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Run Your Practice More Mindfully on a Legal Pad

Simplify your process with this cheap, easy, effective tool.

By Bull Garlington

A legal pad makes an excellent coaster — and, yes, you’re using one to level your desk right now. Can it help run your firm?

Run Your Firm on a Legal Pad

Sam Walton turned a five-and-dime into the Walmart empire using little more than business savvy and a legal pad. His reliance on yellow legal pads is well-documented. His desk at the Walmart Museum has a stack of the ubiquitous pads still covered in Walton’s exhaustive notes. If Walton used those cheap yellow pads to become a billionaire, you might find them useful in running a law firm.

The fundamental argument of Analog Attorney is deeper than Moleskin versus Evernote. The efficiency of how you journal or what pen you use is secondary to a mindset that must exist before writing anything down: the mindset of getting it done. And crazy as it may sound, it’s possible to manage your day and run your firm more mindfully via a cheap yellow pad.

The allure of electronic programs and apps is profound. Their efficacy is certainly not in question. But is dealing with an application, learning it, tweaking it and maintaining it, really more efficient than the way your grandfather ran his business back in the day? I’m not talking about case management and bookkeeping, CRM and lead generation. You need your marketing funnel. You need FreshBooks. I’m talking about your daily ops, the way you make decisions, the way you think about your business.

The idea of using any notebook is not to store your work but to think on paper. Getting an idea out of your head and down on the page is vital to scoring how that idea comes to fruition.

Time Management That’s Easy, Cheap and Presidential

Dwight D. Eisenhower had a simple trick for prioritizing his day: He drew a big cross on a page then jotted down his tasks according to their immediacy. Countless time management coaches and daytimer designers have appropriated this hack. It is effective and simple. And, although you could spend a lot of money on systems that offer a preprinted version, it’s a lot cheaper to knock one out on a blank piece of paper.

Scores of well-meaning advisors have YouTube videos explaining their to-do-list systems and offering custom $30 journals on Kickstarter, and I’ve been deeply addicted to every one of them. For a minute. I always come back to the simplest tool of all: the list. Not a system with four parts. Not a philosophy of productivity. Just a frikkin’ list.

Like many small or virtual firms, I have one major task every day: Grind.

I’m not an empire. I don’t have branches in other cities. Like many small or virtual firms, I have one major task every day: Grind. Anything that gets in the way is dispatched with unsentimental, murderous precision. The GTD system, Trello and countless other online and in-hand methods need to be tended. For me, that’s not only time management, that’s one more thing to do.

At the heart of efficiency is the idea of reducing production to its fewest actions — to an irreducible point. There are not many techniques easier than a list, and you can’t have fewer parts than a single page.

For the severest reductionists, it comes down to this streamlined time management method:

  1. Write down your various tasks.
  2. Do them.

If you’re making a list and it gets out of hand and you create a horribly unreadable scrawl, just tear out that sheet and rewrite. Try doing that in a $40 journal. Your legal pad is a scratch pad, a doodle box, a time management system, and a coaster that costs less than a latte. If you leave it in a Lyft, you don’t freak out. You just drag another pad out of a drawer and keep going.

For the $30 you may spend on a specialized hardcover notebook and time management method, you could buy a brick of yellow pads that last all year. That price point has another value: Because a legal pad is cheap, you are more likely to destroy pages by sketching out ideas and plans in a huge frothy mess of scribbling because there’s no penalty for wasting that paper.

This is vital for creative thinking and creative thinking is vital for a growing business.

My method combines a to-do list with the Cornell note-taking method. I use my cheap Pilot G2 to slice a column off the right-hand side of the page. First, I write down my jobs for the day on the left, and as I come up with ideas for stories or new jobs I jot them down in the narrow column on the right. Then I cross things off as I go. Easy peasy. When I start a new page, I transfer everything over. Some of the ideas don’t make it. Some of them become detailed documents in Word. Some of them become actual stories. Takes me about three minutes on a slow day.

best legal pad
My “Knee Pad,” an extra-stiff legal pad with my daily list in pristine condition at 9 a.m.
best legal pad
That same vital productivity tool just after lunch.

