Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Art of Triage

My firm friends often think that life in house is shorter hours and less stress.  Sometimes that’s true, but end of quarter, end of year or during the ramp up to a new release there’s a ton of work to do that can easily rival their work hours with work still left to be done.  And all that is with less pay and more pressure to cut cost and boost efficiencies. 

Business, as they say, moves at the speed of light.  And you, in house lawyer, have to keep up or otherwise be forever labeled as a bottleneck, black hole or other derogatory term that discourages your business folks from coming to you timely.  This isn’t so hard if you’re one of many in a large law department.  However if you’re one of a few or the only one in a small department this can be one of the biggest challenges you face.  During these trying times, I take a page from our medical colleagues and spend most of my time in “triage”. 

What does that mean?  That means instant prioritization into one of three categories:  high priority- needs to be addressed if not completed within the next 24 hours, medium priority – needs to be addressed within the week, and low priority – no urgent need, but really should be addressed. 

It takes a good feel of the business overall to be able to quickly prioritize correctly the first time.  Every one bringing you a contract or customer issue will think it should be high priority.  Especially if it needs to be completed for them to reach their own personal goals or bonus objectives.  But you need a larger view of things.  You need to be able to have the global perspective and prioritize based on the company’s goals.  This means that sometimes, that contract that will enable the sales person to reach his quarterly quota is not as important as filing that patent application so you can launch the new product on time. 

The triage system also leaves a lot in the low priority bucket, and that bucket needs to be periodically re-examined.  Something that was low priority in mid-April, may take on a lot more urgency in late June.  Re-examine the buckets every week or so to make sure everything is still prioritized quickly.

Once you’re confident in your priority assessments, you have to communicate it to your business folks.  Nothing is a bigger time sap and waste of energy than having to respond to countless requests for updates on issues you’ve dumped into the low or medium priority buckets.  Give clear guidelines as to what your expected turnaround time is for each item submitted.  Whenever possible, give a heads up the submitter if that expectation changes.  I try to keep response times to a reasonable range, so that I don’t have to update submitters if I don’t finish today but will tomorrow.   If practical, let submitters know where they are in the ‘queue’ even if you can’t tell them what’s ahead of them for confidentiality or privilege issues. 

Finally, if you consistently leave work feeling like you’ve spent your day in a war zone, it may be time to consider hiring some help – or looking for a new job. 

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