Organization for lawyers can be tough—especially in such high-stress, high-performing environments. If you’ve lost your desk under a chaotic pile of papers, or if you often find yourself spending too much time searching for client files, read this post for some valuable suggestions on how to get organized as a legal professional. And if you find yourself inadvertently missing billable hours on invoices because you’re not regularly tracking time, fret not. We’re here to help you get on the path to organization—an essential skill that can lead to improved mental health and the long-term success of your practice.
How can lawyers get organized?
Getting organized is not a one and done task. It is a continual routine that requires practice and works best when broken down into various manageable parts. The goal is to take control of your very valuable time and workspace so you are more efficient and better prepared for the unexpected. Getting organized also benefits others in your firm and, most importantly, your clients. No matter how competent you are, a cluttered, disorganized space may negatively affect how you practice law.
How to get your legal practice organized
Clear your mind
Although organization for lawyers may be overwhelming, starting with a clear mind can help you better focus on your top priorities. According to science, it is unlikely for anyone to have a truly photographic memory. This means memory is categorically unreliable. You can’t get organized based on memory any more than you can build a case upon it. So, to get organized, you’ll need to use calendars, checklists, and notebooks to keep track of tasks, case progress, deadlines, and miscellaneous thoughts. You can, of course, opt to use a legal pad or paper planner and calendar. However, I recommend leveraging tech alternatives that do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.
Begin with organizing your desk and office
There is no right way to set up an office. Your workspace needs to work for you. However, clutter does little to help you get organized. You can tackle this task right now. Stop reading this for five minutes and quickly organize your desk. Don’t stop to take a call or reply to an email, just focus on this one, singular task.
Place loose documents in their appropriate files, gather files that you’re not actively working on, and put them away where they belong. If you may need them later today or tomorrow, consider using a desktop file rack that holds just a few documents or files for easy access.
The same is true for electronic files. You don’t need all your files visible on your desktop. Use desktop shortcuts to keep only those files that you are currently working on visible, while all others remain tucked away in their appropriate directories.
Consider Marie Kondo-ing your workspace
If organization for lawyers is new to you, and you’re not sure where or how to get started, consider the KonMari Method™. Marie Kondo is the tidying expert. Her method “encourages tidying by category–not by location–beginning with clothes, then moving on to books, papers, komono (miscellaneous items), and, finally, sentimental items.” When determining what to keep and what to discard—by recycling or donating where possible—ask yourself Marie Kondo’s famous question, “Does it spark joy?”
While office items may not necessarily spark joy, we can agree that you don’t need to keep old equipment or all files dating back to the beginning of time. Ask yourself if you actually use a certain office item. Then decide if you want it or are required to keep it. If not, discard it. Remember to check your state bar’s file retention rules and the applicable legal malpractice statute of limitations before properly disposing of client files.
We also recommend picking up a copy of The Organized Lawyer by Kelly Lynn Anders. In her book, Anders invites readers to identify their organizational styles, as Dan Lukasik notes in Lawyers With Depression:
- Stackers love organizing by topics in stacks. As visual and tactile people, they like to see order.
- Spreaders are visual too, but they tend to spread their things as they want to see everything.
- Free Spirits don’t have many personal belongings in their work area. Instead, they keep reports, books, articles and magazines close by.
- Pack Rats are emotionally tied to things. They like feeling full and like to tell stories about what’s in the office.
Whatever your organizational style, Anders offers suggestions, processes, and resources to help you get organized.
Limit distractions from notifications
We live in an uber-connected world and often feel pressure to stay connected to family, friends, and work, 24/7. Nevertheless, it’s important not to let our devices become constant sources of distraction while we work. The idea of “digital detoxing” is great for brief periods, like family time in the evenings or while on vacation. However, it’s not a sustainable practice for the working lawyer.
Practice “Digital Mindfulness”
Instead, I propose practicing “digital mindfulness” as suggested by Tom Mighell in “The Digital Toolkit.” The Toolkit discusses how to approach your relationship with technology so you can choose when to disconnect without cutting yourself off completely. Whether you have an Android or Apple device, Mighell covers how to manage notifications and limit screen time.
