Key Ethics Rules to Consider When Your Older Adult Client (or Potential Client) Has Diminished Capacity

Working with clients in various stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and with their families and caregivers, poses unique ethical issues for the attorney. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, which involves memory loss and other cognitive impairment that affects daily life. When clients suffer from a mental impairment, this generally reduces their capacity to communicate with their lawyer, understand critical issues related to representation, and make informed decisions.

Here are key ethics rules to consider when your older adult client (or potential client) has diminished capacity:

Rule 1.1, Competence

A lawyer shall provide competent representation, i.e. legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

Rule 1.1, Comment 2 states, “Perhaps the most fundamental legal skill consists of determining what kind of legal problems a situation may involve, a skill that necessarily transcends any particular specialized knowledge.”(emphasis added).

When working with a client with diminished capacity, lawyers not only need to know the nuts and bolt of their practice area. They also have to apply the legal standards of diminished capacity, which include ethical guidelines for assessing client capacity, as outlined in Rule 1.14, and standards of capacity for specific legal transactions.

A finding of incapacity could nullify or present obstacles in transactions such as wills, contracts and estate plans.

For example, at the time of making a will, the testator must understand the nature and extent of his property and the claims of others on his bounty, and be able to connect them sufficiently to form a rational plan for disposition of property. This is known as Testamentary Capacity.

When entering a contract, the person needs to understand the nature and effect of the act and the business being transacted. If the act of business being transacted is highly complicated, a higher level of understanding is usually needed. This is called Contractual Capacity.

Rule 1.2, Scope of Representation and Allocation of Authority Between Client and Lawyer

A lawyer has a duty to abide by the client’s decisions concerning the objectives or goals of representation and reasonably consult with the client about the means to accomplish such objectives. When a client lacks capacity to fully participate in the representation, this creates multiple ethical issues.

Rule 1.2, Comment 1 states the client has ultimate authority to determine the purpose and objectives of the representation. The means by which to accomplish objectives is generally left to counsel, after consultation with the client. Comment 2 adds that when there is a disagreement, counsel must attempt a mutually agreeable resolution. “If such efforts are unavailing and the lawyer has a fundamental disagreement with the client, the lawyer may withdraw from the representation. See Rule 1.16(b)(4).”

Rule 1.4, Communication

Rule 1.14(a)(1) states the lawyer shall promptly inform client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which client’s informed consent is required.

Rule 1.4(a)(2) requires the lawyer to reasonably consult with client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished.

Rule 1.4(b) notes the lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding representation.

Comment 6 states, “Ordinarily, the information to be provided is that appropriate for a client who is a comprehending and responsible adult.” But “this standard may be impracticable” when the client suffers from diminished capacity.

In any event, the lawyer should confirm the client understands key elements of legal action and available options, and the client has made a choice and understands the consequences.

Rule 1.7, Conflict of Interest: Current Clients

The lawyer needs to watch out for conflicts of interest, particular in joint representation of married couples in wills and trusts formation, estate planning, contracts and other similar matters.

The lawyer shall not represent a client if representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest.

Concurrent conflict of interest exists if representation will be:

(1) directly adverse to another client, or

(2) materially limited by responsibilities to another client, former client, or a third person, or from lawyer’s own interests.

Comment 1 states that loyalty and independent judgment are essential in attorney-client relationship. Comment 2 explains that to resolve a conflict of interest problem, the attorney must clearly identify the client(s) and decide whether representation may continue and, if so, consult with affected client(s) and obtain informed consent in writing.

Rule 1.16, Declining or Terminating Representation

Rule 1.16(b)(1) states the attorney may withdraw from representing a client if it can be “accomplished without material adverse effect on the interests of the client.”

Rule 1.16(c) states the lawyer must comply with applicable law requiring notice to or permission of a tribunal when terminating representation. A tribunal may order the lawyer to continue representation despite good cause for termination.

Comment 1 explains the lawyer should not accept representation in a matter unless it can be performed competently, promptly, without improper conflict of interest and to completion. In effect, if the lawyer reasonably believes the person lacks capacity to make informed decisions, he may decline representation without necessarily seeking reasonable protective action.

