Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Jill Roth-Gutman to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
Almost daily I ask myself: outside of client appointments and preparing for them, what are the three most important things to get done today for work? I dusted off this forgotten approach in March 2020 when the COVID-19 lockdowns necessitated a rapid work-from-home adjustment. Before becoming a solo, for years I implemented this tactic while working as a law guardian, a child welfare attorney for the state of New Jersey. I put this method into place as almost a survival strategy to perform my ethical duties when I had a caseload of managing over 100 clients. I was visiting children at home and school, attending court around two weeks per month, reading discovery, replying to emails, fielding phone calls, putting out emergent case-related fires, all while coming home to the incessant demands of family and household management. Everything felt like an emergency. I was being pulled in a million directions. I felt like I was drowning.
I recall appearing in court all day, before stopping by my office to exchange files for the next day. When I walked in, I saw a stack of discovery on my desk piled so high I couldn’t find the light switch. I still have no idea how it didn’t fall over. It seemed like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Looking at it made me want to cry. At that moment, I wanted to clear my desk before doing anything else. But it was already 5 p.m., and I had until 6 p.m. at the latest to make daycare pickup. There wasn’t time to address the tower. I knew something had to give and that the only way out was to prioritize the most critical next steps. I left my secretary a note to box the tower of discovery and to leave it in my office so I could tackle it later.
I left feeling defeated, only later to come to the realization that I had accomplished three things: 1) I had a plan for the documents, 2) I dropped off and picked up files for court as intended, and 3) I would reach the daycare before 6 p.m. Over time, three became my favorite number, and I had a strategy to conquer a forever growing list of tasks to accomplish. For years, to keep my head above water, the top of my list could be any emergency spilling over from the day before or making sure court was prepped for the next upcoming day.
My plan worked well until work changed dramatically when the pandemic hit. My strategy flew out the window as the top of my list became figuring out how to work from home effectively and efficiently like so many others. Spending additional time at home led me to reflect on my future and my goals.
Two years went by before I decided to follow a dream to embark on a new journey to open my own firm as a solo practitioner. I knew how to practice law. I was learning to be a business owner. My initial approach prompted the start of a giant Word doc. It began as a to-do list which transitioned to an outline. But this outline approach did not help me move forward. It was pages and pages long. And overwhelming. There had to be a better way. I was used to my routine as a government employee, but I now needed to multitask more than ever before. I started using an online project management tool to organize my thoughts and action items.
About a year ago, I realized this was not enough. I reflected on how I was able to juggle so much of my old caseload so effectively for years. It was my top three item action list. So, I started again, sometimes coming up with my list the night before, sometimes first thing in the morning. My list of three is not rigid, sometimes it ends up a list of five. Overall, this made everything a bit easier to manage, and I could fall asleep at night knowing I had at least accomplished that list.
While it is tempting to bite off more than one can chew, I create a reasonable short list, breaking things down as much as possible. Think of the list as snacks to sustain yourself throughout the day, rather than a big, full-course meal leading to a nap. Clean my office. Not a reasonable action item for the day unless I wasn’t planning on working on anything else. Instead, clean out the blue box sitting inside my office closet. If the box is cleaned out first, I can more effectively clear off my desk. The desk is a separate action item. The goal is to aim for attainable, achievable to-do items. Plus, there’s nothing better than checking things off a to-do list.
Once I quickly brainstorm my most important items, I consider how long each will take, how many meetings I have for the day, how much time I have before needing to be somewhere at the end of the day and the realistic timeframe for completing each of them. One caveat here, I never think things will take as long as they do. Ever. It’s my Achilles’ heel. But, I try my best to consider time. I then choose which is the most important and that’s the goal of the day. The next two actions are my hopeful items.
In the pursuit of time, coupled with transitioning from being a government attorney to a solo practitioner, learning to integrate a time management system has been a critical part of my journey. As I write this article, which was originally intended to be about opening my own solo practice after leaving the government, I question if writing about managing time counts. As I’ve shown in this article, setting up systems to manage my time has been key to making that transition. Can I cross the task of writing off for the day, or should I create a new blank Word doc? The point was to write today; I’m crossing it off my list. Accepting that my article is done rather than perfect (a challenge for a lawyer with Type A tendencies), maximizing productivity, and learning to prioritize between being an entrepreneur and practicing law is the key to a small business staying afloat.
Jill Roth-Gutman opened her niche family law and estate planning firm, Roth-Gutman Law in Voorhees, New Jersey, in 2022. She works with a diverse group of families and individuals on wills, powers of attorney, special needs guardianships, adoptions, consultations for foster parents, and being a Guardian ad Litem in contested custody cases. In 2016, Jill became a Child Welfare Law Specialist, certified by the National Association of Counsel for Children, a credentialing organization approved by the ABA. She has been practicing law since 2006. When not practicing law, Jill enjoys volunteering, road tripping and spending time with family and friends. More about Jill can be found on her website www.rothgutmanlaw.com and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.