Paralegals + Pareto = Who Knew?

Vicki Voisin, ACP

Are you familiar with Vilfredo Pareto and the Pareto Principle? Perhaps you’ve heard of the 80-20 rule?

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist and sociologist who, in 1906, created a mathematical formula that described the unequal distribution of wealth in his country. Pareto observed that twenty percent of the people owned eighty percent of the wealth.

Once Pareto made his observation and created his formula, others began to observe similar trends in their own areas of expertise.

Dr. Joseph Juran, a Quality Management pioneer, was working in the US in the 1930s and 1940s when he recognized a universal principle he called ‘the vital few and the trivial many.” He appeared to be applying Pareto’s observations about economics to his broader body of work.

Thanks to Dr. Juran and his observation of the “vital few and trivial many,” the principle that 20% of something is always responsible for 80% of the results became universally known asPareto’s Principle.

You may be wondering Pareto’s Principle applies to paralegals. Before you head back to summarizing depositions or searching for expert witnesses, or whatever you have scheduled for today, let’s examine just how Pareto’s Principle applies to you and its value as an effective tool for managing your work and your life.

Put simply, Pareto’s Principle that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts works with many aspects of your life. For example,

  • You probably refer to only 20% of the papers you place in your file cabinet
  • Your firm probably makes 80% of its income from 20% of its clients
  • You probably use only 20% of the books on your shelf, with the other 80% gathering dust
  • You probably generate 80% of your billable hours from 20% of your work
  • You probably wear only 20% of the clothes in your closet 80% of the time
  • You probably belong to a group (as in your association) where 20% of the members do 80% of the work

Applying the Pareto Principle to time organization: Assuming that you usually have a list of 10 projects or tasks that you’d intend to work on or finish in any given day, 2 of those will be important tasks that will produce big results. Those results could be a large number of billable hours or large contribution to trial preparation, etc. The remaining 8 tasks are probably just busy work or the ‘trivial many.’

Your ultimate goal should be to focus on the 20% (or the ‘vital few’) of the tasks that bring big results and to either stop doing the other 80% or begin delegating those if they must be done. If delegating is not an option, then determine what you will do in terms of importance. Your focus should always be on the 20% that is vital.

Applying the Pareto Principle to space organization: If you’re actually referring to only 20% of everything you file in your file cabinet, it’s probably time to weed out the remaining 80% and to rethink what you are saving in the first place.

If you are wearing only 20% of your clothes 80% of the time, doesn’t it make sense to get rid of the 80% that is just taking up valuable real estate in your closet? If you are referring to only 20% of the books on your book shelf, a good plan would be to either give away or throw away the other 80% that is gathering dust. If you do this, you will be removing 80% of the clutter from your life.

Applying the Pareto Principle to your association: When 20% of the membership of a group is doing 80% of the work, a great deal of stress is placed on volunteers. The solution may not be as simple as throwing away unused books because you do need all of your members. An alternative might be to increase membership so that you increase the 20% available to do the work. A better plan would be to delegate 80% of the work (which should be tasks that can be given to someone else) to the 80% who are not helping but who might pitch in if asked.

Your challenge: How can the Pareto Principle apply to you? Identify the 20% of anything going on in your life or your work that has value and importance. The result will be the ‘vital few’ that should be your focus. The remaining 80%, the ‘trivial many,’ can either be handled by someone else, handled by you once the 20% is completed, or is unimportant and doesn’t really have to be done at all. Apply this principle to the clutter in your life, too. Identify the 20% of your ‘stuff’ that has meaning and value to you, then remove the remaining 80%. This will allow you to enjoy the 20%…the ‘vital few’… to the utmost. As for your group membership…let me know how that goes!

© 2009 Vicki Voisin, Inc.

Do you want to use this article in your newsletter, ezine or Web site? You can, so long as you include this entire blurb with it: Vicki Voisin, “The Paralegal Mentor”, delivers simple strategies for paralegals and other professionals to create success and satisfaction by achieving goals and determining the direction they will take their careers. Vicki spotlights resources, organizational tips, ethics issues, and other areas of continuing education to help paralegals and others reach their full potential. She publishes a bi-weekly ezine titled Strategies for Paralegals Seeking Excellence. More information is available