Oregon State Bar Bulletin — APRIL 2009

Law & Life

Order in the Office:
Why organization is essential to the legal profession
By Kelly Lynn Anders

On the positive side, April brings thoughts of springtime, blooming flowers and warmer weather. On the more serious side, the same month is synonymous with income taxes and spring cleaning.

The legal profession is busy and demanding, and it can be very easy to become overwhelmed with all of the competing projects and responsibilities. January was National Organization Month, but it’s never too late to think about what it will take to develop an organized workspace.

More Information, Less Space
The practice of law requires the management of an enormous amount of information, a skill seldom addressed in law school. We’re tuned in, online, hooked up and essentially accessible 24 hours a day — and challenges from information overload only promise to increase. However, unlike other professionals, lawyers cannot simply choose one method of communication or information storage over all others; the law is practiced in all forms due to tradition and necessity. As a result, records must be kept in print, electronically, and in various forms of the two.

During this same period of time, the amount of space we have to work with has decreased. In many workplaces, offices are smaller, cubicles are the norm, and, like other professions, the legal profession lacks the stability it used to enjoy. So, not only is there more information to manage, but there’s less space in which to do it, and because of job movement, that information is passed on in various forms of disarray from one person to the next. How does one prioritize with all of these competing interests and maintain a workspace that inspires confidence from clients who depend on us and colleagues we are either trying to impress or by whom we at least want to appear capable, reliable and on top of our game?

Sadly, many of us are dropping the ball. On a regular basis, attorneys are sanctioned for many misdeeds that can be traced back to disorganization. Often, the sanctions are for actions that are inexcusable, but not malicious. Rather they are examples of how bad things can get when one is disorganized. Examples include commingling of funds, failure to produce records to opposing counsel, failure to file in a timely manner, being inaccessible to clients, and seeming ill prepared to represent clients during hearings to their (and our) detriment. Just the thought of all of the responsibilities we need to handle can be overwhelming. How does one do so and remain organized?

Many attorneys rely on their assistants or colleagues. But nothing replaces the confidence of knowing where things are and having a comfortable command of one’s surroundings. Not only is it essential for you as the attorney, it also helps colleagues, assistants, and, most importantly, clients. Even though they come to you under stress from their problems, they do notice the order (or disorder) of your office — and they make judgments about your competency from what they see.

Being Realistically Organized
No one expects to see a space that is entirely clutter-free, but most people feel more comfortable in an office that offers a clean chair, small space to lean or set down personal items, and surroundings that demonstrate control over one’s workload. When a client comes to you for help, he or she wants to feel as if you can handle it. How can they be expected to trust you with life-impacting decisions when you don’t appear to have control of your own affairs? That may sound harsh, but perceptions matter — especially in the legal profession.

A well-organized space provides a sense of control and order, and there’s nothing like coming into your offices at home and work and having a good idea of the whereabouts of everything you need so that all you have to do is focus on the job at hand. It feels good when colleagues and clients come into your office and seem impressed by how nice it looks. It feels great when you don’t have to shove items aside to offer someone a seat in your office. These are the feelings that will keep you working to ensure your space remains organized.

Setting the right tone also increases clients’ confidence that they’re working with attorneys with whom they can relate and who know what they’re doing. A lawyer’s reputation is a valuable asset, if not the most valuable. Your workspace is part of your reputation. In fact, it often makes the first impression. Securing the confidence of your clients is much easier to do when you’re not explaining away a messy office. In contrast to misconceptions, some clients may not be impressed that you are "too busy" to clean your workspace; in fact, some may assume that you are either disorganized or too busy to handle their case and take their business elsewhere.

Acknowledging Our Different Organizational Styles
Many books offer valuable tips and tools for creative functional spaces, but they fail to address how different people have different ways of looking at their things. I believe we all have a particular organizational style that impacts how we view our things, live with them, and keep them organized — or disorganized. What works for some does not work for others. For example, some people need open storage, while others need closed storage. Some would benefit from eliminating their subscriptions to periodicals, while others can keep them maintained and under control. These are just two examples of how our particular organizational style influences our surroundings and can be used to our benefit in developing and maintaining an organized workspace.

How Are Lawyers Different?
Lawyers tend to wrestle with challenges privately. As the "go to" people for the problems others face, many tend to keep their own dilemmas to themselves because they are accustomed to having the answers for others. This process of feeling required to have all the answers begins in law school. We all remember the terrible shame that resulted from being called on in class when we were unprepared and the huge sense of embarrassment we felt when we did not know the answer to the question posed. We spent hours reading and preparing for classes so that we would not be caught unaware again. Although a lack of organization is not the same as a case we might study, it is an example of a problem that requires exploration and answers. For some of us, it may perhaps cause even greater frustration because we assume it should be easier to master this than the law because we incorrectly think it only involves cleaning. However, it’s not that simple.

Potential Obstacles
Are there potential obstacles or rules that may exist that could impact the decisions you make to alter your space? Is there any furniture affixed to the floors that cannot be moved? Are there built-in bookshelves or cabinets that you must work around? Where are the jacks for your computer and telephone? If you’re working in an office, does every wall have a plug? If you’re working in a cubicle, can anything be moved? How tall are the walls? Are you permitted to hang anything on the walls in your office or cubicle? What is the policy for bringing in items from home? Do you have an office decorating budget? What is the general feel of the décor in common areas, and how much can you realistically stray from that without a few words of opposition from the powers-that-be?

Organization is a Process
Like the law, organization is a topic with many layers and nuances, and it impacts us all a little differently. We know what it looks like, but it takes time, honesty and effort to achieve. Similarly, lawyers know how to define the law and what an effective law entails, but they also realize that these same laws took a lot of time and effort to get on the books, and they will continue to be reevaluated and fine tuned over time. Like good organizational skills, the creation and practice of law are a process. When combined, law and organization together make better lawyers, happier clients, and result in fewer complaints of malpractice or other violations of the Code of Professional Responsibility.

Organization has visual and conceptual elements, and it is not enough to simply "know where everything is." There are many people who use this notion as an excuse for not doing what it takes to develop a system that looks as great as it supposedly works. The perceptions of clients and colleagues matter. It is not enough to be organized. You must also appear to be organized to receive the most benefits from this process. Good organization matters because it helps you get your work done more efficiently in a space that makes you feel more at peace and in control, which directly impacts your performance, client satisfaction, and reputation as a legal professional.


Kelly Lynn Anders is the Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Washburn University School of Law and author of The Organized Lawyer (Carolina Academic Press, 2009). In her spare time, she enjoys interior design and consults with attorneys and professionals to develop creative, functional, organized workspaces. E-mail her at organizedlawyer@gmail.com. Additional information is available at www.theorganizedlawyer.com.

© 2009 Kelly Lynn Anders

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