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Conquer the cluttered desk

Steeped in the art of building a coherent case, attorneys are used to organizing their thoughts for trial. But organizing one’s desk is another story. What can you do to fight workspace debris?

Cut to the root of the problem.

The most important aspect of desk management is the most basic, says Margaret Spencer Dixon, a lawyer and consultant specializing in project management based just outside Washington, D.C. The bottom line is to have a system in place and use it. Dixon says a cluttered desk usually goes hand-in-hand with a less than optimal filing methodology. “Your desk should be a workspace, not a storage space,” she says.

Create an inventory, not a pile.

John Olmstead, a St. Louis-based legal management consultant who heads Olmstead & Associates, says many attorneys make the mistake of using stacks of folders as their “to do” lists. The results can be both predictable and undesirable. “If you go in some law offices, there are files everywhere,” he says. “They’re on the floor, they’re on the credenza. They’re on the chairs. You can have massive problems with lost files. Nobody knows where they are.”

Rather than drown in a sea of Post-It notes and a crush of folders that let you know what’s next on the agenda, try setting up a tickler file system. That’s what Paul Link, a Springfield insurance defense lawyer with Baird, Lightner, Millsap & Harpool, does. He employs Outlook to remind him of upcoming events. “As things come in, I docket them as to when they are due and then [schedule it] weeks before so that reminders come up on my computer,” Link says. “That way, instead of just making a note to yourself that you need to do this or do that while papers sit on your desk, I’ll come in, review it, put it on the calendar and file it away.”

Do the sweep.

Ensure that your desk is clean each morning or evening. Run through the day’s materials and make sure everything sitting in front of you belongs there. It’s not as hard as it sounds, Dixon says. Just start from one side and work your way to the other. “The clarity and focus of a clear physical desk is worth what it takes to achieve it,” she says. “It’s also a good thing to do if your energy level is low, because it doesn’t take that much effort.”

Don’t delay.

Clearing your desk may be easy to envision, but it’s equally easy to put off. Don’t fall into the trap of letting things pile up into an unconquerable mess. Make the time. “It’s not rocket science. Anyone can do it,” Dixon says. “The challenge is doing it in the midst of things that are seemingly more important. We forget the basics, and it makes the difficult things even more challenging.”

Go paperless.

Olmstead was at an event not long ago where he thought the conversation about getting organized was going in the wrong direction. “They were talking about needing more file cabinets and more counter space, and what I’ve been pushing for is for more firms to go paperless in the first place,” he says. “Instead of buying more tables and areas to work in, one approach is to consider having less paper in the first place.”

Deal with inbox items pronto.

Most attorneys genuinely mean it when they set aside a document and mumble, “I’ll get back to that in a minute.” But, if allowed to accumulate, such papers can convert your desk into a museum of well-intentioned promises. “Have an inbox rule,” Olmstead says. “Handle a piece of paper only once. Then delegate it or pitch it. That’s a basic guideline to avoid clutter.”

Take things one at a time.

Mom’s old advice about putting away all your toys applies to your filing system as well. When you aren’t using it, why is it in front of you? “If I’m not working on something, I generally put it away,” Link says. “That way I don’t have miscellaneous stuff on my desk all the time, causing me to be constantly rereading it to make sure I’ve read it before or asking whether there is something I need to be doing because it’s still on my desk.”