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How Obsessive Organization Can Make or Break Your Legal Career

published November 24, 2016

( 6 votes, average: 3.6 out of 5)
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Maybe you’re a naturally organized person. But the number of books on the market about getting organized suggests that you’re probably more like me. I’ve got a bunch of those books, and as soon as I can lay my hands on them in my office I’m going to get organized. I know they’re in here somewhere.
The fact is, life is a lot easier for you if you get organized and stay organized. This came home to me a couple of years ago, when I was planning a trip to San Francisco and the Napa Valley. I was chatting with our neighbor and when I mentioned our trip, she said, ‘Oh, come into the house. I’m sure I have an article about the wine country.’ I followed her into her den, where she opened a file cabinet that was meticulously organized. She flipped straight to “Travel” and under that topic, “Wine Country.” She pulled out the article and handed it to me. The whole exercise took her about ten seconds. I was dumbfounded. Heck, if you asked me to borrow a book, it’d take me hours to find it. Even for a book I wrote. She saw the look on my face, and said, “I always say: if you can’t find it, you might as well not have it.” And by gum, she’s right. Here, we’ll talk about everything you need to know to get organized—and why you should be that way!

1. Six great reasons to make your office hum like a well-oiled machine
As a lawyer, you’ve got a lot more riding on your organizational skills than your vacations. There are six excellent reasons to take the time to get organized right now.
a. You'll save tons of time.
If you have to spend even a few minutes looking for a document or a phone number, the time quickly adds up. You can’t bill your ‘searching’ time to anybody. Over the space of a year, you’ll spend hours and hours at work that you could be spending having fun. If that’s not motivation enough to get organized, I don’t know what is!
b. You’ll protect your ideas and your work product
Sometimes you hear about unscrupulous people who will try to hock your work and claim it as their own. I hope it never happens to you. But the fact is, you can’t just whine ‘But I did that’ without backup (actually, you can’t whine at all). If you keep meticulous records of what you do, you’ll always be able to protect your work. In your time sheets, be detailed in your descriptions of your work. Keep accurate records of who you talk to and the issues you cover. Keep case logs. (And incidentally, when a more senior associate tries to swipe credit for your work, one associate recommends that you “Go to the partner in charge of the project and say casually, ‘I hope my work on that issue was helpful.’ It’s sneaky, but it works.”)
c. You'll cover your a**—I mean, butt
Keeping accurate records of what you’ve done, what you’re being asked to do, and what you’re doing, will reap rewards in a ton of situations.
For instance, when you receive a research assignment, if you take accurate notes and show them to the assigning attorney, and you keep those notes where you can put your hands on them quickly, you can’t ever be accused of getting the facts wrong because you missed something. You’ve got written proof of what you were told.
If you keep accurate records of the work you do for every client, you’ve got insulation from bar complaints and malpractice suits because you can prove your level of diligence. A lawyer at one firm told me about a group of doctors his firm represented in a medical malpractice case. He said, “There’s an old saying that your client can become your worst enemy. When these doctors lost the case, they went to another law firm, looking to see if they could sue us for malpractice. We always keep meticulous records. When the firm they hired investigated us, they asked for all of our records in the case. They went back to the doctors and said, ‘You have no case. They did everything we would have done.’ If we didn’t have careful records of our work and our conversations with these doctors and very complete correspondence, we could have had a nasty situation on our hands, regardless of how good our work was.” Paper the world. It’s the only way to protect yourself!
As a junior associate at a large Southern firm: "I was once asked to review a huge bulk of documents for incidents in which our client's products had caused injuries. After producing a ton of documents to the partner, he returned a huge portion of the documents to me, telling me that I had 'over-produced' them and they were irrelevant. Fast forward three months, when the partner came raging into my office screaming that I was going to get him fired, that I was incompetent in not producing documents properly, that he was facing sanctions for not disclosing all relevant incidents of injury.
In what was a wonderful stroke of luck, I opened my file cabinet in his presence, pulled out a stack of the 'unproduced' documents that he had returned to me, along with a nice clear memo to file that read, 'Attached to this memo are the documents I presented to [partner], but which he thought were irrelevant to the production and returned to me.' I have never seen this man eat crow like he did at that moment. What a great feeling! I hadn't made a habit of writing 'memos to file' until then, but I do it constantly now. They're easily dictated or even scribbled on a sticky pad, and I use them for everything from deadlines to project details."
