15 Ways Lawyers with ADHD Can Raise the Bar
Being a lawyer is a challenging and rewarding job for many, but the mountains of documents and dependence on details can make it feel impossible for someone with ADHD to keep up. Here, an ADHD coach gives a budding attorney easy-to-apply strategies to make his mark at the firm.
I am an attorney in Boston. I was diagnosed with ADHD in my late teens, and I was able to make it through law school, despite my scattered study habits and disorganization. I am concerned that my day-to-day responsibilities at the firm where I work will overwhelm me. Can you tell me how to get through all of the casework that a newcomer to a law firm has to take on? Obviously, I want to do a good job, and I am not in a position to delegate anything to anyone.
Many with ADHD manage to make it through law school despite weak executive function, but crumble when they are hit with a load of casework in their first year at a firm. Instead of studying, writing papers, and taking tests, the new lawyer has to research and write lots of documents, many of which have a hard deadline. Add to that the tasks of keeping track of billable hours, filling out expense reports, and scheduling time for meetings, and it is overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be if you use some time management and organizational strategies.
Rules at a New Job
You say you want to do a good job. That tells me you are motivated to do what needs to be done to cope with your ADHD. However, with that desire to do well come two cautions: The first is to avoid perfectionism. Certainly briefs and other legal documents have to be your best work, but many memos, emails, and other communications do not. Identify early on which tasks you will devote more time and attention to and which tasks can be done quickly without jeopardizing the quality of your work. Perfect is the enemy of good.
The second caution is to avoid impulsively taking on work that wasn’t specifically assigned to you to impress your new boss. Many of us underestimate how long tasks will take, especially those that involve researching and writing. It may turn out that the simple project you volunteered to do will take more time and effort than you thought it would, resulting in your assigned work piling up. For the time being, do only what is asked of you until you find your groove and know your limits.
1. Learn how and when to say no. As an entry-level attorney, there may not be much that you are allowed to say no to, but learning how and when to say no is an invaluable skill when struggling to manage a heavy workload.
2. Put boundaries around your time. If a document or information is needed from a coworker, specify when it is needed instead of saying, “When you get a chance, could you send me x,y,z?” Another strategy is to limit interruptions by coworkers. If you are in the middle of something that requires your full attention and someone tries to interrupt your work, smile and ask if it can wait until you finish what you’re working on. The interrupter will let you know if it can’t wait.
3. Work with your ADHD, not against it. Legal work has to be accurate and correct. When reviewing a document, many details have to be checked for accuracy and spelling: names, dates, addresses, and facts. Many of my attorney clients find it best to go through the whole document and check for the correct spelling of names first, then go through the document a second time to check the accuracy of the dates, then do an address check, then do a fact check. Trying to check everything at once requires intense focus and can take longer, with a higher probability of making a mistake.
4. Research smarter, not harder. When using Westlaw or similar databases to find cases to support your legal arguments, set limits on the amount of time you are going to research and the number of cases you are going to use. Don’t get pulled into the black hole of information overload.
5. Capture and record billable hours daily. Make this a habit as early in your career as possible. On a busy day, you’ll tell yourself, “I’ll do it later,” but it takes more energy, focus, and time to do it “later.” Instead, remind yourself that creating healthy work habits will make work less stressful and more enjoyable.
6. Copy and paste whenever you can. When billing for time spent on client emails, copy and paste the subject line of the email to use as a description of the service that accompanies the billing code. Look for other cut-and-paste opportunities to save time.
7. Make “cheat sheets.” Have commonly used information at your fingertips on cheat sheets, like a list of commonly used billing codes on your phone’s notepad or in the cloud.
8. Don’t edit while writing the first draft. A first draft is a first draft. Let go of getting it perfect the first time around, and concentrate on finishing what needs to get written. Just write. Sleep on it, then edit it the next morning. This strategy saves time as it stops that vicious cycle of writing the same sentence over again, then settling on the first version.
9. If it takes less than two minutes, do it right away. Taking the time to capture a phone number and create a new contact immediately can save a lot of time later on. Be sure to use a descriptor when you capture the number, as you may not recall the client’s name later in the day or week.
10. Devise a system to use for reimbursable expenses. It doesn’t have to be fancy. A single business envelope to stuff receipts in when cash is used will suffice. No envelope handy? Take a picture of the receipt. If you’re not given a company charge card, get a separate credit card to use only for business, so you can keep personal and business expenses separate.
11. Get your to-do list out of your head and onto paper. Electronically capturing your “to-do” list is fine, but you still have to open up the program to peek at it, so make a printout to tape on the wall, or put next to your computer, so you see it. Be sure to delete what’s done and to add what’s new. Managing your to-do list falls under the two-minute rule mentioned before. The one thing you are sure you won’t forget may cause your biggest problem when you do forget it.
12. Plan daily using your calendar and to-do list. In the a.m., look at your to-do list and decide which tasks you would like to get done before lunch, factoring in any appointments or meetings that have to be attended. After lunch, reassess where you are and decide what you want to get done by the end of the day. Before leaving work, make a note of where you left off. It will be easier to start up with it again the next morning.
13. Keep on your desk only what you are working on. This is a hard one for most attorneys because of the volume of paperwork they have. If you have to stack piles on a bookshelf behind you to clear your desk, be sure to categorize and label the piles for easier retrieval. Too much stuff on your desk is a distraction, so get the piles out of your visual field. You will be more efficient in focusing on what is in front of you. Do the same for your electronic desktop, too.
14. Organize and prepare before starting a project. Define the objective of the task and the specific deliverables required to accomplish the project. Know who your audience is when assigned a writing project. This makes your writing more focused and less likely to go off on tangents. Collect and organize what is needed to start the project before diving into it. Make a list of tasks and the order that they need to be done in, with target dates for completion.
15. Immediately write all appointments into your calendar. Even if you think you are sure to remember everything, there will be a time when you won’t, and missing a client appointment or court date is never pretty. I encourage my clients to check their calendar morning, noon, and night, even if the day is empty of appointments. It helps to establish the habit of scheduling and planning, and brings consistency to daily routines.