Personal Task Management for Legal ProfessionalsBy Brad Edmondson, Published on April 27, 2014
As a graduating 3L at Vanderbilt Law School, I know I have a lot to learn about practicing law. But as a law student with a background in IT, information security, and IT process management, I may also have something to contribute on the topic of legal technology. One area I’ve done my best to explore is personal task management in the legal context. The more I’ve learned about the acclaimed Getting Things Done task management framework, for example, the better I think it can fit in to a successful and responsive, yet balanced legal practice. I searched for the right task management app for me throughout much of law school. Finally, I think I’ve found it, at least for my own individual use: Todoist. The app—it’s really more of a service—operates on the “freemium” model, and I signed up for the premium version three months ago, even on my meager student budget. I like it so much that I'm already considering re-upping for the next 12-month cycle.
Its task management platform works (and syncs) across iPhones and iPads, Android phones and tablets, on the web, and as native programs on Windows, Mac, and Chrome. It offers extensions for Outlook, Thunderbird, Gmail/Google Apps, and Postbox, and the premium version offers per-project email addresses for task creation. It’s easy to use, it’s everywhere at once, it works offline (and syncs quickly), and you can get complex and creative with it if you want to. In short, I love it.
But it wasn’t immediately apparent that I would, and I recognize that Todoist might not work for everyone. Throughout law school, I looked at the Todoist">big names in webapp and cross-platform personal task management: Google Tasks, Remember the Milk, Wunderlist, Any.do etc., and I bought one Mac-only product, OmniFocus. OmniFocus is quite good, but isn't cross-platform (though if you are a Mac + iPhone shop you will be in luck—and if so I highly recommend all of Omni's software). Google Tasks works well across platforms, but its offline sync is poor, its handling of complicated projects with multiple sub-components isn’t great, and there are no label, contexts, or priorities at all. Third-party apps running on Google Tasks, like GTasks, have similar limitations: I like the Google Account integration but can't really live without labels and sub-projects. RTM is widely used but doesn't work offline and doesn't support sub-projects at all. (Check out this 8-year-old post on the RTM product forums begging the developers for subtasks—including a “+1” on the request from yours truly.) Wunderlist seemed okay, but didn't handle sub-projects very well when I looked at it (though that may have changed, or it may offer a better subproject experience in Wunderlist Pro—I wasn’t willing to pay to find out if I liked such a core feature). Any.do claims to support “sub-tasks,” but really only supports adding notes to tasks: you can make them into a checklist, but you can’t give them labels, contexts, or individual due dates, and for some reason their FAQ says that you can’t re-order them.
In contrast, I found Todoist to offer a wonderful blend of simplicity and, should you need it, complexity. You can keep a simple date- or priority-organized to-do list right out of the box, but it also supports projects and subprojects, as well as tasks within each project and sub-tasks within each task. It can parse and understand recurring dates for tasks; it has a great scheduling and re-scheduling interface for smaller mobile screens; and the premium version can get as complex as you want, with contexts (each with their own color), filters, and priorities. Like OmniFocus, it has all of the features you need to run GTD, or your own modified version thereof—but it works everywhere, has a much more gentle learning curve, and its user interface is more polished.
To be fair, Todoist isn’t perfect. I would change the way the user interacts with tasks and sub-tasks (away from this strange “level” metaphor they seem to have chosen), and I would like to see the Gmail integration and the browser extension offer more—like a one-click add-to-inbox feature, instead of the four clicks it takes now (I have different Todoist reading lists for law, technology, and politics, which all live under the “Someday, after law school” project). But those are minor quibbles with non-core functions. I still think Todoist is toeing the line between excellence and perfection. To me, the higher-up towards your primary use-case the app developers are working, the better. That means the developers of the app I want to use should be working with the concepts of multi-level projects/tasks, due dates, and reminders, as well as labels (or GTD "contexts"), in more or less the same way I think about them. Todoist offers that concept-for-concept match: it tracks the way I think about my complicated projects—my own modified GTD—as well as my simple checklists, and it’s always simple to use.
Todoist is a truly excellent service (no, sadly, I’m not getting anything for writing them up - nor is the Editor receiving any renumeration for publishing this article!), but process management is about what works for you. If you’re heavy on process thinking or GTD, and you’re on a Mac, check out OmniFocus (it syncs to iPhone/iPad too). If you want simple task management take a look at Google Tasks, either natively or with a third-party app, or Any.do. But if you want a full-featured, yet surprisingly easy-to-use service, and you don’t mind paying a little for a yearly subscription, you may find, like I did, that Todoist offers exactly what you want.