Thursday, October 7, 2010

Paralegals - Beware of the Curse of the Eternally Urgent

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, an evil person placed a curse on every lawyer and law firm in the land. The curse extended to all who worked for the lawyer, especially paralegals.

No one knows who did this dreadful deed. Perhaps it was Shakespeare when he reportedly said 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers'. Perhaps it happened when the first yellow legal pad was produced or maybe it was bred among stacks of red rope files. Whatever its origin, this curse will forever plague attorneys and paralegals.

It is called The Curse of the Eternally Urgent.

What is The Curse of the Eternally Urgent? It is a malicious jinx that gives everything in the law firm critical status --- critical deadlines, critical documents, critical meetings, critical issues. Everything has to be done at once.

No one can escape The Curse of the Eternally Urgent! It infects everyone in the law office, especially paralegals who are not only cursed themselves but also have to deal with cursed attorneys. It causes stress, anxiety, tension, pressure and overwhelm. It renders everyone senseless, causing them to spin their wheels, getting nothing finished. Or if they do finish something, another even more time critical issue or deadline raises its ugly head. Add to that the feeling that everything must be done perfectly and you're doomed!

The Curse of the Eternally Urgent may also result in the failure to meet ethical responsibilities. The ABA's Model Rules of Professional Conduct (at Rule 1.1 and 1.3) state that attorneys owe their clients the duty of competence and diligence. This requires possession of the legal knowledge and skill necessary for representation, as well as acting with reasonable promptness and thoroughness while representing a client. This, of course, includes meeting deadlines.

There are dire consequences associated with The Curse of the Eternally Urgent! Missed deadlines may result in cases being dismissed, placing the client in an undesirable position, and a terrible reputation for the firm. There is also the possibility of disciplinary proceedings for the attorney, ranging from a reprimand to suspension to disbarment. There may be civil law suits brought against the attorney, as well as the paralegal. Paralegals risk losing their hard-earned professional certifications
Why does The Curse of the Eternally Urgent continue? That's totally due to the lack of perspective and planning, by procrastination and perfectionism.

Can the cycle of The Curse of the Eternally Urgent be broken? Yes! Just take the following steps:

Change your perspective. Instead of continuing the bad habit of always putting out fires, adopt the habit of looking at the deadline and what has to be done to meet it. Also, recognize when something is really time critical -- when it absolutely has to be done right that minute -- and when you can safely save it for another day.

Meeting deadlines is only the end goal. Acting competently and diligently on the client's behalf doesn't mean meeting deadlines by flying by the seat of your pants at trial, dropping off a brief at the Clerk's office at 4:55 pm on the day it's due, or frantically completing an answer to a complaint at the very last minute to avoid being defaulted.

Instead, competence and diligence on the client's behalf means planning for the deadline by determining steps necessary to complete the work by the deadline...taking the time to do the job that is required instead of throwing something together willy nilly just to get by.

Break your work into chunks. Once you determine what has to be done to meet the deadline, you have broken your work down into chunks. Looking at the main deadline (such as 'complete discovery') can be overwhelming. This overwhelm may stop you from even starting the work.

Taken one step at a time, knowing when each one will be finished, will allow you to meet your goal of finishing the entire project by the due date. You must take further, though, and determine when each step should be taken. Each step is then put on your calendar as an appointment. Each time you have an 'appointment' to get something done, you focus on that step until completion. You will reach your deadline before it becomes time critical.

Forget perfectionism. Quality work should always be your goal...just remember that done is good enough. You can make endless revisions but is that really a good use of your time? Do what is absolutely necessary and do it well (notice I didn't say 'do it perfectly') but stop when the product is good enough to get the job done. Never do work just to be doing work. That's a total waste of time. Instead, do only what really has to be done to finish the project.

Determine who will do the work. Never think you are absolutely the only one in the office who can do a job. Look at the individual steps that must be taken to reach a deadline and decide who is best suited to do it. This may be the attorney, the paralegal, the secretary...each person has specific skills so be sure to utilize those skills.

Your challenge: Don't let The Curse of the Eternally Urgent rule your life. Break the curse by getting your work in perspective. Ask yourself if it is really time critical. Then follow up with planning what has to be done and when, setting up 'appointments' with yourself to do the work, and delegating whenever possible. Last, do quality work but only to the point where what you've done is good enough...avoid perfectionism.

I'd love to hear what you think about The Curse of the Eternally Urgent. Leave your comment here.

©2010 Vicki Voisin, Inc.

Do you want to use this article in your newsletter, ezine or Web site? You can so long as you include this entire blurb with it: Vicki Voisin, "The Paralegal Mentor", delivers simple strategies for paralegals and other professionals to create success and satisfaction by achieving goals and determining the direction they will take their careers. Vicki spotlights resources, organizational tips, ethics issues, and other areas of continuing education to help paralegals and others reach their full potential. She publishes a weekly ezine titled Paralegal Strategies and co-hosts The Paralegal Voice, a monthly podcast produced by Legal Talk Network. More information is available at


Alex said...

Great advice. Long ago at a Franklin Covey workshop they presented a Matrix Time Management system which offered a good way of thinking about activities. For those who don't know, it's a four quadrant graph with columns labeled "Urgent" & "Not Urgent" and rows labeled "Important" & "Not Important." The idea is to focus, as much as possible, on Quadrant 2 activities (important / not urgent).

Paralegal Mentor said...

Thanks for your comment, Alex. I've used the quadrant graph and it is effective. I also like to use a mind map to plan my day, week, month and year. That works really well for me.

Unknown said...

Excellent article, Vicki. There seems to be a lack of ability to prioritize in this field! :)