One File at a Time

I recently had a request for my article on having only one file on your desk at a time. I do not have a formal article on the topic, but I do cover the topic in The Empowered Paralegal using principles established and advocated by several time-management strategists, and I had once before posted a section from the chapter covering the topic. Because of that request and because I have a busy, busy day today including a mid-term (I teach law, but I am taking courses towards my Masters in Philosophy, so I’m taking this test not giving it.) I’m taking the easy way out and re-posting the previous post with an emphasis on the goal of getting to an office Nirvana: One File on the Desk at a Time:

In almost every office of moderate or larger size and in many smaller offices, there is an office that has it door closed all the time because it would be an embarrassment for clients to see it. Let’s call the owner of this office “Joe.” There are files, documents, unopened mail, ancient unread copies of the ABA Journal, Wall Street Journal, the state bar journal and advertisements for legal and non legal journals of every type and description on every horizontal surface. Unopened boxes of USCA pocket-part updates are stuck in the corners and under chairs. There is not even a few inches of open space on the desk. When visitors enter the office Joe, somewhat embarrassed, gestures futilely towards a chair. The gesture is futile since there is far too much clutter on the chair for anyone to attempt sitting there.

It is not the workplace of an empowered, effective paralegal. This workplace controls the worker even to the extent of requiring him to move sideways to avoid knocking papers onto the floor. The empowered, effective paralegal controls the workplace, rather than let it control her.

You can control your workplace by establishing a few basic and easy procedures.
Deleting: The basic operating principle is that each item belongs in recycling unless there’s a good reason to put it somewhere else.

Sorting and Prioritizing: Deleting is part of the overall organizing process. As we noted before, some of the remaining papers may still need attention right away. As you delete, place items in on of four piles which are likely to be small enough in number and bulk to put into file folders. Try manila expandable folders if the standard manila ones are not quite large enough. Label one “Today,” one “To Be Determined Today,” one “This Week,” and one “To Be Filed.” The various piles of rubble have now been reduced to four folders placed neatly on the desk! That’s too many folders to have on a desk.

Planning: Since we can only work on one item, there should only be one item on our desk. In most instances the item will be a client file. In some instances we can “cheat” a bit and call “the mail” one item. The other folders can be put away until you are ready to work on them. Select a time to deal with them and enter that time on your calendar. Stuff in the “To Be Filed” folder is more likely to move out of that folder and into the files if a time, say tomorrow at 10 a.m., is set for getting it done. In the meantime it should be removed from the desk and put in its place.

Just Do It: Before stating the final option, let’s take a look at the common factor in all the previous options. Whether you are deleting an item or placing it in one of the folders, you are disposing of the item fairly quickly. There will be some items, possibility the majority of the mail, where the action required by you is not much more time consuming that, say, placing the item in the “To Be Delivered” folder and doing the delivery. In these cases, just do it.

Keep Control: Survey your new domain. It’s well organized, neat and clean. In fact, it may be a bit too sterile. You’ve taken control, the work and the workspace is yours, but it isn’t quite “You.” Add in a few of the photos, plants or knick-knacks that make you feel at home while at work, keeping in mind that you are a professional and you are at work, not at home or in your college dorm. The key word here is “few.” You do not want to replace paper clutter with tchotchkes.

Now you are ready to get to work. But first, add a time to your calendar near the end of each week to re-establish your office organization.

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