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In her Motion to Organize weekly column, lawyer Jennifer Gumbel talks organization, productivity, and more.

Are you the cliché? You know. The hard-working and hard-thinking attorney (or professor, or writer, or whatever), whose desk doesn’t reflect the organized mind that you think you have. “That’s okay,” you think. “I know where everything is, what does it matter if no one else knows how to find anything.” Or the classic, “Everyone knows that a messy desk is a sign of high intelligence.”

Let me call bull.

Office organization matters. You say you know where everything is, but do you? Really? When you have towering stacks rivaling the angle at Pisa, are you really that efficient?

When you sit at your desk surrounded by weeds, it’s hard to hit the work. Instead, you spend time getting your bearings. When you do, you feel like you’ve accomplished something, but you haven’t even done anything that moves the task further.

It’s also hard to be proactive for your clients. When you’re surrounded by paper, stacked with no rhyme or reason, your client’s needs tend to fall off your radar. You don’t remember who needs to be called back, what needs follow-up, what needs to be researched, and what’s just sitting there because you haven’t taken the time to put it away.

Did you read this, rolling your eyes? Did you just think, “typical organization nerd, she doesn’t know how well I know my system.” Okay.

But. This isn’t just about you finding a file. If you’re at a firm with other lawyers or a solo with support staff, other people are part of serving your clients. If they can’t find what they need to keep things moving forward, your client’s needs wait until you can give it attention.

And. You won’t always be there. If you get sick for a day or get hit by a bus, the people who will step in to help your client address their most pressing needs won’t be able to until they clear a mountain of paperwork and piece together all you had in your head. No one can do that.

I hope I’m making you rethink.

I’ve found the most efficient way for me to deal with legal matters is to line up files based on what I need to do. Telephone calls in one pile, document drafting in another, research in a third, and hit each pile. Once I complete the task, I think through the following question: “What else needs to be done before I can file this away?” And then I complete those tasks until I’m walking the file back to storage.

Clear your desk. And get in the habit of continually clearing it.

Jennifer Gumbel

Jennifer Gumbel is an estate planning and probate lawyer in Austin, Minnesota. She takes her morbid nerd-dom to another level by talking about how to organize your after life, with the website An Organized (after)Life and the podcast, An Organized (after)Life, which you can find on the website, Spreaker and ITunes. You can also find her on Instagram with pics on death organizing and small town Minnesota life at the handle @jengumbel.

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