Who can forget the scene in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" when Richard Dreyfuss's character built a rather large re-creation of Devils Tower in his living room out of just about anything he could find - bricks, dirt, shrubbery, you name it. If you missed that film, trust me, it was a heck of a mess. Believe it or not, I have stood in a file room in an actual law firm where, in my mind, this mountain was re-created yet again. Files towered over my head and access to the top could only be accomplished by ladder. That file room is one I will never forget. To my relief I did learn that I was one of a select few ever allowed access, and fortunately, no clients ever knew what was hidden behind a very mundane door that they walked passed every time they visited that firm.
Having now visited over 1000 law firms, I can share that firms and the lawyers who practice in them have widely varying degrees of tolerance for a messy space. I have been in the office of a senior partner where I truly had to hop over file boxes to get to a chair and I could only sit there after a pile of materials on that chair were moved somewhere else. I have discussed risk issues over an attorney's desk that had so many papers, unopened mail, and files spread about that no part of the desk was visible. To make matters worse, that particular desk was also littered with empty coke cans and a large overflowing ashtray full of cigarette butts. I have also been in more than one or two firms that had more clutter in the offices and halls than what was in my garage when we had four teenage sons still living at home!
Certainly, the above mentioned firms don't represent the norm and for every truly cluttered and cramped firm that I have been in, I have also had the opportunity to visit firms where the space itself approaches that of a fine work of art that is a joy to be in. Now, think about the statement that I just made. Isn't it interesting that people sometimes have emotional responses to the space they are in? Pause for a moment to consider how a potential or current client might respond to being in your office space. What impressions are unintentionally being given? Does the space put a positive or negative light on the firm and those who practice there?
There are all kinds of reasons why housekeeping can become a problem. For some, they truly don't care or they feel that they don't have the time to care about office appearances. Regardless of the reasons behind it, I will simply and respectfully suggest that a poor office presentation says something about professionalism, probable level of service, respect toward staff and clientele, apathy toward protecting client confidences, and even attorney competency. Whether we like it or not, the space in which we work says something about us. The good news is that what that unspoken message conveys to others is in our control.
I can hear it now. "So what," you say. "When was the last time a firm experienced a significant loss as a result of a messy desk?" Well, consider a missed statute of limitations date malpractice claim. In severe unkempt space, it is not unusual to find that files, file material, and/or mail have been buried, misplaced, or even forgotten about. Sometimes, the fallout of such a mess is that a critical deadline never gets entered into any calendar and that date is ultimately missed. Housekeeping apathy certainly can and has led to significant losses.
If you feel that your space reflects highly on you after thinking through all that has been shared thus far, great! Do all that you can to keep it that way. If you're thinking is the firm could benefit from a little sprucing up, here are a few ideas that might prove helpful:
(1) If it is your nature to work in a disheveled workspace and this truly works for you, fine. Keep clients away from that space. Have a conference room or an additional office that is always clean and free of file materials and only bring in whatever materials are necessary for meeting with the client currently in the office.
(2) All material that could identify any firm client must be kept in a non-client area. Such materials would include wall calendars, file boxes with client names on the outside, and corporate books stored on open shelves. If client names would be visible to an office visitor, move those materials or store them in a different manner such as placing them inside a file cabinet.
(3) Take file materials off your desk, cover the materials up, or at least turn them over before bringing a client into an office. Client confidences, to include identities, need to be maintained; but consider this. It is too easy for someone to remember always looking at stacked files on their attorney's desk and conclude that the reason for their matter not turning out the way they anticipated was that their attorney had too many things to worry about and their matter was simply neglected. The absence of clutter can make a difference.
(4) Before you decide to leave a client alone in an office, recognize that some clients may look through materials left on a desk or peek at a computer screen once you leave them alone. Take appropriate precautions.
(5) Have someone you trust to be open and honest with you walk through your office space as if they were your client. Ask this person to not only look for opportunities to "discover" something that should not be visible to a client but have them also share how they respond to being in the space. What unspoken messages do they feel you are sending? Take whatever remedial actions are called for.
I will close with one final thought. High-tech office solutions for file storage and retrieval, information transmission, and document production can readily create a virtual housekeeping mess that is just as great, if not greater, than what many deal with in the physical reality of their office space. Don't overlook the necessity of addressing data storage and retrieval practices as they relate to file organization. Virtual documents can be lost, misplaced, and forgotten about just as easily as their paper counterparts.