Comment 6 adds that before representation is withdrawn, the lawyer should make special effort to help the client — with severely diminished capacity — consider the consequences of a discharge and may take reasonably necessary protective action as provided in Rule 1.14.

Rule 1.14, Client with Diminished Capacity

Rule 1.14(a) states the lawyer must maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship, as far as reasonably possible, even with the client has diminished capacity.

Comment 1 notes, “The normal client-lawyer relationship is based on the assumption that the client, when properly advised and assisted, is capable of making decisions about important matters.” It adds that when the client “suffers from a diminished mental capacity, however, maintaining the ordinary client-lawyer relationship may not be possible in all respects.”

Rule 1.14(b) allows the lawyer to take reasonable protection action when the lawyer reasonably believes the client has diminished capacity, is at risk of substantial physical, financial or other harm unless action is taken, and cannot adequately act in his/her own interest.

Comment 5 specifies that protective action includes consulting with family members; using a reconsideration period to permit clarification or improved circumstances; using durable powers of attorney; and consulting with support groups, professional services, adult-protective agencies, or other persons and entities available to protect the client.

In certain situations, the lawyer may seek guidance from an appropriate diagnostician. Protective action may involve seeking assistance from third parties in determining whether to seek the appointment of a guardian ad litem, conservator or guardian.

Rule 1.14(c) states the lawyer may reveal confidential information (protected by Rule 1.6) to the extent reasonably necessary to protect the client’s interest, when taking reasonably necessary protective action.

Comment 6 states, “In determining the extent of the client’s diminished capacity, the lawyer should consider and balance such factors as: 1) the client’s ability to articulate reasoning leading to a decision; 2) variability of state of mind and ability to appreciate consequences of a decision; the substantive fairness of a decision; and 3) the consistency of a decision with the known long-term commitments and values of the client.

Undue influence from a family member, caregiver or other third party should not be confused with diminished capacity, although the two are sometimes intertwined. Through manipulation or isolation, a stronger person might convince the weaker person to do something he would not otherwise do without the undue influence. This is a major factor for financial exploitation that the lawyer needs to consider when working with elderly clients with diminished capacity.

* * *

Most lawyers – especially without special training — will find it very difficult to determine whether a client with diminished capacity can still make “adequately considered decisions.” Rule 1.14(b) subjects the lawyer to the standard of reasonableness and requires only that the lawyer “reasonably believes” the client has diminished capacity, which may be inferred from the circumstances.

As part of the normal attorney-client relationship, lawyers may not substitute their opinion or judgment for that of their clients, even when the client has diminished capacity due to mental impairment (e.g. Alzheimer’s or dementia). In appropriate situations, lawyers may consult with a medical or mental health diagnostician or other professional for help in evaluating a client’s capacity to act in his or her own interest. They may disclose only enough information reasonably necessary to take contemplated protective action in cases where the client is at risk of substantial harm.

* * *

NOTE: On Monday, February 3, 2020, I will co-present the ethics session at Minnesota CLE’s live in-person seminar, A Lawyer’s Guide to Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Wills & Estate Planning attorney, Stuart Bear of Chestnut Cambronne P.A., and I will discuss Ethical Issues for Attorneys: How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Competency, Conflicts, and More.

To register or learn more, click HERE.  


This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 


U.S. Consulate Rescinds INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) Charge and Grants B1/B2 Visa: A True Success Story

Within 3 months of receiving our Motion to Reconsider and Rescind Inadmissibility Finding Under INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) with Request for B1/B2 Visitor Visa, the U.S. Consulate granted the visa to our client without requiring a 212(d)(3) waiver of inadmissibility. After he had been denied the visitor visa on three separate occasions over a 12-year period, the applicant sought our counsel to overcome the 212(a)(6)(C)(i) bar and get the visa.

The applicant’s visa problems began after he was denied re-entry by U.S. Customs as a visitor. At the time, he had been attending high school in the United States on a B1/B2 visitor visa. Unique circumstances led him to believe he did not need a student visa as long as he did not overstay his authorized visits.

In his last request for entry, he was specifically asked about the purpose of his visit. He admitted he had been attending high school in the United States and was seeking to complete his studies. The U.S. Customs informed him he needed a student visa and could not attend school during a B1/B2 visit. Although he was allowed to withdraw his application for admission, his visa was cancelled.

