Practice management software can be an extraordinary tool for organizing your practice, especially if you have to coordinate with other attorneys or staff. But not everyone needs or wants to use it.
Software is not a silver bullet, either. It will not magically transform a disorganized practice into an organized one. It really only works if you have the discipline to stay organized in the first place. If you can do that, you can do it just as easily on paper. In fact, the best case management system I have used — by a long shot — is paper-based: my weekly work plan. (You can download it in .odt or .doc format.)
My work plan is just a template, obviously, but it is a pretty straightforward example of one. If you master work planning on paper, you will be less likely to miss dates or be surprised by deadlines, even if you decide to do your work planning in practice management software in the future. You may decide you prefer the advantages that come with planning in software, but it is just as likely that you decide paper is more effective. Give it a try, then decide.
Here is how to use a paper work plan:
Either Sunday night or Monday morning, sit down with your work plan from the previous week. By now, it will probably be covered in notes and scribbles, and that makes it the best place to start.
The first time you sit down to do work planning, of course, you will have a blank work plan. Here is how to fill it in.
Each open case file should be on its own row. In the CASE column goes your identifier for that case (client name, case number, or whatever you like). Under UPCOMING DATES, put all your hard deadlines and appointments. For example:
- 12-15 Disp motion deadline
- 12-20 Mediation
- 01-15 Deadline to ex trial exs
- 2014-02-01 Trial-ready date
I have developed all sorts of little annotations and conventions for this column, and I am sure you will, too. Feel free to develop your own style, although you may want to develop a standard set of abbreviations if other people in your office may need to decipher your work plan.
Under DO NOW, put all the stuff you need to be working on for the client that you can be doing right now. I sometimes annotate these with dates, too, if there is no corresponding date in the previous column. For example, you might need to call your client to discuss a settlement offer, email your partner a quick status update, and figure out how to get a recording from your client into your digital file system. (Put everything you have to do on your work plan, big or small.)
Under DO LATER, put all the tasks you will have to do on the case, but that you do not need to be working on right now. Here, dates really are helpful. For example, if I know I will need to be working on a summary judgment brief in two months, I will put a start date or due date to remind me when to move it to the DO NOW column.
Under WAITING ON, put everything you are waiting for someone else to complete. I use this column as a tickler, and I also tend to send out a bunch of emails at the end of each week (gently) reminding people of the things I am waiting for them to do.
I generally type everything into my work plan at the beginning of the week, and then scribble all over it during the week week. When I sit down to do my work planning again, I start with the saved copy from the previous week, and add everything from my scribbled-up copy. I also scan my old work plans, which is probably not necessary.
Always leave a few blank rows at the bottom for new cases that come in during the upcoming week.
Most-important tasks (MITs)
The top row of the work plan is for your most-important tasks. You can start filling in this row by looking down your UPCOMING DATES and DO NOW columns. If anything in those columns is due in the coming week, you may want to add a related task to the top row. For example, if you have a hearing on Wednesday, add a “hearing prep” MIT in the TUE box (this should also be in your DO NOW column for that matter).
Limit yourself to 2 or 3 MITs on most days. You should still feel pretty productive if you accomplish nothing but your MITs on a given day (along with all the fires you have to put out and the little things that come up during every work day).
Take your work plan with you
I use a two-hole-punched manila folder for my work plan. That way, my work plan is a little protected (including from prying eyes), and I can fold it open and leave it on my desk. Whenever you learn of a deadline (a scheduling order arrives in the mail, for example), sit down and add the dates to your work plan. Do the same for any tasks that come up during the week. If something switches from a DO NOW task to a WAITING FOR task, scratch it out in the one column and move it to the other.
If you stay on top of your work plan, it will be a comprehensive, at-a-glance picture of your entire caseload. There’s no software I am aware of that can give you that kind of information. If you ever need someone to stand in for you in an emergency, all you need to do is hand them a copy of your work plan, scribbles and all. After a short orientation, they should be able to pick up right where you left off.
Okay, there are always caveats. I started out by saying that a paper work plan is “the ultimate case management software.” That’s true, but it obviously does not have all the features of full-fledged practice management software. For example, it will not handle your trust accounting. And if you try to manage more than one person’s caseload on a single work plan, it quickly becomes unwieldy and ineffective. But if you are managing your own caseload, and if it fits on a few pages, there is no better solution.
I don’t recommend that you give up your task manager and digital calendar, though. I would have a hard time getting by without Remember the Milk, especially for recurring tasks. And I definitely could not live without an online calendar synced up to my phone. Does this result in some duplication? You bet. But I’ve never regretted having to double- or triple-check my scheduling order deadlines. Keeping my paper work plan “synced” to my task manager and calendar is good redundancy.
You can easily do the same with practice management software. A paper work plan complements just about every productivity system. So whether you love your cloud-based practice management software or not, give paper work planning a try.
This article was originally published on July 30th, 2013. It was significantly updated and re-published on November 30, 2013.