General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice Guide

The Business of Law

Debunking the Myths of Office Organization

by Edward Poll

Edward Poll is a Los Angeles law practice management consultant who advises attorneys and law firms on ways to improve the operations of their offices. He is the author of Attorney & Law Firm Guide to The Business of Law: Planning & Operating for Survival & Growth (ABA General Practice Section, 1994) and the creator of the monthly audiotape series, Law Practice Management Review: The Audio Magazine for Busy Attorneys. If you have suggestions for, or comments about, this column, call 800/837-5880, fax 310/578-1769, or send e-mail to LawBizPoll@aol.com.

Keeping your office--and yourself--efficient and well-organized is a challenge that every lawyer faces virtually every day. I recently interviewed Susan Rich, a consultant specializing in office organization and efficiency, and asked her to explain her view that some of our strongest beliefs about organization are really myths that need dispelling.

POLL: Most people believe that time is manageable, but you say that idea is a myth. Why?

RICH: Time is not manageable. People are manageable. Activities are manageable. Pieces of paper are manageable. But time isn't. It's been said that rich people can't buy more hours, scientists can't invent new minutes, and you can't save time to spend it on another day. You can't do anything with time, it just keeps ticking away. So don't keep beating yourself up over the fact that you can't manage time. Instead, manage your tasks. Since you can't do everything, set priorities for yourself, and you will accomplish more by knowing that you can attack each item in order.

POLL: We keep hearing about the soon-to-arrive paperless office. Should we be preparing for it?

RICH: Have you seen the paper decrease in your office or any office that you've been to? I haven't. In fact, I think that the technology being introduced today brings more paper streams than we've ever seen before. People just aren't willing to give up their hard copies. Here's an example: Someone faxes you a document and then sends the original as a backup. Now you have two sets of paper! There are more ways of looking at data than there ever were before. There are more computer printouts that you update with every correction to a document. The paper chase seems to be expanding, not shrinking.

The paperless office is a dream created by computer sales people. Your objective should be to avoid handling paper documents as much as possible. The computer, if used properly, can help, but it is not the total solution. Deciding what to do with the document the first or second time you handle it will go a long way to reduce the clutter.

POLL: While we're on the subject of dealing with paper, what about the saying that you should touch a piece of paper only once.

RICH: I believe that you should touch a piece of paper at least twice. The first time is to decide whether it's urgent, important, or neither. The second time you touch it, you act on the urgent or important ones. What's left is filed or goes in the trash.

The problem with the touch-a-piece-of-paper-only-once myth is that the chronology of what hits your in-basket then dictates the order that you give people your attention. It's the same confusion as "I'll do this thing because it only takes a minute instead of doing this other thing that takes 15 minutes." However, the 15-minute project may be much more important.

POLL: I'm one of those people who seems to spend a lot of time searching for missing items and muttering "I know it's here somewhere." What's your advice?

RICH: Many times, it's actually not there. It's already tossed out, missing, lost, in a landfill, or worse, it was never in your office to start with even though your partners insist that you have it.

You may believe that you're going to find that important file or document someday, but if you keep saying "I know it's here somewhere," you are giving yourself permission to never really get organized. Everything has to have a home, it must have a place. Relying on memory or some vague belief that something is somewhere is not good enough. When everything is truly organized, you can find anything every time.

POLL: Another common cliche is that "Everyone deserves your best service." True?

RICH: Not true. I think everyone would like to think that he or she deserves your best service, but based on a normal client load, it's just not possible. So you need to identify who your "Top 10" people are. They can be prospects, clients, friends, colleagues, referral sources, or mentors. Only about ten people should or actually do have that kind of access to you. You need to share with the people around you, especially a close assistant, who those ten people are. Your "Top 10" list is going to change because those important relationships will also change over time. Every three to four months, revise your list and add or delete names.

POLL: Switching to personnel matters, many of us believe that it's impossible to find anyone worth hiring. Do you agree?

RICH: Another myth. It's not easy to find people worth hiring, but it is certainly not impossible. I spent five years doing employer relations and personnel work, and I've interviewed more than 2,500 people. I've discovered that some questions will weed out the bozos and help you find the really talented people. For example, one question I like to ask to get to the heart of the matter is: "What is the most difficult question you've ever been asked in an interview, and how did you answer it?" In responding to that question, people frequently give me feedback they wouldn't normally give. I sometimes even learn how much interviewing they're doing.

POLL: Many lawyers go by the dictum: "When money is tight, cut the training budget." Your advice?

RICH: If you ever want to be able to delegate, you must keep up your training activities. If you don't have someone you can give work to when there's an unexpected absence, your whole office can be thrown into an absolute tailspin. If you don't have people to whom you can give work, then you will always end up working longer hours to "clean up the mess."

POLL: Another aphorism is: "Technology will solve all productivity issues."

RICH: Don't believe it. I do a lot of consulting with computer programmers and real technophiles, the people who design all of this wonderful technology. And you know what? They have as much chaos in their offices as the rest of us. Technology is not the quick fix for everything. Technology is simply a tool. It is not a panacea for all ills. Organization requires a mind-set, not just a computer.

POLL: I have a belief that if I put work away that still needs attention, I'll forget to do it. Is this normal?

RICH: It may be normal, but it's another myth. I bet that if you cleared everything off your desk, you would know that there was still something that had to be done. Even when you can't see your work, you know that it's there. What I suggest is that the top of your desk needs to be like an aircraft carrier with planes taking off. All your pieces of paper are the planes, and you need to prioritize them, putting them away after you've made a list or written them on your calendar. I don't think the absence of the work from your view is going to detract you from getting it done.

POLL: Many lawyers honestly believe that they just don't have enough time to get organized. What do you say to them?

RICH: You really do have the time. You're probably spending your time looking for things that are missing, dealing with work that should have been delegated, and wasting your time on all the other myths we've been discussing. The time is yours. It's only a matter of how you wish to spend it. Remember, time isn't manageable, but activities are.

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