Three years later, the applicant sought a visitor visa for temporary recreational stays in the United States. The U.S. Embassy denied his first two requests under INA 214(b), i.e. failure to overcome the presumption of immigrant intent to be eligible for a visitor visa.

Ten years later, the applicant sought the visitor visa again. After placing the case in administrative processing, the U.S. Embassy issued a visa refusal notice under INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i)(fraud or willful misrepresentation of material fact to obtain a U.S. immigration benefit).

The factual basis for the section 212(a)(6)(C)(i) charge was not specified. But it was reasonable to assume it stemmed from his attending high school in the U.S. while in B1/B2 visitor status.

When a person engages in conduct that is inconsistent with the terms and conditions of his visa (especially within 90 days of his admission), the U.S. consular officer may presume he willfully misrepresented the true purpose of the visit. The applicant then has to rebut the presumption of misrepresentation.

In this case, the applicant violated the terms of his visitor visa by attending school. But, at the time, he was a minor (under age 18) and relied heavily on his parents to make decisions on his behalf.

The family had been in the United States on another type of visa that allowed school attendance and a longer stay. Based on discussions with the school district, the parents mistakenly assumed their son could continue his studies on a visitor visa, as long as he departed the United States every six months, before the expiration date of each authorized visit.

To deal with the INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) finding, the applicant contacted me for a Skype consultation. I confirmed his ultimate objective was to receive a B1/B2 visa for business trips and recreational visits, including spending time with his U.S. citizen brother.

Prior to entering a representation agreement, we discussed whether to (a) request the U.S. Embassy vacate the INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) finding or (b) apply for a 212(d)(3) waiver of inadmissibility. Given his young age at the time he attended school on the B1/B2 visa and the Record of Sworn Statement reflecting he declared this fact to U.S. Customs in his last request for entry, both options were viable. Ultimately, he chose option (a).

I advised the client on the information and documents to present to show he did not commit fraud or willfully misrepresent the purpose of his visit each time he was admitted to the United States on the B1/B2 visa, and then attended school. Furthermore, I counseled him on how to demonstrate strong ties to his residence abroad to overcome the presumption of immigrant intent under INA 214(b), which is necessary to qualify for the visitor visa itself.

In addition, I wrote a legal memorandum explaining the factual grounds and legal basis for the Motion to Reconsider and Rescind Inadmissibility Finding Under INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) with Request for B1/B2 Visitor Visa. I also prepared the client for what to expect at the visa interview and how to best present his case.

At the B1/B2 visa interview, the U.S. Consulate accepted the legal memorandum and the written testimonies of the applicant and his U.S. citizen brother in support of the Motion to Reconsider. The U.S. consular officer noted the case was complicated and had to be placed in administrative processing.

Three months later, the U.S. Consulate issued the B1/B2 visitor visa and made it valid for 10 years. The section 212(a)(6)(C)(i) bar was lifted, so there was no need for a 212(d)(3) waiver. A “clearance received” annotation was placed on the visa to further indicate his case was resolved.

After three prior failed attempts in which he did not have counsel, the applicant finally received the B1/B2 visa with our representation.

This is a true success story.


Dyan Williams

Founder & Principal Attorney
Dyan Williams Law PLLC
(612) 225-9900


This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each legal case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.


U.S. Embassy Vacates INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) Charge and Issues Immigrant Visa: A True Success Story

After initially refusing our request to vacate the INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) charge against our client, the U.S. Embassy reconsidered its decision and issued the Immigrant Visa. Persistent follow-ups led to the applicant being cleared of the inadmissibility bar and receiving the visa for admission as a permanent resident. No Form I-601 waiver was needed because the Embassy dislodged the INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) finding it made in error.

Two years before attending his Immigrant Visa interview, the applicant had sought a K-1 fiance visa at the U.S. Embassy, based on his then-engagement to a U.S. citizen. At the K-1 visa interview, the U.S. consular officer determined his relationship with the K-1 petitioner was not genuine, but entered into solely for U.S. immigration benefits.

