Managing competing deadlines

By Matthew Hollings, President of the QLS Future Leaders Committee

Image credit: Jo Szczepanska

This is a skill I am yet to master but one I wish I had been working on from earlier in my career. Even now, 10 years on, I find that I am calling upon this skill on a regular basis.

As a junior lawyer or member of a legal team, you are often working for many stakeholders on multiple matters. As a part of this you will be given work that may have competing deadlines and order of priority. Unfortunately, as you receive this work from multiple sources, the way in which you receive these requests is likely to be inconsistent. Further, each request is likely made with the requester unaware of the competing priorities and deadlines.

I know that as a new member of a team you want to be seen to be keen to accept and take on new work. However, you want to make sure that you aren’t taking on too much and letting members of the team down. Often, work is requested of you that is tied to other events following that work, such as, the need to communicate with external parties, meeting a client deadline or meeting a Court stipulated order. As such you want to be mindful of this when managing your workloads.

Set out below are some key steps I try to take when accepting work from other team members. These are framed as though you are the person receiving the request but can easily be inverted to guide how you might better request work from others.

Review the request as soon as you receive it
You want to be able to make a quick call on whether you can meet the request being made of you. Ideally if it is urgent the requester will give you a call to let you know. However, getting across the task and determining your capacity early will allow the requester to make other arrangements if you can’t assist. The last thing anyone wants is to be told at or after a deadline that the work could not be completed.

Ask any questions you may have about the scope of work

You can’t make a call on whether you can assist if you don’t know the full scope of the task. Any reasonable person wanting you to complete that work should be more than happy to give you a clear brief on the work required. Ultimately this is going to minimise the risk of the deadline not being met or the work being incorrect. Vague instructions will often lead to a misinterpretation. Make sure you get it straight from the start.

Request clarity on the deadline

This may seem straight forward but even I am regularly guilty of failing to be specific with the deadline. This means being specific to the minute. It may seem like overkill but it is important to make expectations clear. Without clarity it there is room for misinterpretation and disappointment. If the request is vague on timing go back and ask if a specific time is okay with the requester.

Confirm if you can complete the work required by the relevant deadline

If the instructions and deadlines are clear and you can do the work required you should always acknowledge that and let the requester know you are on it. A simple notification is all that is required when the requirements are clear.

If you can’t complete the work, take the time to explain why

Similarly, if you can’t do the work, you should say so as soon as possible. This should also be accompanied by reasons why. Such as “I have to complete another task for Matt that will take up most of my day”. Visibility like this helps explain the reasons for your inability to assist and even empowers each of those requesters to discuss whether some adjustments to timeline and priorities can be made. If that’s not possible then the requester you are unable to support can make other arrangements and hopefully still meet their deadline.

Document the process

This may seem like overkill but we are all likely working on many different things which means that people may forget the promises that are made. If you get any clarification on scope or deadline jot it down in a file note or send it through as an email communication. Any deadlines should be diarised with reminders set up to ensure you keep your promise and complete the work.