By Vicki Voisin, ACP
There is a saying that goes like this: If you want to know if the person you are hiring is truthful, ask if she likes to file.
If the answer is “Yes!” do not hire her because she’s not truthful. NO ONE likes to file! Like it or not, though, filing accurately and regularly is crucial in the legal industry.
A filing system is really a finding system. This is your method for storing information today and finding it quickly and easily tomorrow. This applies whether you deal with paper or you’ve ‘gone paperless’.
Searching for a misplaced document or file is not only a waste of time and energy, it’s also a waste of money. Assuming you work 48 weeks in a year and spend just five minutes of each hour of an eight-hour workday looking for lost documents or files, you will waste 160 hours per year. Using a billing rate of $95 per hour (insert yours here), the annual loss is $15,200.
Usually this search involves several people and it delays getting your work done, so the cost increases proportionately. You also lose credibility and appear unprepared when you do not have information at your fingertips. A good filing system can remedy all of this.
Here are some tips to help you create a system that will minimize the time you spend (waste) looking for lost files and documents.
Begin by making some decisions. You need a clear plan that is understood by everyone in the office.
First decide who is responsible for the filing. This may be delegated to one or more employees or it may be that the person doing the work on the file is responsible for putting their work away and cleaning up any loose ends. Unless this is clear, papers will be thrown haphazardly into the file, if they make it there at all, creating a continuing nightmare.
Second, decide when the filing will be done. Again, doing this as the work is done is really the most efficient and results in fewer errors. If that can’t happen, establish a policy that filing is to be done by the end of every day or at the beginning of the next. Don’t allow papers to disappear into a filing tray, never to surface again.
Establish a filing system that is easy and flexible. Your mantra should be ‘store it where you can retrieve it…file it where you can easily access it.’ Visualize how you use files and set up a system that is both flexible and matches your situation. This system should include a policy on where the files will be stored (a central area or in the office of the person working on the file?) with an explicit rule that the floor is not a filing cabinet. Also, how do you want the files set up in the first place? How will the documents be put in the file? What kind of file folder will be used? How do you want them labeled? Even if all the filing is done perfectly, if the label is not visible, you won’t be able to find the file.
Remember that bloated files are a waste of money and space. Statistics reflect that you will only refer to about 20% of what you file. The remaining 80% just takes up space. Generally waaaaaay too much paper is being filed in the first place. Aim to keep your files lean and mean. Don’t save anything you will not need. Condense and purge whatever you can before filing. You don’t need five copies of the same document. This is true even in a paperless environment.
Before you put documents away, ask these questions:
- Is this relevant?
- Will I need this again?
- Can I get this again if I need it?
- What are the consequences of getting rid of this?
- What is the worst case scenario if I don’t have this?
Depending on the answers to your questions, you may be able to get rid of the paper altogether.
Are you done? Move it out! Do the math: if you keep adding files to the filing cabinet and never move any out, the cabinet will soon be overflowing. When you are done with a matter, move the file to closed storage immediately. This is the only way to make room for new files. If more comes in than goes out, you have a problem. Your file drawers should have a minimum of two inches of free space or it will be too difficult to put anything away. Where will the files go? Probably on your desk, on the floor, on the chair…and the piles mount.
What about those files on your desk? A vertical step file organizer is your solution to the piles of files on the corner of your desk (or on the floor!) that become part of the landscape and soon forgotten. When the files are upright, they are easier to see and easier to locate.
In a paperless environment, you would apply many of the same principles. If you’ve gone paperless, good for you! You will still need resources and a system. Decide who will scan and ‘file’ incoming documents in the system and where they will be placed for easy retrieval. You’ll also have to determine responsibility for ‘filing’ email and outgoing documents. Again, simplicity is key. If your system is too difficult, you’re just asking for trouble.
Your challenge: Visualize your office: consider the flow of work and the best location for your files. Then design a policy for setting up the files, doing the actual filing, and moving the closed files to storage. This policy will include who will actually do the work, when they will do it, and how it will be done. Be very clear and concise. Remember that this is a lot like home: if everyone understands their responsibilities, does their fair share and picks up after themselves, the problem will be solved.
©2010 Vicki Voisin, Inc.
Do you want to use this article in your newsletter, ezine or Web site? You can so long as you include this entire blurb with it: Vicki Voisin, “The Paralegal Mentor”, delivers simple strategies for paralegals and other professionals to create success and satisfaction by achieving goals and determining the direction they will take their careers. Vicki spotlights resources, organizational tips, ethics issues, and other areas of continuing education to help paralegals and others reach their full potential. She publishes a weekly ezine titled Paralegal Strategies and co-hosts The Paralegal Voice, a monthly podcast produced by Legal Talk Network. More information is available at www.paralegalmentor.com.