Organization: First Things First

by | March 10, 2009

In this article, we outline one of the most important skills of a successful litigation attorney, organization.

Lawyers are masters of multitasking. When you've got a deadline for a pre-trial motion and the partner wants to discuss what you've written, do you reschedule your witness interview? When do you talk to the court clerks? What about reviewing those 46 boxes of discovery documents for important information? When does all this work get done?

A lawyer works long hours. Those hours get even longer if the lawyer isn't organized. This is especially true in the earlier stages of your career, when a partner will hold you responsible for the whereabouts of every key piece of information. An attorney must know what jobs have priority over others and make sure that everyone on the case -- paralegals and secretaries included -- knows what is going on. The course of a litigation case can change in an hour. A damaging witness might appear or the opposing party might settle. Deadlines have to be met, regardless of how many re-writes you must do. Furthermore, without a sense of organization, the workload of a lawyer can become overwhelming, leaving little time for a personal or family life. An unorganized lawyer burns out more quickly than an organized one.

A lawyer must also have an internal sense of organization regarding his arguments and research. Lawyers and those who work with them -- judges, clerks, partners, paralegals, witnesses -- are often pressed for time. A judge, in particular, wants to hear only your strongest points and the most relevant issues. She will not want you wasting her time with tangential facts or unessential cases. A lawyer must organize both his written and oral arguments with precision in order not to flood others with irrelevant information.Every lawyer develops his own method of organization, but here are some helpful tips:

Get good advice

In the beginning, it may not be clear to you what is the most important issue on your plate. What you might think is pressing might be the last thing on the partner's mind. Get constant feedback from partners and senior associates about your work schedule and how to prioritize it. If you're a prosecutor with different cases, take your cues from more senior attorneys and ask for advice on how to manage what might be an overwhelming caseload. This is not the time for false confidence -- it's better to ask the stupid question now than to be unprepared in court.

Get a calendar

It seems like a simple suggestion, but many lawyers overlook it. Day planners work for some, but having a monthly or weekly planner will give you an overview of deadlines coming up and allow you to focus on what is due, and what is not. Even an important case should be put aside temporarily when you have a memorandum due tomorrow.Ask for deadlines

When handed a project, get specific about when it's due. Court deadlines are assigned and mustn't be missed, but partners' deadlines are equally important. Yes, they can seem arbitrary and confusing, and yes, every partner thinks his job is the most urgent and the most important. Grumble (quietly) if you must, but get your work done. If you find yourself really overwhelmed, there's no harm in going to the managing partner and asking for some help in structuring your week. Nevertheless, some associates are nervous about doing this. "I'm always afraid that it will look like I'm complaining or trying to get out of work," admits a junior associate at a large firm.

Delegate

When you get a chance, delegate smaller jobs to secretaries and paralegals you trust. You don't have to set up file boxes or alphabetize folders if your firm provides a staff to do it. Government jobs often have interns; if you feel bad asking a college or law student to staple a hundred documents, remember that someone probably made you do it, too. Just give them some substantial work to make up for it later on.

Invest in supplies

Government jobs may not have enough resources, but private firms will have great supply closets. Binders, file folders, desktop organizers -- even just working pens -- can make your life easier. Find a system, invest in the supplies if you have to, and stick to it.

Keep control of your desk

Having a catchall drawer is fine for some people, but for most working lawyers, it's really a waste of space. Every office product should have a home so when you need it you don't have to go searching. This doesn't mean you need a spotless desk; those attorneys who do have one probably don't have enough work! But if you have five piles of work in progress, make sure that each is sorted, and don't put off the filing until it towers over your desk. Taking a few minutes every day to organize your desk can help you feel in control and even provide a break from all that hard legal thinking.

Make "to-do" lists

Some people love them, others hate them; but virtually every lawyer needs some form of a list of things to do. You can make one at the beginning of the week or (preferably) every morning. It will minimize the feeling of being overwhelmed if you can see exactly what needs to be done.

Start small

If you are prone to procrastination, it's best to start small. Don't expect to tackle huge, unwieldy projects when you're lacking motivation. Take a smaller, more pleasant task and finish it. Or break the larger project into bite-size pieces. Remember, just because you started a day spinning your wheels doesn't mean the whole day is doomed. If you begin with some small project -- a phone call, a review -- then you can build on that to create some work momentum.

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