By Michael Benedict on March 7, 2019
The First Steps to an Organized Legal Practice
Practicing law involves countless details and deadlines. When attorneys lack organizational skills within a law firm, essential information can slip through the cracks and create all kinds of problems, from overlooked billable hours to a child custody case gone wrong.
Yet for years, disorganization was a sign of a good lawyer. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, stored documents in his top hat. If you’ve ever seen a painting of Lincoln’s desk, you know the lawyer-turned-president worked among piles of disheveled papers and books. The president was the definition of the “disorganized lawyer”.
Now, however, that image of the scattered but brilliant lawyer is changing, making disorderliness less a sign of intellect than a cause for alarm. Kelly Lynn Anders, the associate dean of student affairs at Washburn University School of Law and author of a 2008 book, The Organized Lawyer, puts it like this: “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.”
Once an unorganized lawyer herself, Anders names a number of mishaps that can occur from disorderliness — “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 meetings,” she says.
If you’re an attorney or paralegal struggling to stay on top of your deadlines and work, the time to get organized is now. These four tips can help you avoid becoming the “disorganized lawyer” and improve your overall professional conduct when dealing with clients.
Your day doesn’t always go as planned. Even though you think you’ll find time to jot down that 45 minutes you spent on client X, there are no guarantees. You could easily get pulled in another direction.
When you do catch a breath, the last thing you want to do is enter your time. So you forget and never bill for your hours of legal fees. Or you unintentionally overestimate legal fees or time, tracking an hour and a half instead of the actual time worked — a move that can put you in violation of the American Bar Association’s (ABA’s) Rule 1:5 on billing and fees.
Tracking your time in real-time can make the job easier and help you (and your team) increase your accuracy. Time-tracking mobile apps allow you to use your smartphone, tablet, or laptop to make entries on the go, meaning you can start and end a timer precisely at the time you start and end your work, whether you’re off-site at a deposition, at home drafting an affidavit, or in court. Some apps even enter ABA codes automatically, so you don’t have to rack your brain to remember them or take the time to look them up.
In all likelihood, you receive more email than you can manage and find that it disrupts your focus and drains your time. If you aren’t careful, email can break your concentration and cause you to make errors on important tasks. Putting an “email system” in place can be a lifesaver.
Start by setting aside a few times a day (and a few times only) to check your inbox, such as first thing in the morning, mid-day, and late afternoon. This may seem hard at first, but hold steady and resist the urge to check email outside of those time frames. Let your team know your new system so they’re not left waiting for an immediate response, and so they resort to other measures, like knocking on your office door or calling you by phone, when something urgent arises.
Disable your email pop-up notifications to avoid pinging distractions, and organize your email folders in a way that makes sense. For instance, you can organize by client or legal service areas such as Domestic, Civil or Probate Litigation, Real Estate, or Criminal. Likewise, you might organize folders by priority level — Low, Medium, High, and Urgent. Then when an email comes in, file it accordingly. Remember to clean out your folders every now and then so they don’t become too hard to navigate.
Many offices in the 21st century rely primarily on digital, not paper, documents and filing systems. But that’s not possible with law firms, where paper is required for things like court exhibits, signed consent orders, and contracts. While you won’t be able to eliminate paper entirely, there are steps you can take to lower your paper use — and in turn, your chance of losing an important note or document.
Electronic, cloud-based filing systems are great for document and case management, and take up far less space than old metal file cabinets. Many cloud-based programs are designed exclusively for law firms and come with the added security measures attorneys and paralegals need. As this ABA article explains, two top-rated programs are Clio and Law RD. You can use them to manage and collaborate on documents, access your calendar, and even connect and share documents with clients — all in a safe, secure setting. The biggest advantages? With web-based programs like these, you can access your files and stay on top of your caseload from anywhere you have Internet access, whether you’re on vacation or stretched out on your home sofa. In addition, you lower your risk of leaving sensitive documents on your desk or out in the open, which anyone could fairly easily access and peruse.
Of course, cloud-based programs and other technologies will only work if you can use them. Many are complicated and can cause you to waste time on even simple steps like accessing your calendar or finding a file. Be wary of technologies that claim to help but actually take vast time and patience to set up and learn. Ask your product rep these questions before you decide to purchase:
As an attorney, every minute counts. Being a disorganized lawyer is no longer an option. Save yourself the headache of searching frantically for that one piece of paper or underestimating the amount of time or legal fees you bill for a case. Get organized in your law office, starting with the suggestions mentioned here.
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Interested in learning more? Check out our eBook Modernize Your Law Practice in 3 Steps.