Then and Now: Information Management for Busy Lawyers

Enter the way back machine.

My practice looked like this in 1985:

After I returned to the office from court, I dictated a letter advising my client of the results, next actions and other necessary follow up.  I used a handheld recorder with miniature cassette tapes.

Throughout the day (and sometimes the week) I used that same tape to dictate letters, pleadings, memos and other random dictation. When the tape was full, I gave it to my secretary to type.  We always prayed the tape didn’t get eaten by the recording machine before it was transcribed. 

The secretary would type the tape in sequence, starting with the first recording. She used a typewriter with carbon paper (look it up kids). No prioritization was available. For emergencies, we would use a different tape. 

Eventually, the secretary got to the letter informing the client about the court date. It might be the same day or several days later. After she typed the contents of the tape, she would return all of the typed dictation for me to edit and clean up. 

Depending upon how busy I was, I would give her back the marked-up documents within a day or two. She would then finalize the letters and gather copies of the court orders to send along with the letter.  The final letters would be typed on our letterhead and given to me to sign. Carbon copies were filed in the paper client file.

The letter was then mailed (remember snail mail?) and the client was advised of the results of court about seven days after the event. If the client had a question at that point, they would pick up the phone and call.

Fast forward…

35 years later…after court I grab a conference room at the courthouse and using a scanning app on my phone, scan the court order and attach it to an email advising the client of the results. I do this before I leave the courthouse. They may reply with questions, which I typically answer immediately. 

Lightspeed is now the standard.

Legal consumers no longer accept week-long lags receiving information–even mundane information.  If they can order some obscure book and have it delivered by Amazon the next day, they expect instantaneous attention from us as well. And to compete, we must give people what they want.

We all know lawyers who pride themselves on client management, “I tell them upfront, I am busy and that they shouldn’t expect any immediate response.” Or those that refuse to use or check email. I suppose there were lawyers that still wanted to use horses when cars were invented and prided themselves on that as well. But ignoring this reality is not sustainable. Eckhart Tolle observed that stress is caused by being “here” but wanting to be “there.” Pretending that the urgent demands of the marketplace don’ t exist means that a lawyer and his or her practice also won’t exist much longer either.

People in crisis (or perceived crisis) expect instantaneous information. They derive comfort in real-time knowledge. Most don’t tolerate waiting an hour much less a week before getting updates about their case. The new norm places burdens on professionals to keep up with the firehose of information sprayed on them.

Information Management

How do we as lawyers systematically keep up? How do we manage all of the continuous information that comes across our desk and screen each day? 

First, we need to identify what information that must be managed:

  • Emails;
  • Pleadings received and sent out;
  • Notifications of court dates and other scheduled matters (depositions, etc.);
  • Information received via phone calls;
  • Notes from court or conferences;
  • Information the client provides by phone or in meetings;
  • Discovery obligations;
  • Deadlines;
  • New legal decisions.

Ugh!

After identifying this information, how do we capture, collate and communicate it?  There are no hard and fast rules here, the important thing is that you figure out what works for you. Here are some things to consider:

  • Become paperless and move to the cloud. Paper files can get lost or destroyed.  Digital information, ironically, is much more stable and secure. Use a reputable cloud-based service and store your information with professionals.  It then is accessible to you 24/7 regardless of where you are at. Snow days are no longer a problem. Keep those digital files updated and current and develop a filing system that allows easy search and access.
  • Have a central source to capture information. I use a simple bullet journal to capture everything throughout the day, using symbols for later collation. I note:
    • my activities, 
    • time-sensitive tasks that need to be done that day
    • to-dos and reminders, 
    • deadlines, 
    • necessary follow up, etc. 
    • notes

At the end of each day, I spend 30-60 minutes doing a recap:  I groom my inbox, filing and responding to emails. I review my bullet journal, post my time in my billing system and diary any dates or deadlines in my outlook calendar. I then update my “Next action and Reminder” list that I keep in Evernote. Any notes regarding cases are memorialized to the client file. I also review my upcoming day and prepare for tomorrow.

  • Use the 2-minute rule. David Allen from “Getting Things Done” fame discusses the two-minute rule. Anything that can be done in about two minutes, just do it rather than writing it down. If nothing else, get a black belt in using the 2-minute rule.
  • Know the best way to communicate information. Damn, email is easy…but it’s not always the best way to communicate information.  Bad news should come in a phone call or an in-person meeting. Things that need explaining or context are usually better said than emailed. Remember the golden rule. Would you rather want to hear about an adverse ruling by email or an empathetic voice? Don’t hide behind your mouse!
  • Plan better. Spend regular time planning: monthly, weekly and daily. In monthly planning, review your cases to make sure things are moving along and that the case is progressing. During weekly planning, look both backward and forward. Make sure you have captured everything from the preceding week and that you are prepared for the upcoming week. Block out prep and processing time each day as necessary.  Plan for tomorrow before you go to bed tonight. Look at your day and set aside time for your most important tasks.
  • Capture and collate new law. Read all of the law pertinent to your practice as it comes down. I copy new cases with an Evernote Clipper and file them in my Evernote Law file. As I read the cases, I post them to a subfolder highlighting useful language for later use. I also file any reference articles by subject matter. Collating the law continues to be a work in progress for me. 

There is no question that modern times place new strains and demands upon us, but what is our choice? Befriend technology, don’t fight it. Use it to help you capture, collate and communicate information.  Use technology wisely and don’t lose your humanity behind the computer screen.

One more thing…

Despite the compression of time and information, the core values of the practice should never change: helping people through difficult times in a compassionate and effective manner.

Our practices, while now fueled by jet fuel, are still rooted in legal problem solving. While the tools we use are different, the core of what we do has not changed. While I spend more time talking into my phone rather than a tape recorder, I still spend my days doing the same thing as in 1985: using my skills and brains to help people overcome their legal problems.

That is timeless.

Published December 13, 2019

About the author

sidebar-Steven

Steven N.Peskind

Principal Attorney

To be successful, a lawyer must have insight into the whole human catastrophe and be able to effectively traverse the legal system. It is the intersection of these two disciplines that fascinate me. I have been a lifelong student of both human nature and the law, and have created this blog to help others following my path.

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