Assistant District Attorney. She works in a team with other prosecutors. One of her co-workers calls in sick, asking her to cover his calendar. "Can you write it out for me?" he asks. He tells her where his plea sheet is, stating what every plea should be. Their mutual supervisor comes to her subsequently, and says, 'Why did you ask for this plea? You should have asked for 150 days, not 50 days.' She says, 'He told me to do it.' The supervisor responds, 'I talked to him, and he said that's not the plea he asked you for.' She goes to her file cabinet and pulls out the plea sheet the guy had given her, in which he'd stated the pleas he wanted. Instead of throwing it out, she'd hung onto it. There, plain as day, is a plea request of 50 days, signed by the guy who'd called in sick.
d. You’ll protect your reputation.
As a new lawyer, visual perceptions count! “If your office looks like a mess, you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Later on, when you are more established, you have more leeway, but in the beginning, your office has to look controlled.” One lawyer adds that “No law firm wants its clients seeing crap all over the floor. Make piles if you’re that messy, so at least your desk looks cleaned up. At worst, hide stuff under your desk so it’s not visible from the doorway.”
Some people pointed out to me that some lawyers think if their office is messy, it implies that they’re so busy and preoccupied with more important things that they have no time for “trifles” like tidying up. One lawyer commented that “You’ll see offices that look like a Force-5 hurricane, with piles upon piles of loose papers, file folders, note-laden legal pads and miscellaneous office supplies on every surface.” The problem is, all you need is one incident of losing a document in the turmoil for you to be cured of this perception. If you ever want to commit suicide, just misfile or lose an important memo or copy of a judgment. Your death may be quick and painless, or it might come screaming out of the senior partner’s office, but if you really lose something, you will have all the life expectancy of a gnat in a blast furnace. Bottom line: Learn the system and make backup copies of everything.
Junior associate at a large West Coast firm: "There is a partner here who is known for having an office that looks like an explosion in a paper factory. He recently received a frantic call from a client saying, 'I lost the original of that agreement I just signed with X. I don't want to renegotiate the agreement with that son-of-a-bitch. Can you send me another copy of it as soon as possible?' The client knew that the firm had a copy of the agreement. The partner, claiming he could not locate the agreement in his office or files, sent out urgent voice mail and e-mail messages to other lawyers involved in the matter asking them to search high and low for a copy of the agreement. After a couple of days searching without success, the client was so desperate to retrieve the document that he offered to pay the firm to get a paralegal to spend full-time looking through our offices for the document until it was found, and this partner forwarded this request to the rest of us by e-mail on a Sunday when I happened to be at work. To satisfy a hunch I had—namely, that this partner was the most likely person to have the agreement because he was the one who was working on it—I went into his office to dig through the debris hunting for the agreement. I found it within ten minutes—on his desk! Needless to say, while the client was relieved, the partner was highly embarrassed that he had wasted a lot of his colleagues' time searching for something that had been less than two feet from him the entire time."
e. You’ll be able to go into evaluations armed and ready.
If you keep complete records of all of your work, any written comments you’ve received on your work, and any verbal compliments that you’ve jotted down, you’ll be able to go into annual or semi-annual reviews being able to defend yourself against any unfair characterizations of what you’ve done.
f. Being organized will help you get another job, if and when you want one.
If you keep a copy of all of your work, and a form file of your own, you’re setting yourself up for the rest of your career. You’ll be able to refresh your memory for what you’ve done if you can look through a file of your written work, and you’ll be able to go into more detail on your resume about the types of experience you’ve had (which will make your experience look more substantial). And if you keep your own ‘form file,’ that is, copies of the types of documents you work on the most, you’ll save tons of time when you revisit those kinds of projects whether at this employer or anywhere else.
2. What To Do To Get And Stay Organized: A Stupendous All-Around Organizational System
One of the great things about researching an article like this is that people just overwhelm you with the quality of their suggestions. I asked everybody I talked to about their organizing tips, and the most incredible advice I got was from a lawyer in Florida, who called what you’re about to see the “fundamental rules of organization.” I think if you follow this program, you can’t possibly go wrong. As this lawyer pointed out, “Organization can make or break your experience as an associate because you are responsible for huge amounts of paper and data. If you handle it well, you earn a reputation within the firm and with clients for efficiency and thoroughness. If you handle it poorly, you will likely work longer hours and enjoy the work less.” I can’t imagine anyone being anything other than awed by this system. Here it is:
a. Take advantage of CC/BCC

Anything that comes in (or goes out) by hard copy, fax, or e-mail is immediately cc’d to the appropriate client file so that you can find things later when the dust settles (be sure to include in such copies all attachments and backups). I BCC every e-mail to my secretary so she can print every message and attachment for the file.
b. Know what meetings you have coming up.

