief;

  • Pull the important cited cases & read them;

  • Outline your response;

  • Conduct legal research on specific issues;

  • Draft your response;

  • Draft any affidavits, compile exhibits, etc.;

  • Edit your response, affidavits, etc.;

  • Send your drafts to a colleague/client for input;

  • Give the colleague/client time to send you edits back;

  • Input edits (and give yourself wiggle room in case a major re-work is required);

  • Finalize all documents;

  • Give your assistant sufficient time to scan everything, file, and serve.

I like to do this step just with a pen and paper, jotting any and all ideas as they come to me.

Attorney Time Management Step 3: Calendar Your Bite-Size Steps

Next, figure out how long each action step takes and when each step is going to happen.

Plot all of this out in your calendar. For example, if you think it’ll take you 6 hours to draft the brief, block three two-hour blocks of time in your calendar for drafting.

And here’s an extra attorney time management tip: Build in wiggle room – both in terms of how long you think things will take AND to give you time before the deadline. We humans are notoriously bad at estimating how long things will take.

While you may move these blocks of time around as other projects and cases roll in, this system will help you keep all of those bite-size steps on your radar so you’re not left in a last-minute scramble.

Solid attorney time management takes front-end work, but it will give you a whole new level of clarity about how you’ll meet your deadlines, which will majorly reduce your stress. Plus, when you do this across all of your cases and deadlines, you suddenly have a much clearer, objective understanding of your workload, which is huge for knowing when to take on or decline work and protect your boundaries.

Attorney Time Management - computer and mug of coffeeHaving some light-bulb moments?

If you like this kind of stuff and want to learn more about how I recommend civil litigators organize their files, check out this guide.

More importantly, if this attorney time management approach really resonates with you and you can see how it’d give you a whole new level of clarity and control around your schedule, know that I help professional working women learn a time management system to manage their entire lives (personal, family, and professional) in similar ways.

My Time Management Program

In my eight-week time management programs, we help you:

  • Lighten your mental load when it comes to all of your personal and family to-do’s;

  • Reclaim control of your work hours so you get to work intentionally more often instead of always in reaction-mode;

  • Break down projects in more detail than covered here using my six-step process; and

  • Learn how to plan effectively so you can go into your weekend with way more peace of mind and a new ability to be present with family and friends.

What other attorneys have said about my time management program

Here’s what some of my attorney clients have said about our work together:

“The first brief I submitted, following Kelly’s program, was a game-changer. Feeling good about getting it not only submitted well within time, but also knowing it was a quality product because I wasn’t rushing at the last minute and panicking that I missed something, was a relief I honestly have never felt before while practicing law. I was so calm! And it helped my arguments in the hearing too because I had been so organized in writing it (I won btw!).

– Kristin Waters Sullivan, Waters Sullivan LLC, Attorney/Owner, Birmingham, AL

“The course was a huge reality check as far as what I am physically able to do and to realize that I was trying to do too much (and the shame and guilt of not being able to do everything was unfounded)! I love that my to-do list(s) aren’t staring me in the face anymore and I have peace of mind that the tasks are neatly tucked into a time slot in the future.”

 – Amy Phillips, Attorney, Winter Haven, FL

“I feel like I have found the map I need to navigate myself through the waters of kids, my business, my interests, and other obligations. It’s felt so overwhelming to do everything in the past, and now I feel a sense of calm about getting done what I want to get done.”

– Katie Martens, Martens Law Office, Omaha, NE

“I was a bit nervous when I joined [Kelly’s program] since I’ve done other programs and bought numerous books and watched untold number of YouTube videos on time management and made no real improvement, at least not any lasting changes…

“Now I think that I couldn’t afford NOT to take this program. It has changed the way I looked at time and the way my mind processes it. This was a game-changer for me.”

     – Monica Campbell, Attorney

Join my time management program

If you’re interested in working with me, you can learn more about my eight-week time management program for professional working women here. And don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions! My email is ke***@ke********.com.

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