According to a professional organizer based in New York City, the average person loses at least one hour per day because of disorganization. This includes things like searching for an electronic or paper document, or redoing a pleading because an outdated template was used. Disorganization can be particularly damaging to attorneys, who need to utilize their time efficiently in order to maintain their practice. Remember that it can be easy to organize your office, but the importance lies in maintaining the system longterm. Create a system that works for you and stick with it. Below are several helpful tips for establishing and maintaining an organized office:
1. Create an organized and comfortable workspace. Think about how much time is spent at your desk each day. Creating an organized and comfortable workspace is essential to maximizing your efficiency and productivity. First, declutter the space. Second, determine a layout and storage system that works for you. Think about what tasks you do on a regular basis and what tools you need to accomplish those tasks. Then organize your desk and office so those tools are easy to find. Consider things like placement of your desk chair, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and phone in a way that does not cause pain or stress on your body. Keep frequently used office supplies, such as pens and legal pads, within arm’s reach. If you keep papers and files on your desk or in your office, obtain proper storage so they’re not stacked in piles on your desk, floor, or shelf. Options for storage include file sorters to organize files or documents by level of priority, a physical inbox and outbox for “incoming/to-do” and “outgoing/done” documents, and a compartmentalized drawer for supplies. Also have your scanner and “trash cans” (e.g. Shredding bin, recycling bin, and trash can) nearby so you aren’t tempted to place a document on your desk after it’s already been addressed. Then remember to leave blank space on your desk for non-computer work, such as reading documents or signing paperwork. Use consistent naming conventions for file folders and documents. Many offices now have a combination of paper and paperless client files. The key to organization is to first determine what will be kept in paper form and what will be kept in electronic form. Then keep the names concise and consistent among paper and electronic file folders and documents. A file folder may contain the client’s name and possibly additional information to identify the type of case, such as "Smith, John-Dissolution". You may also want to consider color-coding client files by practice area if you practice in multiple areas of law. The electronic file system should then mimic the paper system. This includes creation of subfolders as well, such as pleadings, correspondence, and discovery. Then create a consistent naming convention for documents within the file folder. A common naming system for documents includes the date, document type, and additional descriptive information. For example: 20171117 Ltr to Smith, John re settlement offer.
2. Keep your client files separate from templates. Most of us utilize various templates to be used for letters, pleadings, and other types of communication rather than recreating the wheel each time. Avoid the temptation to "save as" from a previous client’s file by keeping blank templates in a separate location. This can prevent potential confidentiality breaches if you forget to remove another client’s information while using it as a sample. Having all templates in one location is also beneficial if you need to make an update, such as your contact information or a new court rule.
3. Choose and maintain a consistent email organization system. Whether you maintain emails in paper or electronic form, choose a system that works for you and stick with it. The frequency and volume of emails we now face each day can be overwhelming, so it’s important to be diligent about maintaining your system and not allow yourself to fall behind. There are various ways to approach email preservation as part of the client file. Begin by creating subfolders within your email inbox for each client matter. If you have an occasional email pursuant to a client file, address it and then move it to the subfolder immediately. If you find yourself caught in long email threads, you may want to wait until the thread is complete before moving it to the subfolder. Then regularly set aside time to transfer those emails from your email inbox to the client file. See a recent article from the OSB Bulletin written by general counsel Amber Hollister for additional information about the ethics of maintaining emails as part of the client file.
4. Calendar a recurring date for reassessing your office. Depending on your preferences, calendar a recurring date to reassess your office, maintain the organization system already in place, or make improvements as necessary. While it’s ideal that you maintain the organization ongoing, it’s likely that some things may pile up and need to be cleaned periodically. Set a date, preferably weekly, such as Friday afternoon so you can start fresh on Monday morning, to clean up your desk and office and be ready for the next week.
Not everyone has the same needs for creating an organized workspace. Take the time to determine your needs and preferences, then create a system that works for you. You will be much more likely to maintain a system if it actually provides you with a benefit, rather than copying a system that you heard may be helpful. The key is to stick with the system you create so you don’t end up right back where you started.
- Setting Up an Effective Filing System, PLF Practice Aid
- Order in the Office: Why Organization is Essential to the Legal Profession, Oregon State Bar Bulletin, April 2009
- Email Missteps: Documenting Email as Part of a Client’s File, Part I and Part II, Oregon State Bar Bulletin, April and May 2013