A Legal Assistant's Guide: Create a Checklist for any Process

By Angelle Marie Garcia, ACP

There is an old saying: “A troubled mind sure can know no rest.” A checklist can be an amazing tool for easing your mind and putting a protocol in place that can be utilized for tasks that are often repeated.

For me, setting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) and reducing all of my tasks to a checklist is essential to my work and my well ­being. I have a checklist for all of the important tasks that I need to accomplish at work and at home. I find that having a protocol to follow is essential, especially for important matters that need to be repeatedly accomplished. A well-designed checklist can be an important tool in creating a protocol that will allow you to (1) ease your mind, (2) manage an array of assignments/tasks, (3) prevent mistakes, (4) improve your work, (5) track your efforts, and (6) accomplish your goals.

Even with the clear benefits of having a checklist in place for important tasks, some can find it overwhelming to even think about taking the time to create a checklist. This may be because checklists that are too lengthy or complex are not actually useful. Checklists do not have to be complex or lengthy. To be effective, a checklist should have a limited number of items (one-page maximum is a good rule) and should focus on the most important steps to complete the protocol and reach the goal. A clear and concise checklist for each important task will allow you to quickly move through the protocol while assuring you are reaching the end goal without missing a step or making a mistake.

Remember, everyone makes mistakes but the difference between being good and being great is catching your own mistakes. A proper checklist will help prevent mistakes and will ensure critical steps are taken so goals are accomplished, the desired result is achieved, and, where applicable, you are producing the best work product possible.

To start your checklist, begin at the end. That is, know exactly the outcome you are working toward. What do you want to accomplish? With a clear focus on the desired end result, use the following checklist to create a checklist that will aid you in reaching the goal.
  1. Start at the end. Have a clear goal in mind. Make this goal the title of your checklist.
  2. Focus on the important steps. Do not list “retrieve file” if you know you cannot begin work without the file. Only list the important steps you might miss if you do not have them on the list.
  3. Keep each task simple. Use just a few words to direct you.
  4. Track your completion of each step. I like to actually check off each box as I complete the step while you might like to strike through the step. However you track it, it is both satisfying and important to track your completion of the steps in the checklist.
  5. Have a space for notations. This is usually easier if the checklist is electronic. Be careful not to turn your checklist into a memo. If you need to document information for your record, create a separate memo. However, consider putting a copy of your checklist in with your work product. It can be a good way to confirm you have taken all of the appropriate actions as well as serve as evidence of your efforts.
  6. Use the checklist. More importantly, decide when you will use it. For example, you will use your established checklist or create a new checklist each time you receive a new matter. Or, it could be that you decide the checklist is implemented on the first occurrence of a certain action (i.e., the preparation of a new petition/motion, etc.).
  7. Consult the experts. Consider asking others their opinion on the critical steps in reaching the goal. If there is a seasoned attorney or paralegal whose work you admire, consider asking for time to go over the steps he or she uses to ensure a good work product/desired result. Often you will be able to collaborate with a colleague to put into place a checklist that will benefit the entire department. If you are working on a personal checklist for decluttering a basement, research a professional organizer’s thoughts on the most important steps, etc.
  8. Review the protocol and rework the checklist into the perfect goal-reaching tool. By revisiting and refining your checklist, you will create a tool that will help you to accomplish your work in a more efficient manner and without mistakes. Make sure it flows and is organized in a simple one­page format that is logical and uncluttered.

Now that you have a checklist for creating a clear, concise, and helpful checklist for any task, consider having a little fun with the creation of the checklist. Many times it can seem a checklist takes all of the creativity out of a process. That does not have to be. Nor should it be true. The checklist is in place to ensure you accomplish each critical step in reaching the intended result. It is there to help enhance your creativity and intelligence, not zap it.

I use a green pen to check off the little box next to each step as I complete it. I have a “completed” stamp that I purchased at a local office supply store which I stamp across the entire checklist once I am done. It truly gives me a sick, nerdy little rush to stamp the word “completed” across the checklist. An attorney I know loves to use different colored highlighters to track his progress through his checklist.

While you should always stick to the rule of a one-page, logical, and organized checklist, you can take a certain creative license in the appearance of your checklist. I do not recommend having a colorful background or a wild font but you can use a creative format that inspires you. You will surely find the format for creating, and method for completing, a checklist that is most satisfying to you-be creative but focused!

Remember, whether you use a written checklist or a computer-generated checklist (or a combination of both as I do), proper creation and use of this helpful tool will ease your mind and enhance your work. We all have so many tasks to complete in so many areas of our lives. By creating a proper checklist for running a reliable protocol, we can really ease our minds and save ourselves time as we work to accomplish our goals. Let us reduce those uncompleted tasks down into small, logical steps that we can check off our daily “to-do” lists and off our minds.

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SOURCE: @Law / The NALS Magazine for Legal Professionals  / “A Legal Assistant’s Guide: Create A Checklist For Any Process“ / By Angelle Marie Garcia, ACP