I consistently preach the gospel of procedures. Nothing works without good procedures. You can have the most cutting-edge computer, the best software, and the best intentions, but if you do not have solid, tested procedures in place, none of that fancy tech will do you a darn bit of good.
Behind David Allen’s excellent Getting Things Done (GTD) system is the idea–essential to a law practice–that everything we need to do should be tracked in a trusted system. In the GTD philosophy, that system is a set of lists with everything you have to do, from taking out the trash to scheduling order deadlines.
This kind of organization is essential to a solo or small law practice, but many attorneys still walk around with much of their “to-do list” buried in their brains. That is completely unhelpful. A “tickler” is helpful, but only if that tickler leads to a solid system where anyone can determine what needs to be done on a particular file.
Here is how I organize my practice.
Everyone should use a calendar to know where to go on any given day. I use Outlook, Evolution, Sunbird, or Rainlender as the mood strikes. But an up-to-date calendar is essential. If you find yourself canceling appointments at the last minute because of things that were planned but not on your calendar, make sure you put everything on your calendar. If you use a shared calendar, use the “private” option to prevent people from seeing what is on your personal calendar, but track it, just the same.
I use the same set of programs to track my tasks, or to-dos. I track everything on these lists, and I arrange them by context, such as “home,” “office,” “calls,” “computer,” “scheduling orders,” etc. I find sorting by context far more useful than other sorting methods, because I can flip to the appropriate list depending on where I am and what tools I have available at a particular moment.
For my e-mail, I subscribe to the empty inbox philosophy, or Inbox Zero. I don’t follow the Inbox Zero method religiously, but just like my physical inbox, the things in my inbox are things that I have not acted on. If I can, I address them, file them, and get rid of them. If not, I file them and add an appropriate task. Most of the time, I have an empty inbox.
Perhaps the most important part of any organizational system is the weekly review. I sit down every Monday with all my lists, my calendars, etc., and make sure that my tasks are up to date, my calendar is accurate, and look ahead to find out if I need to be working on any motions or anticipating any deadlines. If anything has slipped through the cracks during the week, it usually surfaces during my weekly review.
My personal system is highly effective. I have not missed a deadline or appointment in months, if not years (knock on wood), and I find I do not need fancy software to keep it going. Pretty much any calendar software will do, with any e-mail software. I prefer Outlook, but Evolution works pretty well, and I can use Thunderbird and Sunbird if I want to move more quickly.
So start with procedures. Nothing works without solid procedures.