Take a moment to pause and imagine your ideal lawyer or law student. What is her personality like? What is her workspace like? Most likely, the person you imagined is smart, thoughtful, thorough, and organized. She has a desk that is reasonably tidy and a good grasp of what’s coming up on her calendar. There are reasons for that.
Law is a deadline-driven profession. The consequences of missing those deadlines can be severe, even catastrophic. Clients depend on their lawyers to monitor deadlines and make sure they’re met.
Lawyers are human, though, and they span the spectrum of strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are just not born with an innate sense of how to be organized. Over the last decade, I’ve been on a mission to find the organization system that works best for me. In hopes of sparing others that same lengthy journey, I’ve compiled this list of various tools and techniques I’ve used, along with a discussion of their benefits and drawbacks.
The simplest tool at your disposal is Outlook. The majority of lawyers still use Outlook to send and receive emails, as well as to do basic calendaring. Many also use its tasks function. It has changed relatively little over the years.
Outlook’s greatest strength is its convenience. It is the second program I open every day, after our document management/timekeeping software. It is the second-to-last program I close every day. It syncs effortlessly with my phone, iPad, and laptop. My assistant has access to my calendar, so I have help keeping it up to date.
But Outlook has limitations, too. The calendar only shows so many events at once, and if you have a busy litigation caseload, those event slots fill up quickly. The task function does not allow for as much sorting and categorizing as many of us need. Ultimately, I needed something I could better customize.
A bullet journal is a simple, streamlined way to track everything that needs doing. You start with a blank notebook, spend about half an hour getting it set up, and then you’re ready to go. It allows you to track appointments and tasks for both work and personal purposes. There is an active online community of BuJo fans and some beautiful Instagram accounts devoted to getting the most out of your journal. You can find some of my favorites here, here, and here.
I found the bullet journal worked best for me when I had ten cases or fewer that I was working on. It’s great for visualizing short-term tasks and staying on top of an immediate to-do list. It’s also most helpful if you only have a few meetings or appointments each week. I loved that it was so customizable and that, if I missed a day or two, I wouldn’t have forever-blank pages staring accusingly at me.
Once I had multiple cases that required long-term planning, though, the bullet journal started to strain under the weight of everything. It was hard to visualize more than a week out ahead of myself, which is risky in litigation. The table of contents couldn’t be alphabetized, so it was hard to find various notes pages. I had to find a system that was a little more robust.
Workflowy operates much like a simplified, online version of a bullet journal. A music journalist friend of mine has had a lot of success with using Workflowy to manage his many freelance deadlines, billing, household matters, etc. In essence, Workflowy is a master outline for your life with infinite subcategories. You can drill down as deeply as you need, and pull back out when necessary.
Workflowy has several points in its favor. It is easy to learn and highly customizable. It is also portable. Because it’s all kept online, you can access it anywhere you have an internet connection.
This last point, though, is also its greatest weakness. When I tried using Workflowy, I’d be diligent about setting it up and using it for a few days. Then I would forget about it or lose it among all my open tabs when doing research. For me, it just wasn’t visible enough or permanent enough.
If you’re a junkie for pretty, cheerful stationery, Emily Ley’s Simplified Planner may be right for you. It has a monthly calendar spread followed by daily pages. The layout is crisp and clear. Each day’s page contains space for both appointments and tasks – that’s a biggie for those who don’t like to mix the two. It’s even got a spot on each page to plan meals for the week.
I used a Simplified Planner for a year, and loved some of the features. The daily pages worked well with my need to visualize how my appointments and tasks fit together. I also enjoyed using the Notes box at the bottom of each page to remember funny or special things that happened each day.
Unfortunately, the Simplified Planner is also pretty big and hefty. If you’re already hauling a laptop, gym gear, a case file or two, and so forth, adding another heavy thing to the work bag may not be such a great idea. I also took some gentle ribbing from colleagues who thought the bright colors on the cover were unusual. After my year with the Simplified Planner was up, I moved on to try other organizing styles.
Earlier this year, I found my old systems no longer worked for me. Life with a toddler and a full-time law practice meant I had more things than ever to juggle and a less-rested brain to manage it all. I turned to a colleague who also has two young children, and she introduced me to David Allen’s system Getting Things Done.
The GTD system has five steps. First, capture everything that is on your various to-do lists (even the mental ones) and put them all in one place. Second, clarify your list and figure out what you can do with each task. Third, organize your tasks so that your action items are categorized usefully. Fourth, check your lists regularly to figure out what needs cleaning up or further clarification. Fifth, take action based on your lists.
This system is great for people who find themselves so overwhelmed by everything on their to-do list that they have trouble figuring out where to start. It’s also helpful for people who need help prioritizing tasks. I found it useful because it lets me stop ruminating over my various tasks and put them somewhere else.
This system does not work so well for people who do not have a command center where they spend at least some time each day – a desk, at minimum. You will need space for an inbox and some sorting folders, and you will need to visit them on a daily basis to drop off new tasks, sort through existing ones, and remove completed ones from your lists.
My Current System
Nowadays, I use a modified version of David Allen’s system combined with the Pomodoro productivity method. Like the Allen system, I have my master to-do list, my targeted task lists, my follow-up file, and my tickler file. Everything goes onto the master to-do list and then gets sorted. Events on the calendar are honored.
In the morning, I try to set aside a few minutes to visualize my day. I have a clipboard with a daily sheet I made for myself. On the left side are morning and evening tasks. On the right side is a breakdown of my day in half-hour increments, along with a section for miscellaneous notes. This helps me think about how long I expect tasks to take. You can download a blank copy of my daily sheet here.
In the end, no system is perfect. Whatever organizational tools you decide to use, you will probably find yourself constantly refining them. You may need to change them altogether when old tools no longer fit new circumstances. That’s okay.
If there are other tools you’ve used and found helpful, please share in the comments below.
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Lauren Clark Rad is a litigator at Ferguson Case Orr Paterson LLP in her beloved hometown of Ventura, California. A decade away in her misguided youth took her to the frozen north and Harvard Law School, followed by a stint practicing in Downtown Los Angeles. In 2013, she returned home. She now focuses her practice on employment law and litigating business disputes. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @laurenclarkrad.