Life has a way of throwing curveballs. Sometimes they come in the form of emergencies that demand attention, sometimes they’re staff departures (planned or otherwise), and sometimes they’re opportunities that you just can’t pass up, even though jumping in will eat every bit of time and energy you have.
How do you cope with those curveballs? You can implement three strategies now so that you can deal with curveballs as they come your way.
- Create an “operations manual”. Those of you working in large firms may have access to some sort of manual that defines how certain tasks are to be completed. However, whether you’re in a large firm or working as a sole practitioner, you must have a document that explains how we do things around here. How should an assistant answer your telephone, when should he schedule appointments for you, and what should he tell callers who need to reach you urgently? What needs to be accomplished every day without fail? It’s daunting to imagine creating such a document from scratch. Start today. Document every task that you complete and request your assistant to do the same. (No assistant? No excuse! If everything is in your head, the need is even greater.) The manual that you build will allow you to cut down on the time necessary to train a new employee, and if you are called out of the office without notice, the manual gives a roadmap to keep things running without you.
- Use technology well. Most lawyers now use some sort of electronic calendar and docketing system. Who else has access to your professional calendar? Even if you choose not to allow anyone to that information on a day-to-day basis, you should consider creating a login that you can provide on an as needed basis to an assistant. If you are currently working without an assistant, you should create a way for a temporary assistant to have access to your calendar so that she can contact your clients and reschedule appointments if necessary. (In fact, it may be incumbent upon you to do so, depending on the ethics rules in place in your jurisdiction.) Let’s hope that you’re reachable in the case of a curveball — but if you’re hit by a bus, some mechanism must exist to meet your clients’ needs.
- Maintain a comprehensive “to do” list. Many of us go through our days tucking “to do” items into our memory. This approach creates stress, as you’ve experienced if you’ve ever been lying in bed, just about to drift off, when you’re suddenly jolted to full consciousness with the question, did I send that email / make that call?? For purposes of the “what if” conversation, however, if you maintain your task list in your head and get pulled away by a curveball, there’s little chance that you’ll be able to sort tasks effectively to be sure every task is covered. If the curveball should take you suddenly out of commission, you’ll have no opportunity to pause and download all of the tasks in your head onto paper. Instead, use a Word document, a spreadsheet, or task management application to keep track of every task (of any magnitude), and be sure you can sort those tasks by due date, importance, client, and project.
If you use these strategies, you’ll be able to handle the curveballs that come your way. Remember that curveballs generally come with no notice, so assess your preparations today and begin to fill the holes you discover now.