Decluttering Your Law Office: Getting Started

Neat desk

While I wouldn’t define myself as a neat freak, I have learned over the years that my environment has a significant effect on my mood, my productivity, and my overall effectiveness. Whether at home or at work, I don’t like to have a lot of clutter around, and I like things to be neat.

Whether you think you are bothered by clutter or not, studies show that in fact, clutter can have a significant psychological effect on all of us – in short, clutter produces stress and anxiety – something lawyers certainly don’t need any more of.

I’ve been interested in organizing and de-cluttering ideas for quite a while and have bought and read a number of books on those topics over the years, and some of what I’ve learned I have incorporated into my work with clients. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m always perfectly organized. In fact, one of my own personal challenges is that I’m good at making things neat and finding places to stash things, but not always quite as good at letting go of what should be purged.

One of my most popular all-time posts over on the Legal Ease blog is this post on organizing your law office. As I discuss in that post, one of the first steps in decluttering and organizing is to purge – or get rid of – the unnecessary. Since I am admittedly better at the organizing part, over the past couple of weeks I’ve started doing some purging both in my home and in my office.

For some reason, this seems to be a February topic for me – the aforementioned blog post was also written in February. I’m not quite sure why. It could be because February is usually when I start gathering paperwork for my taxes, or because my birthday falls at the end of January and that sparks a need to get rid of the old and focus on a more promising future, or because it’s cold outside in February which means I’m spending more time indoors and I feel the need to work that much harder on my environment.

Should you Kon-Mari your office?

This year, all of this coincides with a sudden appearance of Marie Kondo everywhere.  Not a day goes by that I don’t see some reference to Marie Kondo in my Facebook feed or see another article or comment about her decluttering style. That could be because in the early part of the year people are focused on their New Year’s resolutions and making their lives better, or because of the recent Netflix series depicting Kondo helping clients to “tidy up.”

I was first introduced to Marie Kondo and her “Kon-Mari” method several years ago, and at that time, I purchased a (digital) copy of her book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” For those who are not familiar with her, Marie Kondo is a Japanese organizational consultant who helps her clients declutter and organize by category, rather than by room or location. In other words, she has her clients focus on all of their clothing at once (and I mean ALL of it – taking all of the clothing wherever it is located throughout the house and putting it in one big pile), then all of their books and papers, and so on, rather than tackling a specific room or drawer or cabinet.

The criteria Kondo uses for deciding what stays and what goes focuses – believe it or not – on what to keep, rather than what to throw away. This is a subtle, but important, distinction from much of the decluttering advice out there.

When making the decision about whether to keep an item or get rid of it (donate, recycle, give away or trash) Kondo counsels her clients to physically handle the item and ask themselves whether the item “sparks joy” for them. If it does, it stays.

Of course, Kondo also recognizes that some items are necessary even if they do not “spark joy” per se – and a lot of the clutter in your office probably falls into this category – but certainly not all of it.

Since clutter and organization is top of mind for me right now, and is a frequent issue for my clients, I thought I would do a series of posts tackling these issues and discussing my own experiences, along with the experiences of some of my clients.

Even with all of the advancement in technology that has occurred over the past several years, we are far from being a paperless society, and the practice of law is certainly not paper-free. Since paper remains one of the biggest clutter culprits in law offices, whether they are home offices or in large office buildings, it’s the first one I’m tackling.

De-cluttering office paperwork: What to do first

When dealing with your office, I’m not sure I can fully get on board with Kondo’s recommendation to take all of your paper and put it into one big pile to go through all at once (also keeping in mind that Kondo’s recommendation for almost all paper is just to toss it). I just don’t think that is realistic or that it could be accomplished within a reasonable amount of time, and it would be impossible to work while having all of your paperwork piled up in one spot waiting to be sorted.

For this reason, at least when dealing with paperwork in the office, I’ll stick with my original position for now, which is to tackle a small piece at a time. Modifying Kondo’s method, instead of doing one drawer or area of the office, I decided to see if I could tackle one category of paper at a time.

I started with my “reference” files, but you might prefer to start with your hard-copy caselaw or motion bank (have them scanned if you really need to save them), marketing or promotional materials, or your periodicals. This might work well for you if you can easily put your hands on all of the paperwork that belongs in a specific category at once. Otherwise, you may need to start one drawer or pile at a time – pick the oldest one, since it will typically be the easiest.

Right now I’m focusing on non-case or client-related materials, and paperwork not related to your practice financials, because I think they are easier to deal with, and you don’t have to worry about what your ethical rules or the IRS requires. In addition, working with these categories first means you can spend a few minutes at a time working on them and not interrupt the rest of your workflow. You can even take these categories of materials out of your office to a conference room or offsite to do your sorting and purging, if necessary.