The Embassy returned the approved Form I-129F petition to USCIS for further review and revocation. Instead of issuing a Notice of Intent to Revoke, USCIS issued a termination notice almost 6 months later stating the 4-month validity period on the Form I-129F approval notice had expired, but the U.S. citizen fiance may file a new petition for the applicant. By that point, they had ended their relationship and called off the engagement. No further evidence was submitted to prove the bona fide nature of the relationship.

Prior to the K-1 visa application, our client’s mother had filed a Form I-130 immigrant petition for him. USCIS approved the petition within five months, but he had to wait several years for the priority date to become current so he could apply for an Immigrant Visa.

At his Immigrant Visa Interview, he received a refusal worksheet charging him with INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i), as an applicant who sought to procure a visa by fraud or willful misrepresentation of a material fact. The Embassy noted that in adjudicating his K-1 fiance visa application, the relationship was found to not be credible.

Following the Immigrant Visa refusal due to fraud/willful misrepresentation, a close relative of the applicant contacted me for a consultation. After confirming the relationship with the K-1 petitioner was genuine but just did not work out, I agreed to represent the applicant and his mother (the Form I-130 petitioner).

I explained the applicant had the option to file a Form I-601 waiver application, as instructed by the U.S. Embassy. To get this waiver, he needed to prove to USCIS that his mother would suffer extreme hardships if he were denied admission to the United States. The long processing time and the high evidentiary standards made this a challenging path to take. The I-601 filing fee of $930 was also a factor to consider.

Because the applicant had proof of a bona fide relationship with the K-1 petitioner that was not previously submitted to USCIS or to the U.S. Consulate — and USCIS never revoked the Form I-129F approval but instead issued a termination notice — I counseled the applicant on another option, i.e. file a Motion to Reconsider and Rescind Inadmissibility Finding Under INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) with Request for Immigrant Visa directly with the U.S. Embassy. The applicant and his family decided to go with the Motion instead of the I-601 application.

It took several months for the applicant and his family to gather all the written testimonies and documents I had recommended they provide to support the Motion to Reconsider. With this evidence and my legal memorandum arguing how the INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) charge was made in error, I filed a request with the U.S. Embassy to reconsider the inadmissibility finding and grant the Immigrant Visa.

Upon its first review of our Motion to Reconsider and Rescind Inadmissibility Finding, the Embassy sent a reply within a week, in which it stated the applicant made a material misrepresentation in a prior K-1 visa application and was permanently ineligible to receive a visa. It added it would not accept any further evidence or appeal regarding the visa application and instructed the applicant to file for an I-601 waiver of inadmissibility.

Two weeks later, with the applicant’s consent, I submitted a Request for Supervisory Review to the U.S. Embassy, asking it to confirm whether the Motion to Reconsider was duly reviewed and highlighting the errors in the inadmissibility finding. The Embassy replied it was reviewing my inquiry and there was no guarantee on how long it would take to get a response. It again instructed the applicant to file for an I-601 waiver.

After months of waiting and sending follow-up inquiries, we finally received a response from the U.S. Embassy stating it had completed a supervisory review to reconsider this case and there has been no change to the original officer’s adjudication. It noted the applicant may file for a waiver.

A few weeks later, I filed a Request for Advisory Opinion with the Visa Office (U.S.Department of State’s Office of Legal Affairs in the Directorate of Visa Services). In particular, I asked them to review the legal question regarding whether the U.S. Embassy properly applied INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) when it denied the Immigrant Visa in this case. I provided them with a copy of the Motion to Reconsider, including the legal memorandum and supporting evidence. The Visa Office responded it had followed up on my inquiry and the case was under review.

Several months later, the Visa Office sent an update that the U.S. Embassy provided instructions to the applicant to proceed with his Immigrant Visa application. The Embassy instructed him to submit an updated Form I-864, Affidavit of Support, and financial support documents. It further requested he complete a DNA test to verify the biological relationship with his mother (the Form I-130 petitioner).

After complying with the U.S. Embassy’s instructions, the applicant finally received his Immigrant Visa. He was admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident to join his mother and other close relatives who were eagerly waiting for this reunion.

This is a true success story.


Dyan Williams

Founder & Principal Attorney
Dyan Williams Law PLLC
(612) 225-9900


This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.


