Matt Verrell

Matt Verrell, executive coach

Picture the scene; you’re sitting at your desk, it’s 20.45 on a Thursday and you’re looking forward to a long-overdue weekend away with friends. The door opens and it’s a senior colleague. “We’ve just been instructed on a new transaction – timing is tight as they need to drawdown by next Wednesday. I’ll send you the initial docs for you to get familiar with – oh and the client wants to discuss at 8am tomorrow,” she says. “Sure,” you respond as you’re thinking about the other 3 transactions completing in the next two weeks. Does this sound familiar?

Managing a heavy workload isn’t just a skill, it’s essential when working as a lawyer. The nature of legal business means it’s only sustainable if new instructions keep coming in. Somebody has to do the work and often that’s you. If heavy workloads are here to stay, we have to adapt the way we approach our tasks to ensure we don’t suffer from overwhelm and burnout. Here are 5 top tips to manage this:

Tip One: Prioritise

A good dose of discipline is required to look at our list of tasks (assuming you have a list; if you don’t please start one now) and order them with those that need to be completed the soonest at the top. This might sound obvious, but in the moment when stress is high and you’re struggling with all the spinning plates, logical thinking can go out the window. The second step (and sometimes the hardest) is to stick to the order and not move on to the next or more attractive task until the previous one is completed.

Tip Two: Ask for help

Most of us don’t like asking for help as we think it sends the message that we can’t cope. Would it surprise you to learn that the most resilient people around us are experts at asking for help and then finding the right person to ask? Let’s move away from the assumption that asking for help = I’m weak. Instead, let’s realise we’re doing ourselves and our team a favour by having the maturity to recognise when we need extra support. If you do ask for help, make sure you have some solutions to offer as to how certain tasks could get done within the timeframes (most notably who else might be able to assist).

Tip Three: Take Breaks

The natural response to a heavy workload is to work more hours. In fact, it’s surprising to know the opposite is true – we do more when we work less. What’s the magic ingredient to ensure this is the case? Productivity. If you’re exhausted as a result of long hours, what’s the quality of your work going to be if you then put in another 16 hour day? By building in sufficient down-time, you’re making sure you get essential rest. The result is greater productivity in a 10 hour day compared to a 16 hour day. Plus, you’ll feel like a human being – double win.

Tip Four: Stop Procrastinating

We’re hardwired to seek out things that give us pleasure – our brains are addicted to it. That’s why procrastination is such a hard habit to break. A quick tea break; scrolling through social media feeds; online shopping. Whilst we all have different things that give us pleasure, we all want it. What’s yours? Spotting the signs is the first step. If we have awareness about our distractions when we know we should be doing what matters, we can start to stop ourselves. This won’t be easy, but determination to keep going will break the habit.

Tip Five: Communicate & Manage Expectations

Unless you work exclusively for a senior colleague, it’s likely they won’t know what other transactions or cases you’re working on. Don’t be afraid to say so. It’s far worse if you take on multiple tasks, can’t complete them and then say it’s because you had lots too much on your plate. Manage your colleagues’ expectations by informing them about your workload. Seek collaboration as to how you can prioritise and get things done. You’ll feel better for it, and it’ll build trust with your colleagues.