Lists – An Effectiveness Tool for Every Lawyer


“Duh! Tell me something I don’t already know,” you might have said to yourself when you read this headline. I’m sure you already have some kind of list on your desk, on your computer, or on your mobile device right now. And yet, I frequently find myself coaching lawyers about creating and reviewing lists to help them manage the overwhelm of modern law practice.

There are many different kinds of lists with different functions and different ways to manage them. This post will include a “list of lists” and a brief description of their benefits or functionality. Check out David Allen’s, best-selling book Getting Things Done and his website of the same name for more elaboration on some of these ideas. I also invite you to share your suggested additions to this list in the comments below.

1. To Do Lists. If your desk has a stack of papers on it, you are using that as a to do list. It’s not very effective and probably contains some ticking time bombs within it. We all have more to do than we can accomplish in a day, and probably more than we can remember that we are supposed to do. Even though your list may be frighteningly long, get it out of your head, out of that paper stack, and into writing. You’ll have fewer deadlines and promises slip through the cracks. Once you get used to the potential overwhelm of a long list, you’ll actually feel less stress knowing that you haven’t forgotten something.

2. Priority List. Because your to do list is too long, you need a priority list. At the end of the day (or first thing in the morning) make a list of the three most important things for you to accomplish tomorrow. That priority list will help you stay on track when a myriad of less important tasks sing their siren song of distraction. Don’t choose more than three priorities, because feeling successful each day helps you sustain your energy. Some unpredicted new priority will almost always pop up. If you actually do complete your top three items, you can create a new priority list. Alternatively, you can reward yourself by just going home early for once.

3. Project Next Action List. Upon examination, you may find that many items on your to do list have multiple steps for completion. David Allen points out that those are the projects that you never seem to check off. To get unstuck, break each of your projects down into their component parts, and identify the next action for each project. You can then choose from your next action lists when you create your priority list.

4. Delegation List. The fastest way to get something off your desk is to delegate it to someone else. When your to do list is too long, review it carefully for any projects or parts of projects that you can delegate to someone else. When I go over a long to do list with a client, we almost always find several things that can be delegated to someone else, at least in their initial stages. Editing and polishing are often easier than getting started.

5. Assigned Task List. Once you delegate tasks to others, you need to keep track of whether the work gets done on a timely basis. Outlook and Gmail allow you to assign tasks and set due dates. They can also send you a notification when the assignee marks the task completed. Free project management software like Asana or Trello can help everyone on the team keep apprised of the status of each element of the project.

6. Checklists. In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande cites studies demonstrating that, even when performing familiar tasks, professionals that use checklists make fewer errors. There’s a reason why the FAA requires pilots with thousands of hours of flying experience to use a checklist before takeoff. In addition to helping you be more efficient, a checklist for a recurring undertaking allows you to more easily delegate it to someone else. You can also use the checklist to review the status of that assigned project.

7. Stealth Lists. Many of the documents you create may actually contain “stealth lists” that can remind you of all the tasks that need to be finished to complete the project. When you review a table of contents, an index, or a closing memorandum, you may notice that it contains a list of all of the smaller parts that need to be completed for the whole project to be accomplished. Start by creating that document first so that you can use it as your checklist.

8. Someday Maybe List. Capture the bright ideas that come to you while you’re in the shower, taking a walk or daydreaming. You might not ever get around to implementing them, but you don’t want to lose the ideas. If you have something on your to do list that has remained there for many months, perhaps you are really not that committed to it. Unclutter your to do list by moving that item to the “someday maybe” list.

9. Waiting For List. How often have you asked a client for information, to produce a document, or to sign and return something, only to have your request disappear into a black hole? Perhaps you closed a transaction a month ago, but you still haven’t yet received the recorded instruments from the County Clerk’s office. By keeping a list of the things you’re waiting for, you can avoid a mad dash at the last minute or a malpractice claim for failing to follow up.

Pick and choose what works for you from among these suggestions. Don’t let list-making become an excuse for postponing action. Make sure your lists ultimately make your practice more efficient, instead of making it even more complex.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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