U.S. Consulate Lifts INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) Bar and Grants Immigrant Visa: A True Success Story

Within 21 days of receiving our Request for Supervisory Review of Immigrant Visa Refusal and Renewed Motion to Reconsider and Rescind Inadmissibility Finding under INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i), the U.S. Consulate removed the lifetime bar and instructed our client to continue the immigrant visa process. Ultimately, he received his Immigrant Visa after the new police certificate and updated proof of his U.S. citizen petitioner’s U.S. domicile and financial support were provided. Because the U.S. Consulate agreed to lift the fraud charge, no Form I-601, Application for Waiver of Inadmissibility, was required.

Born stateless, the applicant used to hold a refugee travel document that contained a visitor visa when he was a child. After he acquired citizenship in a country where he was not born, the applicant used the new passport to obtain a second visitor visa and traveled to the United States for a temporary recreational stay.

Despite being married to a U.S. citizen, he complied with the terms of his visitor visa and did not overstay the authorized period or apply for a marriage-based green card within the United States. Based on the approved Form I-130 immigrant petition filed by his U.S. citizen wife, he sought to become a permanent resident through an Immigrant Visa application at the U.S. Consulate overseas.

At the initial Immigrant Visa interview, the applicant presented his passport for visa stamping. About two months later, the U.S. Consulate conducted a re-interview in which it asked about the process he used to acquire the citizenship and obtain the passport. He explained the legal channels he used to get both. Nonetheless, the U.S. Consulate charged him with section 212(a)(6)(C)(i)(fraud/willful misrepresentation of material fact to gain a U.S. immigration benefit), upon noting it was unable to verify his acquired citizenship or the authenticity of the passport when it contacted the government authorities.

The U.S. Consulate instructed him to file a Form I-601, Application for Waiver of Inadmissibility, to be excused from the inadmissibility charge. A section 212(a)(6)(C)(i) finding prohibits applicants from receiving an Immigrant Visa without first getting an I-601 approval from USCIS.

Two months after the visa refusal, the applicant contacted me for the first time to discuss his options. In our Skype (video) consultation, I explained that one solution was to file a Form I-601 application, as the U.S. Consulate instructed. To receive the waiver, he would need to prove the extreme hardships his U.S. citizen wife would suffer if he is denied entry to the United States as a permanent resident. I noted there is never any guarantee the waiver will be granted due to the high standard of proof and the discretion involved in the decision-making.

I further pointed out that if he did not commit fraud or willfully misrepresent material facts to gain the prior B1/B2 visitor visa, the Immigrant Visa, or any other U.S. immigration benefit, he could file a Motion to Reconsider and Rescind Inadmissibility Finding with the U.S. Consulate. If such a motion is granted and the section 212(a)(6)(C)(i) bar is lifted, the I-601 waiver is not required for the visa to be issued.

The client opted to go with the request to reconsider the inadmissibility charge. After we entered into a representation agreement, I counseled him on the information and documents he needed to present to show he did not engage in fraud or willfully misrepresent material facts to receive any U.S. immigration benefit.

To support the Motion to Reconsider, I prepared a legal memorandum describing how the applicant used proper channels to obtain the passport and why the submission of this passport to the U.S. Consulate was actually immaterial to his eligibility for the Immigrant Visa, as well as the prior visitor visas he received.

Five days after receiving the Motion to Reconsider, the U.S. Consulate issued a response stating the section 212(a)(6)(C)(i) bar would remain and the applicant needed to file for an I-601 waiver. The Consulate noted the applicant had no concrete evidence to support his explanation on how he acquired the citizenship. The Consulate added that during its checks with the government authorities, it was determined beyond reasonable doubt the applicant misrepresented his case and deliberately provided false information and documents to receive an immigration benefit. They added he did not rescind his false statements when given the opportunity to do so.

In the Request for Supervisory Review and Renewed Motion to Reconsider and Rescind Inadmissibility Finding, I stressed the important points the U.S. Consulate missed when it issued the response affirming the section 212(a)(6)(C)(i) charge.

In reply to this Request and Renewed Motion, the U.S. Consulate sent a response 21 days later stating the section 212(a)(6)(C)(i) charge had been lifted. Five months later — following the completion of administrative processing — my client received the Immigrant Visa to join his wife in the United States, without needing to file for and obtain an I-601 waiver.

