Clearing out that which accumulates in a law practice
“And schedule an LBJ day for me after this trial please – my office is getting out of control. Without a block of time, I won’t deal with it, and it will just get worse.” The lawyer was checking in with the office manager.
“A what?” the office manager asked.
“Lady Bird Johnson day. I’m not sure who originally came up with the concept, but some, part, or all of an office day devoted to tidying, cleaning things up, and dejunking instead of regular office work. I believe it has something to do with her efforts to clean up America on the basis that a tidy society can improve mental health. Her efforts resulted in the Highway Beautification Act, among other things.” The lawyer’s inner Cliff Clavin made another one of its all-too-familiar appearances.
Kondo that mess…
Between a book and a Netflix series, many people have heard of Marie Kondo and her decluttering efforts. For those unfamiliar, an overly simplistic summary of her philosophy is to only keep things that bring joy. If something does not bring joy, it is time for it to move on. Why address this in a legal practice? Because just like a home, over time offices accumulate things. Those things can be physical – binders, books, boxes – and electronic – digital case files and emails. Offices are like large masses, with their own gravitational pulls. No matter how organized the practice, items accumulate and need periodic removal.
Why pare down? To make sure there’s a focus on what is important. To be able to find things easily. To inventory what is available and what needs updating. And to reduce the psychic load of all that stuff. A disclaimer: some prefer clutter, others minimalism. I’m more much more of a minimalist.
What is psychic load? It’s the weight of the ephemera that accumulates and distracts. Imagine an empty room with a desk, or a computer without an email backlog. That’s the complete absence of psychic load. The more one adds, the more mental Velcro. Want an extreme illustration of psychic load? Try analyzing a complex issue while email notifications and text notifications are turned on. Add a tantruming five-year-old for good measure. The brain will bounce from distraction to distraction, getting hooked momentarily by each issue as it arises, rarely returning to that complex issue.
Absent joining a monastery, how does one reduce? First, recognize that the more times one “touches” something, the greater that thing’s impact. This can be a piece of paper, a binder, an email, or a text. If you look at your email inbox and your eyes keep returning to an email that makes you think about something other than your planned activity (i.e., distracts you), consider dealing with that email immediately. Then remove it and get on with your life.
This approach will take more time initially. Consider booking a four-hour admin session, go into your office, and distraction surf. Whatever distracts gets tackled. That binder from a recent trial that needs a this or a that before it gets filed away? Do the this or that and file it away. This typically results in a flurry of effort, and a flurry of emails. By the time you are done, you’ll have moved many of your cases forward and feel much, much lighter.
But be forewarned that you’ll want to book a second four-hour session a day or two later. Because all that dejunking in the email department will result in lots of email back. The backlog of stuff did not grow overnight, and it will take more than a couple sessions to get caught up. After one gets caught up, however, it becomes manageable.
This same technique can be applied to other problem areas. The problems can depend on the office. Copy rooms, bookshelves, old case materials – these tend to get ignored and thus accumulate in busy litigation practices. They need attention.
Once one is caught up, maintain best practices. Try to respond to email within 24 hours and then file it away rather than letting it accumulate. Put materials away right when one comes back to the office rather than setting them down to do later. If a problem can’t be tackled immediately, calendar a time when it can be. Then put whatever the problem is away – whether that be in a digital folder or in another room – so that it does not distract. And consider adding quarterly LBJ days to the office calendar so that everyone has the opportunity to help keep that office psychic load low.
Back to our Cliff Clavin-like lawyer. After the office manager finished poking fun at yet another example of the lawyer’s esoteric (and mostly useless but for games of Trivial Pursuit) knowledge, they looked at the calendar and put an LBJ day on calendar a few weeks out.
Miles B. Cooper is a partner at Emison Cooper & Cooper LLP. He represents people with personal injury and wrongful death cases. In addition to litigating his own cases, he associates in as trial counsel and consults on trial matters. He has served as lead counsel, co-counsel, second seat, and schlepper over his career, and is a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates. Cooper’s interests beyond litigation include trial presentation technologies and bicycling (although not at the same time). This column celebrates ten years of his delivering Back Story content every month (but one) and is his 120th column.
2019 by the author.
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