The Ethics of Organization

Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP

Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP

Some of you probably have a small plaque at home or in your office with the phrase “Bless This Mess.” Unfortunately that sentiment has no place in a legal office.

Most of us probably suffer from a lack of space, whether mild or severe. This and not enough hours in the day may lead to stacks of documents all over your office and perhaps into the hallway. Some of you may be able to magically pull the exact document you need from the bottom of the piles on your desk. Others of you may spend quite a bit of time each day trying to find what you need.

Despite these challenges and talents for finding paper, a messy office and messy files are a disaster waiting to happen. Paper that is buried is forgotten, which means deadlines aren’t calendared and no one can find the document when it is needed. This reflects on your professionalism, increases the risk of a malpractice claim, and may cause others to question your competency.

 Although you may be someone who is truly not able to work in a neat office, you should take steps to ensure that you are organized. Listed below are some organizational requirements as well as some suggestions.

  • No matter how disorganized you are with paper, ALWAYS calendar all deadlines as soon as possible. Put them in an electronic calendar as well as a paper calendar (or print out your electronic calendar).

  • Check your calendar first thing each morning and last thing before you leave. No exceptions!

  • Choose a tickler system and use it.

  • Consider writing all your notes on one notepad, such as a steno pad. You can then cross through them when an item is completed or when the information is put into the correct file.

  • Use some sort of stackable sorter. Label each divider or shelf with the name of the case and put all documents regarding that case there until they can be filed.

  • If you are working on an exceptionally large case, use a stackable sorter for each case and label each divider or shelf with labels such as Discovery, Correspondence, Pleadings, etc.

  • If documents (such as those produced in discovery) are too voluminous to be reviewed quickly, be sure to clearly label the box or file folder containing the documents.

  • Develop a method of file organization and file indexing. Make the index the first folder in the file. Use the basic file organization and index for all matters, no matter how small. It’s easier to use this system for each new matter than to discover later the file has grown and now it will take days to get it organized and indexed.

  • Before you leave each day straighten the stacks of paper on your desk and put away extra pens, stapler, tape dispenser, loose paperclips, and rubber bands.

The idea behind all these suggestions is to keep you from missing deadlines and to enable you (or someone else) to find documents in a matter. Having at least some standards of organization provides a comfort level for you, your co-workers, and the clients. If everyone views you as an organized person, small, infrequent mistakes are more likely to be forgiven. Although some of us appear to have an innate ability to be organized, the rest of us can be trained. Like any other skill it takes practice and persistence. Get suggestions from co-workers and peers who are organized and experiment until you find what works for you.

Lack of organization is a reflection of your professionalism, respect for clients and your attorneys, and even your competency. So, GET ORGANIZED!


Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP, is the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Legal Assistants Division, a position she has held since 1997. She is Treasurer of LAD and a past president of the Alamo Area Professional Legal Assistants in San Antonio.

If you have any questions regarding any ethical issue, please contact the Professional Ethics Committee.

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Originally published in the Texas Paralegal Journal © Copyright Paralegal Division, State Bar of Texas.