I make heavy use of Microsoft Outlook to schedule meetings (every meeting has an automatic alarm to remind me to be there), maintain my Rolodex (that way addressing letters in Word or e-mail messages in Outlook is quicker through linking to my Rolodex) and maintain my task list. 1 reformatted the Outlook task list to be three columns: (i) for priority listing (1 for highest, must be done today, 2 for perhaps today, and 3 and 4 for even further back on the burner), (ii) client name and client code, and (iii) comments to remind me about the tasks. I review and revise the priorities every day, print priorities 1 and 2 each day, and keep them on my desk. It’s handy to keep track of what I am doing, shows the work allocators how heavy my plate is, and makes an easy place to hand write the notes of the day such as telephone calls to return.
c. Use a filing system for your important documents.

I set up a sidewise filing cabinet next to my desk and keep active matters in drop files in alphabetical order to be handy when clients call.
d. BCC Yourself before you wreck yourself.

When communicating by electronic mail I always bcc myself and store a copy of the message in an Outlook electronic file folder for the particular client (this saves time when trying to find messages and documents).
e. Take advantage of technology.

When communicating documents within the office I always use e-mail because people get it more quickly and may not need to print out the document if review onscreen is available.
f. Use your cellphone as a business tool.

On my cell phone, I synchronize my calendar, contacts, and documents to my desktop. I can carry all this information with me to meetings.
g. Utilize your office's document management program.

I use our document management program to create lists of the most important documents by client so I can quickly access the principal agreements and the fax cover sheet for clients (as opposed to searching and searching for the key documents). I use the same technology to keep copies of form documents handy.
h. Use the Internet to your benefit.

I am a heavy Internet user and am constantly obtaining government documents and information electronically. It is usually far faster and more accurate than photocopying from paper sources, particularly as I can cut and paste needed text into memoranda and other documents. I bookmark Internet sites by topic (federal government, state government, particular topics).
i. Keep binders.

When managing a complex transaction with many documents, I create 3-ring binders to hold current drafts, disclosure schedules, and others.
j. Answer messages as they come in.