Block out time in your calendar for different tasks
Another method to limit distractions is to use your calendar as a time blocking tool. According to Todoist, “Time blocking is a time management method that asks you to divide your day into blocks of time. Each block is dedicated to accomplishing a specific task, or group of tasks, and only those specific tasks.” Time blocking requires that you plan and prepare your workweek in advance, including when to address notifications. This can be a useful time-tracking aid and billing reference for lawyers.
Improve your time management skills
Lawyers function in high-stress, high performing environments, often juggling simultaneous priorities. Time management skills are critical to organization for lawyers, and for keeping priorities organized.
We’ve already discussed the importance of using calendars, to-do lists, and time blocking. But what if there was one tool that could handle all of your time management and time tracking needs in one place? Legal practice management software, like Clio Manage, has so many different features, including time tracking and calendaring. Whether you prefer to use time blocks, timers, or log entries after the fact, each entry is attributed to a specific client matter, making organization a breeze.
Whichever time tracking methods you employ, it’s important that you don’t wait to track time—the longer you wait, the longer it takes to track it all down.
Commit to improving communication with clients and colleagues
As Jack Newton writes in his book, The Client-Centered Law Firm, “Clear and open communication is absolutely critical to the success of any client-centered law firm. In fact, if you’re not communicating effectively, you’re taking a big risk. At the time of writing, communication errors made up more than 40% of LAWPRO claims for most practice areas.” Even if ineffective communication doesn’t rise to the level of malpractice, it can result in the loss of existing clients and potential referrals, negatively impacting your practice and mental health.
Good, effective communication starts from within your firm. Use tools like Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Zoom to stay connected with colleagues and ensure everyone is on the same page. It’s important that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities and that they remain informed on the current status of a case or project.
Effective communication is key to building clients’ trust
In his book, The Client-Centered Law Firm, Jack Newton also emphasizes how effective communication is fundamental to building clients’ trust and how understanding client needs adds value and helps move cases along. Apart from practice, there is no substitute for being an active listener or being open and honest. However, there are tools to help you improve client communications.
Tools for great client communications
Client relationship management (CRM) tools, like Clio Grow, can help you automate the intake process, schedule consultations, accept online payments, and streamline day-to-day tasks like emails and follow-ups so that no potential client falls through the cracks. Once you’ve been retained, legal practice management software, like Clio Manage, can help keep track of client matters, including client communications. Secure client portals, like Clio Connect, make it easy to communicate with clients and share important information like calendar dates, documents, invoices, and more.
How to organize law firm files
Wondering how to organize paper client files? File organization is a particularly daunting topic for lawyers starting their own practices, and even for those going paperless. To ensure consistency across all file formats, digital files should be organized just as they were before going paperless, using the same file numbering and naming conventions. If you’re setting up a client file organization scheme for the first time, start by choosing where you will store your files, be it a physical filing cabinet or the Documents folder on your computer. Specific folder organizational structures may vary, especially if your firm covers multiple practice areas. However, they should always be intuitive and consistent in a manner that best works for you.
Recommendations for organizing client files
The first set of folders in the hierarchy is usually categorized as something like Client Files, Closed Client Files, Potential Client Files, and Declined. Again, this may vary depending on your practice.
Individual client folders nested within each main category should be easily identifiable. For example, client name, matter name, and matter number. The matter number can be YYMM###, where the last three digits correspond to the new file number for that calendar year. It would look something like Jane Smith_Employment Contract Litigation_2007050. This is the year’s fiftieth new matter, opened in July 2020.
How you divide documents within each client folder may vary but it’s important to always start with the same set of dividers/subfolders, for example, Retainer/Intake, Correspondence, Drafts, Pleadings, Motions, Orders, Discovery, etc. Consider creating a New Client Folder Template that staff can copy/paste into new client files (or replicate for paper files).
