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LAWBIZ COACHES CORNER: How to prioritize

Ed Poll is a speaker, author and board-approved coach to the legal profession. He can be contacted at Also visit his interactive community for lawyers at

A frequent refrain from harried lawyers is, “I’m so overwhelmed that I just don’t have time to take care of myself.”

Do you feel the same way? If so, do you think you are providing your clients with the best service possible?


Some would say it’s a matter of time management. For lawyers, no resource is more valuable than what Abraham Lincoln called our “stock in trade”—time.

Lawyers don’t really sell time, but time typically measures our effort. With billable-hour collection targets looming, the urgency of unread text messages, and the stress of family pressures, the need for more time can be overwhelming.

The reality, though, is that we cannot manage time; we can only manage ourselves and our priorities. Most lawyers who claim that they have too little time generally fail to prioritize. If you haven’t prioritized, you’re likely to feel like the typical harried lawyer.

How can you develop a practical approach to prioritizing in order to change the scenario? Get out your calendar and schedule time for addressing client issues, marketing and networking, engaging in professional education, and relaxing with family and friends. Scheduling disciplines you to prioritize how much cumulative time is devoted to each and what you value more.

The schedule won’t be perfect, and it will be subject to change. But by making the effort to construct and adhere to it, you will be far ahead of most others and certainly far along the path of controlling your own environment rather than being a slave to it.

Prioritization models

Two prioritization models to consider incorporating into your life include the Urgent-Important-Trivial Model and the Manage-Focus-Avoid-Limit Model.

*Urgent-Important-Trivial Model

In the Urgent-Important-Trivial Model, developed by Stephen Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” the four quadrants are as follows:

  1. Urgent and important
  2. Important but not urgent
  3. Urgent but not important
  4. Trivial/busywork

The first quadrant, in terms of time, is doing what is urgent: it’s what comes across our desk that we have to get done and get it done now even though we didn’t expect it. The second quadrant is what we want to do—and should do—for our long-term benefit, but we can’t always do it because we’re immersed in quadrant one.

The third quadrant includes urgent but unimportant items. Finally, the last quadrant is trivial stuff, such as shuffling paper—often times, we do that stuff just to keep busy because we just don’t want to deal with quadrant two.

We spend most of our time on quadrant one instead of on the second quadrant, the most important quadrant for future success, because we allow ourselves to let deadlines creep up on us or we allow other people to set our priorities. In other words, we do not properly control the “urgent” factor.

Most of us would agree that we can’t change the fact that we must do what we have to do before we can do what’s important to us. But what we can change is the number of urgent matters crossing our desks. In order to change that dynamic, we need to organize and plan ahead.

*Manage-Focus-Avoid-Limit Model

Another way to look at prioritization is also a model developed by Covey. This model has the following four quadrants:

  1. Manage (crises and pressing problems)
  2. Focus (on strategies and values)
  3. Avoid (interruptions and busy work)
  4. Limit (the trivial and wasteful)

Essentially, this model provides a way to address the quadrants in the Urgent-Important-Trivial Model. Again, if you can control quadrant one, then you can maximize your future success by concentrating on quadrant two.

Whatever way you choose, there is no single plan that is right for all lawyers. Any good plan is, as the saying goes, like “six of one, half a dozen of the other.” The important thing is to embrace a plan that works for you.

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