This is a true success story.


Dyan Williams

Founder & Principal Attorney
Dyan Williams Law PLLC
(612) 225-9900


This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.


Finding Your Rhythm: When to Do What – Step 2 (Match Your Chronotype with the Task and Time of Day)

Doing the right kind of task at the right time of day is key to peak performance. At any given hour, your circadian rhythm affects your concentration, energy and mood level. Is your focus sharp or scattered? Are you alert or tired? Do you feel up or down? Your internal body clock largely affects how much sleep you need, your ideal wake up time and bedtime, and your mental acuity and emotional state throughout the day.

In his book, The Power of When, Dr. Michael Breus notes that your sleep chronotype affects the secretion of hormones, which are crucial for specific activities. Cortisol makes you more alert while melatonin makes you sleepy.

Dr. Breus distinguishes the sleep chronotypes into four categories: Lion (morning type), Wolf (nighttime type), Bear (middle of the road type) and Dolphin (difficult sleeper with often erratic sleep schedules). Meanwhile, in his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Daniel Pink uses the more familiar-sounding chronotype categories: Early-riser Lark; late-night Owl, and in-between Third Bird.

You achieve peak performance when you know your chronotype and match it with the task at hand and the time of day. In the related article, Finding Your Rhythm: When to Do What – Step 1, you can read more information on the different chronotypes and how to discover yours.

Three Categories of Tasks

Once you have determined your chronotype, your next step is to organize your tasks into categories. As described in Pink’s book, there are three:

Analytic Tasks

Analytic tasks involve heads-down work that demands high focus, mental sharpness and vigilance. Examples include learning and processing new information, doing legal research, analyzing documents and records, writing a legal brief, solving a difficult problem, making an important decision, actively participating in a strategic meeting, and presenting at a trial or hearing.

Insight Tasks

Insight tasks involve creative work that requires a wider focus, curiosity, imagination, and a good mood. Examples include outlining an article, brainstorming solutions, tackling novel problems with new ideas, asking better questions, and holding meetings to build relationships and rapport.

Administrative Tasks

Administrative tasks involve busy work or routine work that is fairly easy to complete and do not need a lot of brain power or heavy lifting. Examples are processing emails, making and returning telephone calls, responding to inquiries, updating case notes and progress reports, entering expenses, scheduling meetings, tidying up, and organizing files. Generally, these tasks can be automated, delegated or deferred with minor consequences.

Three Stages of the Day

On any given day, there are three stages where our energy peaks, dips and recovers. They are Peak-Trough-Recovery. Larks and Third Birds (most of us) experience our Peak in the morning, our Trough in the early-to mid-afternoon, and our Recovery in the early evening. Night Owls, however, experience a reverse pattern, i.e. Recovery in the morning, Trough in the early-to-mid-afternoon, and Peak in the late afternoon and into the evening.

When to Do What

For peak performance, you need to align your chronotype, task and time of day. The table below summarizes the best times of the time day to perform certain tasks, based on your chronotype:

Use your peak period to focus on deep, important work and analytic, cognitively-demanding tasks. When you’re in your recovery period, switch to insight, creativity-driven tasks. Avoid administrative work, like processing emails, and time-wasters like reading online news, at peak hours or recovery stages of the day.

How to Protect Peak Hours

Each day, you need to leverage your peak hours by reserving them for analytic, focused work or insight, creative-thinking work. There are two main things you can do protect your peak hours.

1. Prioritize your most important task (even when it’s not urgent) through time blocking. This involves setting an appointment (with yourself) to do a single, high-cognitive demand task or a batch or stack of similar, low-cognitive demand tasks in a specific time block.

A priority doesn’t always have to be handled first thing in the morning or at at the start of the work day. Just make sure you set an appropriate time to take care of it. Be sure to match the task with your energy level, personal circumstances, and external environment.

For example, do your deep work when your mental clarity and attention span are at its peak, you have the fewest interruptions, and you have access to a quiet workspace (or can at least choose your background noise).  Do your administrative tasks when your energy is low (e.g. afternoon or after lunch), you are more distraction-prone, and your workspace is noisier and more chaotic. 

