A basic task management process for lawyers

The first step to introduce a legal project or service management system in the firm is to learn an effective method of task management and monitoring. In this article I want to show you how to implement such a method, which you will be able to put into practice immediately, without changing your way of working and without any expense.

The most extended tool to manage the daily work is the task list. It can have the simplest form in the world, like a handwritten list on a sheet of paper, or the most complex and advanced implementation, like a synchronized list between several devices through an application like Todoist. In any of these forms, the mechanism is simple: you write down everything you have to do and cross it off as it is done.

The task list has the advantage of being simple to use, intuitive and immediate. But it has the disadvantage that it is quickly superseded and that it does not allow you to clearly distinguish the priority of the different tasks that exist. In addition, it neither shows the state of each task. In short, it is a useful but limited tool, without assessing its limitations for a complete team of lawyers, immersed in the complexities of a lawsuit of a certain entity. In other words, it can be useful for oneself, but not so much for a team.

Some people ask me what I mean by saying that the list is quickly surpassed. If you have ever made a list, surely there has come a time when the sheet of paper runs out of space. Or, if you use an application on your mobile, the list becomes so long that you have to scroll up and down several screens to find the task you are interested in. When a tool doesn’t allow you to see all the work that you need to manage, it loses a lot of efficiency. This is not exclusive to lists, but in general to productivity applications.

Kanban is a tool for visualization, follow-up and optimization of processes that surpasses the limitations of the task list, although in a certain way we could qualify it as a list “on steroids”. A Kanban board is exactly that, a board that you can hang on the wall, and it can be made of cork, whiteboard or the wall itself. On that board a series of vertical columns are drawn, which correspond to the steps that your work process goes through.

Think of any procedure that you have to carry out in the next few weeks as a payment order, and you can certainly list the fundamental steps intuitively: writing, presentation, response and resolution. If we define a process called “payment order”, its steps would be those four and the board where you write down all the demands you have would have those four columns.

Each of the demands you present, which is a complete task, is represented by a card that you can fix with a pin on the cork. If you are using a whiteboard, those can be adhesive or magnetic cards. And you can always use an electronic application that eliminates the need for all that solid stuff, like Kanbanize or Trello, the latter being very popular and with the advantage that it has a free basic level, with which you can start working.

Of course, if each type of procedure takes specific steps, then you should have as many boards as types of procedure you have: one for criminal, one for divorces, one for labor conciliation, etc. The list can be endless and you can imagine the problem of having the walls of the firm full of boards with only a few cards.

The solution is the universal process, which can be summarized in three steps: registration, in progress and finished. These correspond to the expressions “to do”, “doing” and “done”, which are the essential phases of that universal process. All the tasks you have to do can be reduced to one of these three steps: either they are pending execution, or you are doing them or you have already finished them. The advantage of using a Kanban board, as you can see in the illustration of this article, is that the columns help you to organize them, so that you can focus your attention on the ones that interest you most, without losing sight of the rest.

The process starts by informally writing down everything you have to do in the entry register (to-do column). The cards are ordered as you write them, but you can reorder them at any time. For example, at the beginning of each day you could go through the list of pending tasks, decide which are the most urgent and put them at the top.

The next column, the “in progress” or “doing” column, corresponds to the tasks you are currently doing. Every time you have to do something, you pass your card here. And here comes an important trick: the number of cards (or tasks) that should be in the center column should be “one” or tend to that number. Why? Because the greatest productivity is achieved when you focus all your attention and effort on one thing. If you have to spread them out over 6 or 7 concurrent tasks, your efficiency is greatly reduced. But if you take on any task, such as preparing the draft of the opposition to a lawsuit, and don’t do anything else until you finish it, your performance increases.

It happens to all of us that when we write a complex document like this, it can take hours or even a couple of days to finish the job. How is the conflict resolved? Because we can’t leave everything stagnant for that long.

The solution is that no one says it is forbidden to put more cards in that column. It’s just that it’s recommended that you don’t scatter. But you can start writing the draft, stop after two hours, start a shorter task and, when you finish it, resume the previous one. During that short period of time, the card in the draft will take second place, while the new task, such as having a meeting, is placed at the top.

When the meeting is over, you pass that card to the final column, because it is a “finished” task. This column is intended to display the amount of work you have completed, which provides an intuitive visual indicator of your productivity and some satisfaction as it is filled in. At that point, you look back at the center column and have a clear reminder of what is “next”, which is that half-finished task, or any of the tasks that are pending in the entry column, or log.

As you can see, this is a very simple tool and process to learn and put into practice, which goes far beyond the limitations of the traditional task list, with additional advantages, such as monitoring a process, reminding you of the pending or half-done work, or clearly reordering tasks, depending on the priorities of each moment.

This process can be improved. If you look at the example image, you will see that there is an additional column, between registration and work in progress, called “classification”. A moment ago I told you that at the beginning of each day you could select the tasks you have to do on that day and put them on top. A further step in that refinement would be to devote a full column only to what you have to do each day. If the “in progress” column allows you to focus on what you are doing, the “classification” column sets a realistic and clear goal for today’s journey.

Kanban is a tool that has been around for decades and has been successfully applied in many areas of industry and services. Because of its flexibility, it can be used perfectly in the world of legal services and has many advantages. If you have found it interesting, I encourage you to make a board with sticky notes on a wall or with a free Trello account or similar application.

In the book Kanban for Lawyers I develop this technique much more, with numerous examples, which you can use immediately to increase your personal productivity and even learn how to extend its effectiveness to teams of lawyers with more complex procedures.