How to decide what stays and what goes

My reference files consisted of a whole file drawer full of articles and reference materials sub-divided into categories. Many of these articles had been painstakingly saved from CLE programs and seminars or ripped out of magazines over many years. Some of them were my own articles or materials from CLE programs I presented.

Often, the articles I had collected had been filed without ever having been read – I’d dealt with periodical clutter at some time in the past by pulling out articles of interest and discarding the rest of the periodical. But I still didn’t have time to read the article, so I just filed it. Others were saved with the idea that when I had a question or wanted to write about one of these subjects, I could pull out the file folder for that category to do some research or get some inspiration.

Thinking about how much time I already spent pulling out, categorizing, and filing these articles and reference materials – and the fact that I very rarely ever pull open that file drawer when I’m planning my editorial calendar, getting ready to write, doing research to write a piece or plan a presentation, or even when I’m working with a client on an issue corresponding to one of my reference files – was a little mind-boggling. But it really drove home the point for me that saving all of that material wasn’t serving me at all.

Realistically, when I’m planning or writing now, I’m much more likely to hop over to Google to do research or look for inspiration, or to go to Evernote and see what articles I’ve got saved relating to the topic I’m writing on. I also have a tag in Evernote for “blog post ideas” when I come across a topic that might be of interest to my readers, so if I don’t know what to write about, I’ll search Evernote for that tag. What I don’t do is search through my paper folders.

Given all of the above, I purged about 85% of my paper reference files in relatively short order. Most of what I kept will be scanned, tagged and saved in Evernote for the purposes I mentioned above. Most of the rest I will go through again quickly and just add to my list of ideas for presentations or articles – the reference materials themselves will go.

One thing I always knew, but confirmed again by going through my reference files is that most periodicals recycle the same topics over and over, so there is little need to save them if you don’t have time to read them when they come out – it’s far better to search the internet (and many of these periodicals have digital versions now anyway) to find the most updated version of the article or topic.

In the post I referenced above from the Legal Ease blog, I recommended that when sorting/purging, you ask yourself some questions in the “organizing” phase, after you’ve already purged, but upon further reflection, they are useful for the purging process as well. Here they are with some modifications and additions:

  • How long have I had this, and when was the last time I used or referred to it?
  • What is the realistic likelihood that I will use or refer to this in the future? Under what specific circumstance might I need to reference this information or document in the future?
  • Is the information contained in it still relevant and up to date?
  • Is this something I need to use or access frequently?
  • Is this something I need to retain for legal or financial purposes?
  • Is this information I can easily find elsewhere if I need it?
  • Do I have the time and energy to deal with this again in the future, or would it be better to get rid of it now?
  • Does it fit my current practice and my goals for myself and my firm?

Are you ready to take on the clutter in your office? Accept the challenge!

If you’re sick of the clutter in your office, or just want to make some more space to focus on what is really important, I challenge you to go on this journey with me and start de-cluttering your law office.

Leave a comment on this post or come on over to the Legal Ease Consulting, Inc Facebook page and join the discussion. Tell me what your biggest clutter and organization challenges are and what steps you’re taking to tackle them. And let me know if you have questions or topic ideas for future clutter/organization posts!

Make Meetings Count

Business MeetingLawyers attend (or host) a lot of meetings. Even solos are involved in bar association committee meetings, networking meetings and client meetings, just to name a few. Meetings can be held in-person, or virtually by video or teleconference. Meetings can be invaluable tools to brainstorm, get input from a number of people at once, develop goals or strategies, discuss a problem or choose an action or outcome.

But meetings can also be huge time-wasters. Many meetings are unproductive due to the lack of a specific objective, unclear agenda or other problems. That lack of productivity is compounded when the wrong people attend or when meetings are unfocused. And just like email isn’t the best tool for all purposes, meetings aren’t the best tool for all communications. Meetings should have a specific goal or intended action outcome.

If you’re tempted to schedule a meeting just to provide an “update” to a number of people, it may be more appropriate to provide that update using another method and eliminate the meeting. In those cases, a more appropriate tool to provide the information might be a project management tool (like Basecamp), email, or a note in the client or project file, unless the update is significant or is tied to an event or celebration.

If you can’t eliminate the meeting entirely, make it more effective and avoid wasting time by avoiding the most common meeting time-wasters and following these steps:

1. Determine your purpose

First, decide the purpose and goal for the meeting. What outcome do you want to see from the meeting? Is this a brainstorming meeting to generate ideas, a meeting to identify and/or resolve issues, an action-based meeting to identify next steps and responsibilities, a task-based meeting to accomplish a particular assignment or a meeting to make a decision?

Once you know what you are trying to accomplish, you can decide on the meeting structure that will work best: will it be a free-flowing discussion (good for brainstorming or generating ideas) or will participants have a set time to speak (perhaps better for check-in or status based meetings)? Does the meeting address a time sensitive issue that must be addressed right away, or is it a future-oriented, planning meeting?

2. Decide who should participate

Attendance can make or break your meeting: inviting too many people can unnecessarily complicate it, but inviting too few (or the wrong people) can hinder progress.

Your knee-jerk reaction might be to invite everyone in the firm or everyone in a particular category of people to participate in every meeting, but we recommend that you give a little further thought to who should participate in your meetings.

The meeting’s purpose will also drive the attendance. Determine whose experience or expertise will be necessary to accomplish the meeting’s purpose. If the meeting is a decision-making meeting, it stands to reason that the decision-makers must be present in the room in order to accomplish the goal of the meeting. But be sure to include other stakeholders and those who might be significantly impacted by the decision so that they may provide their input or perspective on what factors should be considered.

You may also want to consider whether some participants should only be present for a portion of the meeting, rather than for the entire meeting.

3. Set the agenda and communicate in advance

Create an agenda for the meeting with topics to be discussed and persons responsible. Show that you respect the time of all involved and set limits for discussion, with a concrete beginning and ending time for the meeting.

Advise attendees of the date and time of the meeting. Communicate the purpose and expected outcome of the meeting, goals and agenda to all participants well enough in advance of the meeting so they can prepare. Include any supporting documents needed for the meeting, or that you expect participants to have reviewed or to be familiar with for the meeting. Advise participants of their expected role at the meeting. Request that participants respond to confirm their attendance. Send out a meeting reminder the day before the meeting to confirm.

4. Ensure the meeting stays on track

Start on time and stick to your agenda. Make sure introductions are made if you are not certain that everyone participating knows one another or if some participants are attending the meeting remotely. Have each person indicate who they are and why they are there or what their role in the firm or group is.

Begin the substance of the meeting by repeating the goal or purpose. Advise participants of the format of the meeting. If there is a projected (or firm) end time for the meeting, announce it in the beginning so that everyone is aware of it.

If issues arise that are unrelated but must be discussed during the meeting, request agreement of the participants to continue the meeting beyond the originally agreed-upon end time and establish that only those individuals involved in that particular project or issue be required to stay. If non-urgent issues arise, table them for a meeting to be held at another time specifically for that purpose.

Designate one person to be the meeting facilitator to keep the meeting on point and on time, or assign a time-keeper to keep an eye on the clock and remind the facilitator.

To obtain maximum participation, make the meeting a ‘safe place’ for people to express their opinions without judgment or ridicule. Allow each person the opportunity to speak, but don’t let one person take over the meeting. Obtain different perspectives by asking open-ended questions. Increase participant engagement in the meeting is to assign different people to lead the discussion on each agenda item.

When controversy arises, look for points of agreement. (“Can we all agree that the goal is…” or “If I’m hearing correctly, everyone seems to think there is a problem with Y, but we haven’t come up with the best way to solve the problem yet. Let’s see what we can come up with.”)

Before concluding the meeting, develop an action plan based upon your initial agenda. If necessary, recap the decisions that were made, lessons learned, or options identified during the meeting.  Identify next steps, set deadlines for the tasks identified and assign responsibility for those tasks to specific groups or individuals. Determine whether additional or follow up meetings will be required and, if possible, schedule them immediately.

5. Take action after the meeting

Even if you don’t take ‘minutes’ of the meeting, make sure that the main goals and decisions, deadlines, action steps and responsibilities determined during the meeting are communicated afterwards, in writing, if necessary. Consider whether they need to also be disseminated to those who were not present at the meeting to make follow up and future meetings more productive, even for those who were unable to attend. Follow up individually with those who have action steps to complete. If follow up meetings are necessary, add the tasks and responsibilities that were established to the agenda for follow up, or request that responsible parties submit a report of their progress to be attached to the agenda for the next meeting.

Meetings don’t have to be a black hole of wasted time if they are utilized properly. First, you must determine whether conducting a meeting is the correct way to accomplish your objectives. If it is, you’ll want to develop a meeting agenda based upon those objectives and invite only those people who are required to meet those objectives or make decisions necessary to move the project forward. Communicate the objective in advance to allow participants to fully prepare. Then use meeting facilitation techniques to keep the meeting on task and on time. And don’t forget to summarize what was accomplished and document next steps, deadlines and responsibility.

This article is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line,” with Daniel J. Siegel, scheduled to be published later this year.

Don’t Organize – Spring Clean!

A secret to happinessGretchen Rubin, author of the New York Times best-sellers Happier at Home and The Happiness Project proclaims that one of the secrets to happiness is:

Don’t get organized. 