High-cognitive tasks

In a time block, focus on a single high-cognitive task, like writing a legal brief. Refrain from multitasking — such as handling questions from your paralegal or responding to emails from clients — during this time block. To encourage focus, you can theme your days or theme the hour.

Theming your day could look like this: Monday – client communications; Tuesday – client work and assignments; Wednesday – internal meetings; Thursday – client work and assignments; Friday – brainstorming or solo thinking session.

Theming your hour could include: 9 to 10 am: client communications; 10 to 12 pm: client work and assignments (e.g. writing a legal brief); 1 to 2 pm: internal meetings; 3 to 4 pm: client work and assignments (e.g. editing a legal brief); 4:30 to 5:30 pm: brainstorming or solo thinking session.

Focusing on just one task is important because the human brain is a sequential processor: It cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Multitasking is not possible when (1) at least one of the tasks requires focus or effort to complete, and (2) the tasks involve similar types of brain processing. Performing two or more tasks at one time can only be done by “switch tasking” (switch back and forth between two or more tasks). This leaves a cognitive residue that takes about 15 to 25 minutes to clear up so you can refocus on the initial task.

Low-cognitive tasks

When it comes to similar, low-level tasks that do not require much mental focus, you can use batch processing. This means performing then sequentially and quickly after each other in one time block. For example, you can return all your telephone calls or respond to email inquiries in one time block.

For routine or habitual, low-level tasks, you can use stacking. This means performing one task while the other operates in the background. Examples include walking with a colleague while you discuss a work issue during your lunch break; listening to an educational podcast while you commute to work; or playing classical music or ambient sounds of a cafe (like on Coffitivity or Hipstersound) while you update your case notes. Stacking is a great way to boost your mood when you’re dealing with mundane work. (SIDE NOTE: Stacking can also work very well with insight work.)

2. Schedule and take real breaks that allow you to fully detach from your work. Breaks may be solo (e.g. meditation, reading a calming book) or social (e.g. chatting with a colleague about the upcoming weekend; having lunch with a good friend). Getting outside is better than staying inside. Movement (e.g. walking, stretching, going to the gym) is also preferred to being stationary, especially if you have been working at your desk for hours.

In chronobiology, our ultradian rhythm is the wake-rest-activity cycle that repeats throughout a 24-hour day. This involves alternating periods of high-frequency brain activity (roughly 90 minutes) followed by lower-frequency brain activity (approximately 20 minutes). Take a 20-minute break for every 90 minutes of work to take advantage of the daily ultradian rhythm cycle.

The Pomodoro Technique is one way to concentrate on a task for a set period and take necessary breaks. First, you identify the task to do. Second, you set a timer (typically 25 minutes).  Third, you work on the task only until the timer goes off.  After the timer rings, you check off your task. And if you give in to interruptions and distractions (e.g. checking emails, getting a snack), you reset the timer. 

If you have fewer than four check marks, take a short break (5 minutes), then go to step 2. If you have at least four check marks, take a longer break (20 to 30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, and do the steps all over again. 

Another way to take a good break is to have a Nappuccino or Nap a Latte, when you’re in the Trough. The steps are (a) Close your door, turn off your phone, and wear eye mask and ear plugs to help block light and sound; (b) Drink a cup of coffee or tea (100 to 110 mg of caffeine); (c) Nap for 10 to 20 minutes (set timer for 25 minutes).

Caffeine takes about 25 minutes to kick into the receptor sites of your brain, so by the time you wake up from your nap, you will not only feel refreshed but also energized. Be sure to wake up within 25 minutes because you want to avoid getting into deeper stages of sleep – unless you go for a full 90-minute sleep cycle.

Naps, however, are not ideal for everyone or for all chronotypes. If you suffer from insomnia or have trouble sleeping at night, you could make the problem worse with daytime naps.

How to Maximize Peak Hours

Maximizing your peak hours involves practicing habits that will help raise and sustain your energy levels. They include:

1. Limit your to-do list. Set boundaries and clarify expectations to reduce the interruptions and distractions. For example, inform your clients at the outset as to when they may expect to hear back from you in response to an inquiry. Is it within an hour, within 24 hours, or by end of business day? Do not give them your cell phone number if you do not want to be contacted whenever and however they please. If your boss or manager assigns you more work while you’re focusing on a major project, remind them of timelines and deadlines and discuss what actually takes priority.