Messy Notes Are Most Excellent

I’ve written about the value of capturing thoughts and writing notes by hand. It’s worth it. I carry the world’s cheapest notebook around in my shirt pocket every day to capture genius on the fly, but at my desk, in meetings and whenever and wherever I’m sitting down to get things done, I use a legal pad.

The physical notes aren’t half as important as the act of writing them.

Cornell cornered the market on taking notes with Walter Pauk’s simple and very effective method of sectioning off a page. But you don’t have to use Cornell, or any system at all. Write notes the way you want. The physical notes aren’t half as important as the act of writing them.

As a writer, I appreciate anyone’s efforts at laying down long passages of prose, but it’s probably not necessary. If you have a great idea while you’re Ubering to a meeting, you just need to jot down the barest bones of the idea to recall it fully when you arrive. You’re not Stephen King. Your journal isn’t a Wikipedia entry.

My assignment notes look like cryptic poetry when I get back to them. But for me, each bizarro notation is like a key that unlocks the mental box of that concept, which then re-blossoms in my dome in its entirety.

Maybe you’ve spent a substantial chunk on a time management program, maybe you just dropped a c-note on a journaling system, maybe you’re committed now. But I encourage you to consider the importance of brevity and high-level prioritizing: Your planner isn’t that important.

Your work is.

Of course, not every legal pad has to be cheap. Here’s a list of premium writing pads — and two wackadoodle versions — for your consideration.

  1. Ampad’s Dual Evidence Pad. It has 100 sheets with narrow ruling, and an extra strong back. They’re my go-to pads for many reasons, but mostly because they’re durable and the 100-sheet count means the Ampad lasts longer than other pads. They are slightly more expensive than Levenger’s but they have twice the paper and sport no predetermined usage. I do wish they used better paper as these tend to warp a little before you get to the end.
  2. Levenger Freeleaf. The best in every way as long as you don’t mind the cost. Levenger is a solid brand with luxurious design credentials and very useful products. Their legal pads come in a variety of colors, and have a strong, solid back so they never flop or bend. Plus, they are preprinted with the Cornell method’s page division so you’re forced to take well-organized notes. It could be better, though, if they didn’t preformat the page. I don’t always use the Cornell method, so Levenger’s design sometimes gets in the way.
  3. Roaring Spring Whitelines. Yellow pads have been around for a long time without changing significantly. Changing the basic configuration of something that works so well is taking a huge chance but Whitelines has succeeded. Their gray paper reduces eye strain, which is nice, but the real innovation is their use of white lines (ahem). After using one, you look back and your notes really stand out. They use 70-pound paper and only have 40 sheets. They are almost impossible to purchase from you-know-who online; however, you can generally find them at office supply stores.
  4. Tops Docket. The workhorse of premium legal pads. They have the double-thick cardboard backs of the Ampad with micro-perforations and a narrow rule, but they only have 50 sheets. Still, they’re cheap and durable and you’re probably using one right now.
  5. Pro Pad Pocket Legal Pad. This unusual version is like a reporter’s notebook and a legal pad had a baby. Fifty sheets, yellow paper, narrow rule, double thick back that fits in your pocket. Buy them by the brick because after you use one, you’ll make it part of your everyday carry.
  6. Roaring Spring’s Wide Landscape Pad. This is another weird legal pad iteration that might become a regular purchase for you after you keep one on your desk. I appreciate the luxury desk pads some companies have recently put on the market but for price, durability and usefulness, these oddly sized pads are perfect.

Illustration ©

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Categories: Analog Attorney, Gear, Lawyer Productivity, Lawyer Time Management
Originally published May 14, 2023
Last updated June 20, 2023
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BULL Garlington Bull Garlington

Analog Attorney columnist Bull Garlington is an award-winning author, columnist and public speaker. He is the author of the books “Fat in Paris,” “The Full English,” “Death by Children” and “The Beat Cop’s Guide.” He prefers South American literature, classic jazz, Partagas 1945s, a decent Laphroaig, and makes a mean chicken and andouille gumbo. Follow him @bull_garlington.

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