Why Lawyers Should Prioritize Housekeeping

Why Lawyers Should Prioritize Housekeeping

Over the years I have visited more firms that I can remember; but no visit stands out more than the one that made me feel as if I had walked on to the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I kid you not. One of my favorite scenes in that film was 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. Don’t misunderstand me, however, this particular lawyer didn’t build a recreation of Devils Tower out of anything he could find, he built it out of his client files! Seriously. As I entered his file room, I found myself standing next to a pile of files that towered far above my head. Access to the top could only be accomplished by ladder. To my relief, I did learn I was one of a select few ever allowed access to that room; and thankfully, no clients ever learned what was hidden behind a very mundane door they walked past every time they met with that lawyer.

I’ve long since come to realize that lawyers have widely divergent levels of tolerance for messy spaces. For example, as I was about to enter one lawyer’s office during a firm visit, I was informed that I would need to hop over file boxes to get to a chair that was in the process of being relieved of its burden. In another situation, a conversation occurred at the desk of a lawyer that had so many papers, unopened mail, and files spread about on it that no part of the desk was visible. Making matters worse, that desk was also littered with empty coke cans and a large overflowing ashtray full of cigarette butts.  Suffice it to say, the aroma of the space was less than welcoming. And finally, I have visited more than a few 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, met with lawyers in conference rooms full of broken furniture, and waited in reception areas that were in dire need of a thorough cleaning.

I have also visited many firms that are at the opposite end of the spectrum.  One of the more memorable firms in this group was both a law firm and an art gallery. That space did more to bring about a sense of calm and relaxation than that of any other firm I have ever visited.

Of course, I have just shared the extremes. The vast majority of firm spaces fall somewhere in the middle.  These professional spaces are appropriately furnished and generally well maintained in accordance with the financial realities and personal tastes of those who work there, which is the way it should be. That said, it’s important to appreciate that people naturally have emotional responses to whatever space they are in, which is why I would have you pause for a moment to consider how a potential or current client might respond to being in your office space. Like it or not, the physical space in which you interact with your clients will say something about you. And that unspoken message can positively or negatively influence the beliefs they will ultimately form about your sense of professionalism, the degree to which you value protecting client confidences, the level of respect you have toward your staff and clientele, and with some, even how competent they think you are.

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. On the other hand, if you’re now beginning to think your office space could benefit from a little sprucing up, here are a few ideas that might prove useful:

(1) If it is your nature to work in a disheveled workspace and this truly works for you, fine. Just don’t visit with anyone in that space, even remotely via video conference.  Designate a conference room or a separate office as a public space and commit to keeping that space clean and free of file materials at all times. Then when using that space, only bring in whatever materials are necessary for any given meeting.

(2) Never leave confidential information in view of others. Anything that could identify any client must be kept in a non-client area. Such materials might include wall calendars, file boxes with client names on the outside, corporate books stored on open shelves, and even mail sitting on the counter in reception. If client names would be visible to anyone visiting your office, move the offending 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 your office. Client confidences, to include identities, need to be maintained; but consider this. It is just too easy for the wrong client to remember always having to look at all the stacked files on your desk and eventually conclude that the reason their matter didn’t work out the way they thought it should was because you had too many things to worry about and their matter didn’t receive the attention it deserved. You see, a cluttered desk doesn’t convey the message that you’re in demand, it’s often interpreted as saying you’re not very organized.

(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 they are left alone. This is one more reason why any area the public will have access to should be kept free of confidential information of others.

(5) If any furniture in any public space is heavily worn, in disrepair, or hasn’t been cleaned in years, address the situation. Clean, repair, or replace as called for.  Similarly, repair or replace worn or torn rugs and carpets because they can be a trip hazard.

(6) Recognize and accept that no public area should ever be used as a permanent storage space for anything, especially closed files!

(7) You might think this doesn’t need to be said, but for some it does. Keep up with the basics. Pick up the trash, run a vacuum now and again, empty full trashcans prior to any meeting, don’t leave dirty dishes lying around, and regularly clean the restroom.

(8) Have someone you trust to be open and honest with you walk through your office space as if they were a potential new client. Ask this person to look for opportunities to “discover” something that should not be visible to any guest and also have them share how they respond to being in the space by asking them about the unspoken messages they feel you are sending.  Then, take whatever remedial actions seem appropriate.

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Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 600 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.