When I was a child, my family would frequently sit down at the dinner table, only to be interrupted by a phone call. If it was for my father, it was inevitably someone asking if he was planning to show up for the board meeting, parent meeting, or event that had started about 10 minutes ago. My father would leap from the table, shout “I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” and run out the door. My brother and I would giggle hysterically from the peanut gallery.
My brilliant stepmother realized that we needed some organization. She installed a wipe board in our kitchen. And, after Sunday dinner, she would drag us into the kitchen and ask us to write our activities for the week on the wipe board (in our designated marker color). We would dutifully catalogue our band rehearsals and soccer practices, and my father would rummage through his wallet for scraps of paper listing his obligations. While the phone calls to my dad didn’t cease completely, the wipe board did reduce their occurrence, and I learned an early lesson about the importance of organization.
I didn’t think much about organization, however, for the next decade and a half. Blessed with a pretty good memory (or perhaps with just the average memory of a 22-year old), I would simply remember that I had a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday or an assignment due on Friday. I didn’t find myself thinking about organizational systems again until law school; 2L year to be precise.
My 2L year started with on-campus interviews. This was 2006 — before the economic crash and in the heyday of the summer associate gig. Everyone in my law school class found themselves juggling multiple interviews with multiple law firms. Organization became paramount: I lived in fear of mentioning a law firm’s transactional department in an interview only to be told that they didn’t have one. I made cue cards for myself, one card for each firm. Before each interview, I would peek at my card in an effort to avoid embarrassing myself. I also started writing down my interview appointments in a book — memory was no longer going to serve.
Something happened that interview season: I became hooked. Writing everything down in a book made my whole life feel so much more manageable. With a glance, I could confirm my availability. In addition to writing down appointments, I started writing down tasks, blocking time to finish my reading, review an article, or make a phone call.
In the first five years of my practice, I’ve continued to hone my organizational techniques (and tried out some systems that have not worked for me). I’ve also learned a lesson: My organizational system has to work with who I am. I have friends with pristine desks, color-coded folders, and no messy piles of papers. Every so often, in a fit of New Year’s resolution-mania, I will try to implement “pretty” systems. But, my desk will look pretty for about five minutes before regressing to a state of nature.
What has worked for me? Systems that are easy and fast and provide lots of backstops to prevent anything from falling through the cracks. For example:
• If it’s not easily accessible, I won’t use it: I keep key folders in an open hanging file on my desk. I drop notes from current cases right into the files. If I put my files away (in a drawer or file cabinet), I know that I won’t use them. I am organizationally lazy.
• Include daily and weekly checks: I start each day by writing a list of items that MUST get accomplished that day. Crossing things off my list as I go is rewarding, and it helps me keep track of my time. At the end of each week, I take a quick spin through all my active case files to think about approaching deadlines and next steps. A daily and weekly check-in means that I have two opportunities to ensure I won’t miss a deadline. This double-check helps me breathe easier.
• Write everything down immediately: Maybe it’s because I’m not 22 anymore, or maybe it’s just that lawyers have a lot to juggle, but I can’t remember all my appointments anymore. If I promise to call someone back, check in, write a memo, or have lunch with a friend, I put it on my Outlook calendar immediately. If I am not at my desk, I ask my new best friend Siri to remind me to calendar an appointment when I get back to my desk.
• Visuals help me: I remember pictures better than words or numbers. When I am trying to get a handle on my schedule, I like to look at an old-school paper calendar. I have one hanging on my wall for just these purposes. I use it to confirm due dates, plan deposition schedules, and schedule vacations. For me, there is no substitute to plotting it all out with pen and paper. I just have to make sure that my scrawls end up on the Outlook calendar too.
My desk is not pretty. It is currently littered with two cups of coffee, lens cleaner, state and federal rule books and two tubes of ChapStick. But these are the items I need in easy reach to be productive (although probably one cup of coffee would suffice). But I’ve cobbled together a system that is working for me. While the Container Store might see room for improvement, I think my stepmother would be proud.
Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.