2. Keep a consistent sleep schedule that aligns with your circadian rhythm. Dr. Breus notes that having the same wake up time and bedtime every day, including on weekends, is the single most important thing you can do for your circadian rhythm.

Here is his Bedtime Sleep Calculator to maximize sleep quality:

a. The average sleep cycle is 90 minutes long.

For Lions and Bears, a typical night of sleep includes 5 full sleep cycles, i.e. 90 x 5 = 450 minutes, or 7.5 hours. Dolphins and Wolves tend to get 4 full sleep cycles, i.e. 90 x 4 = 360 minutes, or 6 hours. Add an extra 20 minutes for Lions and Bears, and 40 minutes for Dolphins and Wolves to fall asleep.

b. Starting at your wake time, work back 7.5 hours to find your bedtime.

Ideal bedtime for Lions and Bears is calculated as follows:

90 minute sleep cycle x 5 cycles + 20 minutes to fall asleep = 470 minutes or 7.8 hours

Lions: up at 6:00 am – 470 minutes = 10:10 pm

Bears: up at 7:00 am – 470 minutes = 11:10 pm

Ideal bedtime for Wolves and Dolphins is calculated as follows:

90 minute sleep cycle x 4 cycles + 40 minutes to fall asleep = 400 minutes or 6.7 hours

Wolves: up at 7:00am – 400 minutes = 12:00 am

Dolphins: up at 6:30am – 400 minutes = 11:50 pm

3. Practice an energizing morning routine

Design a morning routine that works with your personal preferences and internal rhythm. Key ingredients you may incorporate into your morning rituals are:

Hydrate with water. When you wake up, drink 8 to 12 ounces of room temperature or lukewarm water.

Soak in bright light early in the morning, within first half hour of waking up. This lowers your melatonin level and provides vitamin D, which helps you sleep at night. Go outside and walk around the block or sit by a window to get direct sunlight in your face. Aim for at least 5 to 15 minutes and preferably 20 to 30 minute of sun exposure.

If you wake before sunrise or live in a place where there is little sunlight in certain seasons of the year, try using a bright light therapy lamp.

Have a high-protein rich and good-fats breakfast, such as a fruit smoothie, Greek yogurt, protein shake, or eggs/omelet with avocado.  Avoid carbohydrate-rich foods, which help produce serotonin and make you drowsy.

Get moving. Stretch, walk, run, dance, jump on the trampoline, or do a quick workout to wake up your body and boost your mental energy.

Take a cool shower. This stimulates blood flow, releases endorphins and triggers wakefulness. You could start with warm water and gradually turn down the water temperature. Still too much? Wash your face with cold water for similar effects.

4. Stick to a relaxing bedtime routine

Create a bedtime routine that allows you to wind down, relax and prime your mind and body for sleep. Key tips for nighttime rituals include:

Do not drink alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime. One alcohol beverage takes 1 hour to process, so give your body time to process it well before your bedtime. While alcohol might help you fall asleep more quickly, it prevents you from moving into deep sleep and reduces Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which are stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle.

Fast for at least 3 hours before bed, and preferably 4. Food tells your circadian rhythm to wake up and be alert. Have space between dinner and your bedtime for optimal functioning.

Practice relaxation methods, including meditation, gentle/restorative yoga, tai chi, stretching, or foam rolling (self massage).

Do light reading (few pages) or journaling (up to 2 to 5 minutes), but not on your computer or other electronic devices. Avoid blue light from screens at least 1 hour before bedtime because it hinders production of melatonin, the hormone needed for good sleep.

Get warm. Drink warm bedtime tea or water with lemon + honey. Take a lukewarm shower or bath, preferably 60 to 90 minutes before bedtime .

These self-care habits will help boost your energy levels, heighten alertness, and improve your mood. Peak performance results when you match your chronotype with the task and time of day and synch with your natural rhythm.

* * *

For more information on the different chronotypes and how to determine yours, read the related article,  Finding Your Rhythm: When to Do What – Step 1 (Know Your Chronotype)


This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance.