A common image of the lawyer is this one: a slightly disheveled middle aged man (okay, nowadays the image might also be a woman) sitting at a desk peeking out from behind teetering stacks of books and papers with more books and papers strewn across side-desks, chairs, bookcases, maybe even a couch (which is supposedly in the office for clients to sit on). Sound familiar?
This image of utter disorganization does not reflect an optimal reality: in order to be effective, lawyers actually have to be scrupulously organized. After all, a big part of our work is communicating facts and legal doctrines in an organized manner so that our audience (whether the judge, an adversary, or a deal partner) understands our position clearly and easily.
Given the importance of organization to legal reasoning and contract drafting, I'm often surprised at the lack of organization in many lawyer offices, practices, and work product. I admit it's not easy to stay organized–it takes lots of learning, planning, and evaluating of work processes and systems–but good organization skills go a long way toward effective lawyering.
I have always been a well organized person (it's just part of my fastidious Virgo personality and one of my favorite ways to procrastinate) so I have had lots of practice organizing my law practice. In my experience, here are the 3 areas of your law practice where it is crucial to stay organized.
Office or other work space
If you want to be able to research, analyze, and communicate like a logical lawyer, then you absolutely must organize your office or other work space. I know this one is hard, especially if you aren't obsessed with organizing like I am. But if you are surrounded by chaos when you work, it's going to be reflected in your work product.
To get started, you can first focus on creating more open space: clear clutter off your desk; put away books that you are not reading immediately; create a filing system that is easy to access so you can put papers where they are supposed to be (or better yet, switch to a virtual based filing system and put any necessary papers in storage).
Once you have more space around you, then you can think about a plan for organizing your bookcases and filing cabinets. Find a plan that suits you (like categorizing your books by subject matter; or filing client papers and documents in areas near and far away from your desk depending on urgency of the matter), then implement and stick with it.
I promise you: organizing this one area alone will cause your productivity and effectiveness to spike up past those teetering piles of books and files you have on your desk right now.
Adopting business systems
By business systems I mean intentionally designed procedures for completing the various tasks that are necessary to run your practice. A system can come from software or an app–or simply from a pre-thought out plan that you come up for completing frequent tasks in a more efficient manner.
Some examples: using client management software; setting specific times for responding to emails or returning client calls (a method known as "batching"); creating a procedure (and writing it down!) for responding to client inquiries and entering into engagements. These are just a few, and you can adopt a system for any part of your practice.
Adopting business systems is a true feat of organization–once you have the systems in place you will stop wasting time re-figuring out how to handle a particular task over and over again. And you will have much more time and mental space to focus on the substantive part of your practice, you know, the lawyer work (the part you probably love to do the most).
Doing substantive work
Yes, you also need to organize the way you complete your substantive work (e.g., researching a case theory, drafting a document, preparing for oral argument or deposition). It's tempting to just hack away at a work project without any pre-planning, but that rarely leads to quality work product.
I focus my practice on writing and arguing motions and appeals, so I'll give you an example of how I organize my efforts when I'm writing a brief (I learned this method from the inimitable Bryan Garner).
After reading all the underlying documents, I read a few relevant sections of a treatise or practice guide discussing the important issues of the case; then I do several hours of case law/statute research; then I brainstorm various argument points around the central position of the brief (Bryan Garner calls this the "whirlybird"); then I research more case law/statutes to shore up some of the argument points; then I outline the entire brief–from intro, to facts, to legal argument, to conclusion; if necessary, I research some more to find support for any point that is missing it; then I draft directly from the outline; finally, I revise the draft (as many times as I have time for).
I follow this method for every single brief, whether it is a huge appellate brief or a small civil court one. The result is organized legal reasoning, and effective persuasion (see for yourself here).
No matter what type of law you practice, creating your work product will be much easier (and more enjoyable) if you organize the method. If you don't know where to start, search out some experts in your area of practice and find out how they are doing it. And I promise you will then excel exponentially.
If you've read this far, thank you! Now I would love to hear from you: how do you organize different parts of your law practice? Do you have a favorite tool, system, or method? Please share it in the comment section below.
Also, by the way, if you are a litigator and need help organizing your client's motion or appeal, please get in touch because I would love to help you with it.