It’s Spring, and that’s the time of year that many of us turn to clearing out the clutter, both at home and at work. Somehow it’s tolerable in the winter months when we’re hunkered down, but something about the warmer weather makes us want to strip down and create some room to breathe.

But for people who have the “clutter mentality” (another of Gretchen Rubin’s phrases), Spring cleaning means simply organizing, without tackling the first the crucial step – eliminating. Rather than evaluating what’s important to keep and what no longer serves, those with a clutter mentality will organize and simply  make things neat, without making the hard choices.

Fancy organizing tools – including technology tools – can be fun to use, but don’t let them become a crutch that you use to avoid making difficult decisions. Keeping things – or information – that you “might” need “someday” can be more of a distraction than it’s worth, especially if you can’t actually find it when you need it.

Real organization – and Spring cleaning – starts with clearing out – getting rid of anything and everything that is outdated or no longer useful. As Gretchen says, “If you don’t keep it, you don’t have to organize it.” Clutter prevents you from working efficiently by distracting you, covering up important documents or files, and by adding to anxiety and stress.

Getting rid of “stuff”

Clear away the physical clutter in your office. Most lawyers’ offices, whether those offices are inside or outside of the home, are clutter magnets, in part because they simply have too much to do during the day. But a periodic sweep through the office, keeping these five things in mind, should do the trick:

  1. Your office should only contain paperwork that you’re currently working on, supplies and files that you need on a regular basis, and  a few mementos that are meaningful. The rest is trash or should find another home.
  2. Keep only those items in your office that you need to take action on or that you need to refer to when doing your work – but if the item is for reference on a project you won’t be working on in the next day or two, file it to keep the clutter out of your office – and to prevent distractions from the task at hand.
  3. If you haven’t done so already, now might be a good time to consider going “paper-less.” Instead of worrying that everything might not have made it to the paper file, or playing file tag with others in the office who need access to the same documents, scan everything that comes in and file it right away into the matter’s electronic file. But even if you work with paper files, don’t use your office as a place to store them. Your office should contain on the files you’re actually working on.
  4. Create an automatic deadline for tossing certain items, like bar association publications or section newsletters. Often, they are available online and they’ll be easier to find (and read) that way than by wading through a stack of periodicals to find the article you think you remember seeing.
  5. Get control of the mail and email. When mail arrives, categorize it immediately, and make a place in your office for each category. If it’s mail that has a particular date, make sure the date gets entered into your calendar immediately. Outdated emails or emails that aren’t client-related should be deleted. There’s no need to keep thousands of emails in your inbox.

Eliminating Other Obstacles to your Practice

Clutter isn’t just piles of “stuff” or paper. Clutter comes in all shapes and sizes. It includes the nagging worries cluttering up your thoughts, the “dog” files that you never get around to working on (or that you know will end badly), employees (or partners) who are abusive, nasty, unproductive, or otherwise drag your firm down, clients who don’t listen to your advice or are impossible to please, and more. De-cluttering isn’t limited to physical things or piles of paper in your office. Put a real “spring” in your step by adding these to your “toss” pile:

Bad clients

Do you need another reminder? Bad clients drive out good clients. They drain you of energy and distract you from doing your best work for your best clients. Consider firing some of your worst clients (or letting your staff tell you which clients they think you should fire).

Bad or unecessary employees

If you have motivated employees that contribute to your firm and help make you successful, by all means, keep them – and take good care of them. But some employees are toxic and drag down the rest of the firm. If you  have employees that are abusive to staff, or clients, don’t pull their weight or are otherwise dragging you down, it may be time to bite the bullet and get rid of them.

Tasks and Procedures

Are you performing tasks you don’t need to do? Delegate more. Are some tasks being performed by multiple people, multiple times? Streamline your tasks so that the fewest possible people are involved in any particular task. When is the last time you reviewed your office procedures? Have some of your old procedures become redundant?

To-do list items

While I’m all for using lists, they need to be productive for you. A to-do list that contains too many tasks is overwhelming and unproductive. Make a “don’t do” list to help you drop unnecessary or unimportant items off of your to-do list. If you’ve been carrying a particular item on your list for a long time, reconsider whether that item is a priority for you. Instead of piling things onto your to-do list, schedule specific times to accomplish them and put them on your calendar.

Outdated services or practice areas

Re-visit your services: are there some services that have become outdated? Are you out of date or in need of a refresher course in your area of practice? Are there new areas of practice emerging that you would like to focus on? Are your clients’ needs being met with your existing services?

Keeping Up

Now that you’ve cleared out, I give you permission to organize what’s left. But don’t forget to do a periodic purge. Before you leave the office at the end of the week, take 15 minutes to do a quick pick up of your office – move out files or paperwork that doesn’t belong, get rid of any unnecessary mail or junk flyers, etc. Take a few minutes to review your calendar and tasks for the following week, and make a plan.