Congratulations, you have picked a career where feeling stressed is the baseline on any given day. This stress does not just affect our physical and mental health, but our ability to perform our duty to represent our clients diligently and competently. As new attorneys, we are learning every day in a field that is constantly changing around us, and we have to constantly adapt while staying on top of our always growing caseload. Not stressful at all.
Personally, I wake up every morning in a panic, second guessing my actions from the day before and thinking about the millions of things I have on my to-do list. I have my little tricks for managing my stress but even the strongest essential oils and lunchtime-workouts cannot abate my stress like approaching my caseload in an organized and methodical fashion, recognizing my limitations, and expecting the unexpected.
Rule #1. Plan Ahead
In my field I have both an administrative caseload and a court caseload. My administrative case load tends not to have strict deadlines but more my own hopeful estimation, or that of my boss, of when I should get something done. My court caseload is all deadlines, some which I am given only 10 days to respond and some which I do not have to think about until 2020. As my deadlines (and hopeful wishes of completion) are given to me, I stick them on my monthly calendar so I can view them as a whole and plan accordingly based on how much time I think I need to complete this assignment. Sounds easy enough? Yes...but it depends.
Organizing your caseload is more than just sticking dates on a calendar, it is prioritizing tasks, knowing how much time you personally need to complete assignments, and managing your workload based on your experience and time constraints. By taking these factors into consideration, you will avoid over-committing to deadlines and responsibilities which in order to complete you must sacrifice the quality of your work product.
Rule #2. Know your Limits
You can only do so much on your own so, even though you make a plan and intend to stick to it, you have to know your boundaries and be reasonable about your abilities. The biggest mistake, that I think we are all guilty of, is stretching ourselves too thin and taking on too much. When we overpromise, underdelivering is inevitable. It is one thing to take on a big project to prove yourself, but to take on too much and to not say no when you know you will not be able to deliver is another, and can be detrimental to your client and to your reputation.
As new lawyers we are all set on proving ourselves to our peers, our superiors, and to the community. It is not just our work product which will serve this, but our reputation for being a responsible attorney as well. Being able to say no, delegate, or ask for help from someone who has more experience, may be difficult at first but in the end, it shows that you have kept the best interest of the client in mind and assured they received the representation they deserve. By being mindful of our experience, and managing the expectations of our performance, we set ourselves up for success. This is not to say do not take chances and try new things, but be reasonable about what you can complete within your time constraints while still maintaining your sanity and the quality of your work product.
So, what does this look like? It starts with organization and, as I mentioned, being able to predict how long a certain task will take you. And then, looking at your tasks as a whole and seeing whether there are enough hours in the day, or days in the month, to achieve all your goals. By approaching your workload like this, you are able to decide if you can take on another project or another client without just throwing them in your calendar with the overarching goal of getting everything done in time. If you do not plan in advance by looking at the big picture of your entire case load and being realistic about the weight of these tasks, and solely looking at your deadlines, you are setting yourself up for failure when your workload begins to pile up, or when the unexpected lands on your desk.
Rule #3. Expect the Unexpected
While third on my list, this is the golden rule. It is inevitable that something will come up and destroy even the most perfectly manicured schedule. This can be anything from a surprise emergency case from your boss to a personal issue taking up significant time in your day or week. There is no perfect plan to get everything done but I always aim for finishing my projects a week early. This by no means works out every time. Clients may not bring the requested documents, you might end up taking more time than anticipated on another assignment, or even, and this has definitely not happened to me, the government might shut down.
Nothing ever goes to plan and if it is, something is probably wrong and you just have not realized it yet. Do not let the little things that can be dealt with through foresight and planning cause you stress. Give yourself time for research, edits, and delays in getting pertinent information. Do not let yourself stress over something preventable when there are already constant unforeseeable stresses in your day.
At the end of the day, you are responsible for your caseload and you know what you need to do to get things done. Do not over promise only to underdeliver because of improper planning and well wishes. Your competency and ability to perform your duty starts with organizing your caseload and assuring each of your clients receives the competent representation they are trusting you with, and that they deserve. When you have taken these precautions, you are not just alleviating your own stress, you are also protecting your reputation, your license, and of course, your client.