Whenever possible, I try to answer voicemails, e-mails, or letters immediately upon receipt so that no time is wasted reading, putting in a to-do pile, and then re-reading later.
3. Everything else you need to know about getting organized
Here are other ideas I heard from other people about getting your act together at work!
a. Get with your secretary and/or office manager to learn the ropes at your office.
If there’s a particular way that your office likes to keep track of matters and organize files, then by all means, use that system! You’ll make it easier on yourself and everyone you work with if you all follow the same routine. Your secretary is a great resource for this; (s)he’ll know exactly what the office routines are.
b. Keeping Track Of Your Work
The most important tracking function of all—your billables—is something you need to track constantly. Other than billables, here’s what you need to know:
1) Remember that other people may need to use your files, so make them readily accessible with that in mind.
Whether you are working on a corporate deal or a litigation matter, whether you’re a private practitioner or a prosecutor, other people may need access to your work, and you have to organize your projects with that thought in mind. As In a law firm, your boss will assume you’ll have a file. You never know when (s)he’ll come into your office looking for something, whether or not you’re there. It’s kind of like the rule your mom always taught you, about wearing clean underwear just in case you get into an accident. “You don’t want the people at the hospital seeing you wearing dirty underwear.
Put all documents in clearly labeled folders, with client and matter numbers, or neat piles so that others can locate them in your absence. Also remember that all attorneys working on a case or deal have access to all files, so be mindful of what you keep in your ‘office’ files!
If you are a litigator, keep a legal pad as a case log for every case, so that anyone who has to take over your case will know what you’ve done. On the right-hand side of each page, keep a history of any court documents. On the left-hand side, keep a detailed log of everything you do on the case: every meeting, phone call, what you were told, who you talked to, and summarize comments. If you’re ever sued for malpractice, this case log can be vital because it shows your standard of care.
2) Create a form file of your own.
Develop a loose-leaf folder as a ‘form file’ of your own.” In it, you want to keep documents that you often use or duplicate, like pleadings, leases, agreements—anything. It’ll be an excellent reference tool and save you tons of time hunting around for a model from which to work. Not only that, it’s yours, so you can take it with you if and when you change jobs.
3) Keep track of phone calls and conversations with a “memo to file.”
Write a memo to file after every phone call or conversation in which substantive issues are discussed. Sometimes the most important memoranda are not those sent to anyone, but those kept in a file! Litigation attorneys taught me this mantra: ‘memorandum to file’ after every phone call or conversation. After a phone call in which substantive issues are discussed, prepare a memo while your memory is still fresh. Weeks later, you won’t remember exactly who said what without being able to refer to your notes.
4) Record any time your supervisor rejects your stance on a matter.
Your supervisor has a lot more experience than you do, and you can learn a lot from them. But sometimes things go wrong, and when they do, you don’t want any finger-pointing to result in your lynching. To avoid this, keep track of such differences with a memo to file. The fact that you wrote the memo contemporaneously will prove that you weren’t subsequently making up an excuse to save your neck.
5) Have a “to-do” list every day.
Come up with a daily to-do list, either at night before you leave work or in the morning before you get started. Your to-do list might take the form of a “file, in which you keep nothing but your to-do list. That is, cases and projects on which you are working, possibly including relevant time frames and deadlines (deadlines should also be ‘diaried’ in a calendar/appointment book which is checked daily). This file should not include the actual paperwork, but just a list that should be updated weekly. Also, your supervising attorney may appreciate you keeping this list so that the two of you can readily discuss your workload at any given time. It may also help you handle those situations in which the partner is ready to give you more work and you need to demonstrate that you are already truly overloaded!”
6) Consider carrying around a small notebook.
I have a number of friends who swear by the 6" x W notebooks they constantly carry, and I use this system myself (along with a DayTimer). It’s a great way to gather together in one place everything you want to keep track of: assignments you get, conversations, meetings, deadlines, promises, names, and phone numbers. You have everything in chronological order, and you just start each day on a new page with the date at the top. If you also want to keep certain things in files— like notes to meetings for a particular client—you can always copy the relevant page of your notebook and pop it into the file.
7) Keep a calendar. Duh!
You were going to keep a calendar even if I didn’t mention it. But Stephanie Redfearn has two tips about your calendar that you might have overlooked. First, she suggests that you “Keep a calendar that gives you detailed lead times. ‘For April 20th, reminder—discovery response due on April 25th.’” Second, she advises that you “Make sure that all of the dates on your calendar are on at least one other person’s calendar, so you can be reminded of things.” Also, if you keep your calendar in a Palm Pilot or in a DayTimer, and you lose it—God forbid—that other person will be able to bail you out.
8) Files you need to keep.
Here is a rundown on the files you ought to keep:
a) Every matter requires a chronological file, which is a master file containing the following types of information: a reverse chronological filing of pertinent letters, memoranda, notes, and the like (some lawyers keep incoming and outgoing chrons separately);
b) Subject matter files (“SS 751 research,” “New Brunswick timber values,” “debenture agreements,” and the like);
c) Pleadings files, if you are a litigator (the file should include every piece of paper that is formally filed, none that are not formally filed, in reverse chronological order with each document numbered, tabbed and indexed); and
d) A detailed, accessible index of all files. He suggests that “Even if official ‘firm’ or ‘case’ files exist, keep your own backup of appropriate materials that you can readily retrieve.”
e) Take care of paperwork every night.
Take a few minutes before you go home at night to sort through the mess and put things in their appropriate files, even if you’re going to leave the folders on your desk. If you do this on a daily basis you’ll tackle the paper monster, and when you come in in the morning, you’ll be in a better frame of mind to tackle things if your desk doesn’t look like a bomb hit it.
c. Keeping track of people
As a lawyer, you’ll meet tons and tons of people, both at work and at outside events. Use a Rolodex or Palm Pilot to record phone, fax, mail and e-mail information on every person you think you might have to contact again. You should also keep notes of anything relevant you learn about them—names of spouses and children, hobbies, notable achievements, and the like. In addition, Greenberg Traurig’s Sharon Abrahams says that when you collect business cards, “you should catalog them alphabetically and by urgency, and also by contact (whether it’s a referral, a future colleague, and so on).”
d. Organizational tips for prosecutors.
As a new prosecutor, you’ll find yourself dealing with a ton of different cases and different kinds of cases, right off the bat. Texas Tech’s Kay Fletcher—a former prosecutor herself—advises that “You need to be very regimented from the very start. If you miss deadlines, it’s in the newspaper and you’re embarrassed.” Prosecutors I spoke to offered these general organizational tips:
1) Remember that several prosecutors will often work on the same file. Make notes of every conversation concerning the case and keep those notes in the file. “That way, if any defense attorney is tempted to lie about a plea bargain that was offered or about representations that were made to the judge, the file provides evidence of what you really said,” said one prosecutor.
2) Make sure every file has relevant phone numbers written on the inside of the folder. “You don’t want to have to hunt around for a phone number when you open a file. You need it to be right there”
3) Make up “cheat sheets”; that is, little cards or slips of paper showing the potential penalties for all of the crimes you prosecute. For instance, you might handle motor vehicle violations and drug cases. You’d want your “cheat sheets” to show the fines and jail time for each of these crimes, and whether or not the jail sentences are consecutive or concurrent. “That way, you have a quick reference when you’re in court or dealing with defense attorneys.”

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