Individual documents should follow similarly identifiable naming conventions. This can be the date the document was created, the document title, and the drafter’s initials and/or version: YYMMDD_Document Title_KE Draft or YYMMDD_Document Title_FINAL. Starting a document name with the date in the YYMMDD format allows for quick and easy sorting. Final documents, almost always in PDF format and ending in _FINAL, are stored within specific dividers/subfolders. Documents ending in _Draft should only be stored in the Drafts folder.
You can use these same file organization schemes and naming conventions if you use practice management software to manage and share client files.
Use legal project management tools
Legal practice management software, like Clio, can certainly handle the case management functions you’ll need to get and stay organized. However, case management is not always the same as project management. In a law firm, project management can be less to do with a specific client and more to do with achieving the firm’s broader goals and increasing efficiency by improving workflows or undertaking specific internal projects. Legal project management tools can help with planning, budgeting, billing, and other firm processes unrelated to a specific case, like getting organized.
You can start with something as simple as an Excel RACI chart. RACI is an acronym for the various levels of responsibility in the RACI framework: Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed. According to TeamGantt, “A RACI chart is a simple matrix used to assign roles and responsibilities for each task, milestone, or decision on a project.” It looks something like this:
Figure 1 TeamGantt RACI chart example
We previously discussed Trello and Microsoft Planner. Both can work as simple task management tools. However, they can also double as robust, easy to use project management tools for you and your team. Other project management tools to consider are ProofHub and Accelo.
How getting organized can impact your mental health
There are countless studies on the effects clutter has on productivity and mental health. Experts agree that cluttered, disorganized, and messy homes and workspaces negatively impact our productivity. As Jennifer Verdolin Ph.D. shares in Psychology Today, clutter can “inhibit our ability to concentrate and focus.” Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D. also shares in Psychology Today, messes are a “significant source of stress in our lives” leading to feelings of anxiousness, helplessness, and overwhelmingness that if left unchecked can lead to depression or other serious psychological disorders. Eliminating physical clutter can help eliminate mental clutter which results in improved mental health and increased productivity. In a paper recently published in the Villanova Law Review, Jarrod Reich makes a business case for promoting and prioritizing lawyer well-being. He presents compelling, data-driven arguments on how doing so creates efficiencies that can increase the long-term financial stability and growth of your firm.
That said, trying to organize everything at once may be overwhelming and in turn, cause even more stress and anxiety. Instead, try to break large projects down into more manageable tasks like those previously discussed. You may also benefit from visualizing your organizational goals, writing them down, and keeping track of their progress. Remember, there is no right way to get organized. It’s important to visualize what an organized workspace looks like for you. If you have a team, what does an organized team look like? Once you begin to organize your mind and your space, the stress will begin to melt away.
Making it to the end of this post is a huge first step towards reaching your organizational goals. Get started by organizing your thoughts and mental to-do’s using actual to-do lists and calendar events. From there, try time blocking. You don’t have to time block everything, not at first anyway. For example, you can start simple with a time block for replying to emails and returning calls. You may have another for team meetings, and another for time tracking and billing.
If you don’t already have a time tracking and billing tool, consider legal practice management software, like Clio, that can also handle case management, calendaring, task management, document management and so much more. Legal practice management software and other CRM tools can also improve client communications and help you share important information. But effective communication starts from within. Don’t forget to stay connected with your team with apps like Microsoft Teams or Slack.
If you can’t get a handle on client files, start by creating a hierarchical folder structure. Success means consistently using easily identifiable numbering and naming conventions. Then, you have to remember to store files where they belong (Hint: not strewn across your desk). You may still need help getting organized or improving other internal processes. If checklists just won’t cut it, consider using more robust project management tools.
It’s a lot to take in, I know. But remember, organizational projects should be broken down into manageable tasks. Otherwise, you may find yourself running a hamster wheel of disorganization induced stress and anxiety. You won’t achieve organization overnight; it will take time and practice to figure out what works best for you. But once you get into the routine of things, you’ll find your mental health improved and your practice more efficient.
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