Where does the time go? And how do we juggle the demands of work, family, and more? The latter is a question for another day, but juggling work demands is a real problem that all of us face on a daily basis. On any given day, my phone will ring with attorneys, paralegals, and other staff requesting information. That might be a quick reference question or a project that involves hours of research and drafting. Patrons also stop by my office in person with questions. Generally, those are quick reference questions like “can you point me to a source for” or “do we have XYZ book?” For the last couple of weeks, I’ve had an influx of questions from our new fall associates, who want to make sure they haven’t missed anything before they turn in their initial work assignments.
It’s not uncommon for me to have 6-8 projects on my desk at any given time. Whose project takes priority? It might seem easy: the partners outrank the associates, who in turn outrank the paralegals. But it’s not that simple. A question from a paralegal might be on behalf of a senior partner who is out of town and needs an answer quickly. And then there’s the other factor fundamental to law firm work: the big question, “Is it billable?” Logically, billable work should take precedence over non-billable work. But, it doesn’t always.
So, who decides? Of course, the final decision is up to the researcher. An urgent, non-billable project may take priority over a not-as-urgent billable matter. The question from an assistant may be answered before a question from an attorney. The short answer to what request takes priority is “it depends”.
Still other considerations factor in to the equation. My position requires some administrative work in addition to research. If a CLE deadline is looming, research may take a backseat until it is met. I may handle a short, simple, non-urgent project before a longer, more time-sensitive matter (assuming I can do so without missing the deadline), just to get it off my desk. One question our team always tries to ask is “how soon do you need it?” (Our document services group has the best response to urgent requests – they require patrons to specify a deadline for each project, and anything that says ASAP goes to the bottom of the pile.) In a law firm, almost every request from a litigator is urgent. That’s just how they work. Some, albeit fewer, of the transactional attorneys work this way too. My academic colleagues probably have similar stories about their professors and law students.
Managing time is a talent learned on the job. You have to know your clients. For me, that’s the attorneys, paralegals, and staff. Some attorneys always operate against a deadline, some plan ahead and request work with days to spare. We learn to juggle and accurately assess. If we do it well, all projects are finished within their time frame.