At my law firm, like many others, lawyers only meet with clients in conference rooms. Since clients never see our personal offices, there’s less pressure to keep things sparkling clean. Personally, I have more stacks of paper around my office than I care to admit, but it’s nothing compared with other lawyers’ offices. I’ve joked that some lawyers would benefit from an office clutter intervention.
Clutter Is a Common Problem
I reached out to Cory Chalmers, one of the featured experts on the A&E TV series “Hoarders.” He is a biohazard and infection control specialist and founder of Steri-Clean, but he also appears to be someone with an empathetic perspective on people who struggle with clutter.
Before responding to my questions, Cory shared that his “top customers that suffer from moderate to severe disorganization, clutter, and hoarding are brilliant minds!” His top customers by career are educators, lawyers, engineers, psychologists and psychiatrists, and doctors.
“If you are cluttered, you are in great company!” he said.
Questions About Office Clutter for Cory Chalmers
What’s your first thought when you see a super cluttered office?
Cory Chalmers: Honestly, when I see what I perceive to be a room, a house, or any space disorganized, I just want to clean it. Now, people are all wired differently and I get that, but you asked my first thought! In a professional setting, I think of a disorganized office, that it is a disorganized business and I believe a lot of people feel that way. I always wonder how they heck they can find anything in the heaps and piles.
What do you say to someone who says, “It’s not messy – I know where everything is”?
CC: My answer depends on the situation. If it is a shared space, I let them know that it’s great they can find anything, but what about their peers? Would others be able to find the things they need? And in a terrible thought, what would happen if you died today — who would make sense of your mess and find everything they need to? Unfortunately, we deal with that one a lot since we are often called in to clean after a hoarder dies.
What if someone doesn’t want to let go of paper because “I might need this” or “This is an open matter and I don’t want to keep reprinting the same documents”?
CC: First, I don’t know the law and rules for preserving evidence. However, we work with so many people from all walks of life who fall into one or both of these categories: the “What-If’ers” who believe they need to be prepared for anything that may happen in the future, and the “Hang On’ers” who can’t seem to let go of the past. The problem with both of these beliefs is that when you hold onto the past, or “what-if” the future, you prevent yourself from enjoying the present. Yes, we may all need something one day, and we will, but we can’t hold onto everything to prevent one of two things from happening. And by holding onto the past, there is no room in the present.
This holds true for anything — files, cases and paperwork included! Scan it, file it, do whatever you need to so you can find it, and then print it again later if you need to. Obviously, you can’t do this with some evidence for cases, but I have had plenty of lawsuits in my time and a team of lawyers, so I know a clean office is not that impossible.
Many lawyers have crazy high billable hour requirements or are in an eat-what-you-kill environment. What’s your response to, “I’m too busy to clean my office”?
CC: I have heard every excuse in the book, and this is just another one. Let’s be honest, the only reason the office isn’t clean is that you don’t want it cleaned. If you desired it, it would be done! You could hire cleaners to come in and assist you, and you could hire professional organizers that specialize in paperwork organization to help you, but it’s typically not a priority. I do know that if it was required that you have a clean office to get paid, I bet that place would sparkle.
Many lawyers prefer to work with paper instead of reading documents on a screen. How can they avoid piling up papers on every surface in their office?
CC: This is not uncommon, and we hear this from a lot of book readers as well. But, when the paperwork clutter impedes the office space’s functionality, it crosses the line and should be organized. There is nothing wrong if you want to use good old paper and pen, but it should still be organized. Making some kind of rules for yourself would truly help. Perhaps, cases that are this old, can be filed or scanned, could be a start? I make many rules with my clients, but I need to learn a lot about their work and their processes before I can throw out specific ideas. But, there are always ways to organize.
What’s the minimal level of organizing every office should have?
CC: Clutter causes me stress and anxiety, so my answer is probably not the norm. I think you should be able to answer “yes” to the following questions, and if not, there is some organizing to be done:
- Can you access all areas of your office?
- Do you know where everything is in your office (honestly)?
- How long does it take on average to find something you are looking for on your desk, credenza, hutch, files, etc.? Could it be faster and easier?
- If there was a fire in your office tonight when you leave, is everything backed up, or would you be in serious trouble?
- If you were to suddenly die, could someone come in and make sense of your office, files, clients and paperwork?
Where do you suggest someone start who wants to stop having a cluttered office?
CC: If they need outside help, they can call us, or they can look for professional organizers. I honestly believe that letting professionals help you will get your space organized — and your items will still be easy to find. (Don’t worry, organizers don’t charge those crazy attorney rates!)
What types of stuff do you think people should keep out of their office?
(Like, if they look up from reading this interview and see that they have it, they should pitch it.)
CC: I think this is pretty easy. If something in your office is not work-related, is not something you truly cherish and serves no purpose for your job, it really shouldn’t be there. So look around. See that newspaper or magazine pile from 2005? The Pez dispenser with stale squares of sugar crack, maybe? Whatever is in your office should be truly meaningful, like your family photos, or useful to your business operations. If not, toss it!
When should owners or landlords have an intervention because of someone’s office clutter?
CC: So now the conversation gets heavy! In all honesty, I believe if any dangers are present, something needs to be done. Fire danger is very real with clutter, especially paper. As a retired fire captain, I saw it all too often. So while I joke a lot, this is quite serious.
If a cluttered office is visible to clients, this may send the wrong message, and clients may not feel comfortable. While you may think it makes you look busy (which is probably true), I still go back to the feeling I get, thinking a disorganized office is a disorganized business.
Severe clutter can also attract critters — everything from rodents to insects. With a lot of paper, you need to worry about the insects that love to eat paper, which include silverfish, booklice, cockroaches and termites. The last thing you want is an infestation in your business or home office.
Do you know of any research between messiness and productivity? Are there other relevant factors such as satisfaction, health and happiness?
CC: I can’t speak of happiness or productivity, but I do know that disorganized people are typically smarter! Yes, celebrate your genius minds, messy people. In this category, you win!
We know that so many of our customers who exhibit moderate to severe hoarding behaviors are extremely intelligent. In fact, many test equal to and above genius level. Here is an article on disorganization and intelligence.
CC: In all honesty, plenty of cluttered people work just fine in their environment. More often it is a problem for those working around them. Being part of a team means doing what’s best for the team overall, not just yourself. So, when clutter affects anyone, productivity typically goes down. Having a well-organized space almost always results in faster processes, no matter what is being worked on.
In addition to what we discussed here, clutter tends to get worse as we age and even worse at home when we live alone.
Many professionals who spend their lifetimes in a career such as law have a hard time shutting it off once they retire, along with filling voids left from losing their purpose. By getting things under control now, you can help prevent clutter from growing into a huge problem down the road.
I wish you the best on your decluttering and feel free to reach out for tips, tricks or actual help with clutter!
Heading for the Shredder
I’m so grateful Cory took some time to share his thoughts about clutter and hoarding in law offices. After reading his answers, I started going through some of the paper piles in my office, dumping what I could in the shred bin. I also put some of the knick-knacks from my bookshelf in a box to take home and add to my stack of items for charity.
I hope Cory’s insights inspired you to declutter your office, and perhaps approach your partners about getting some help for those who really need it. Cory joked that organizers and cleaners are cheaper than lawyers, but this is a serious issue for some people. Getting help could add value to the whole firm.
You Might Also Like:
“Six Tips to Get Your Law Practice Organized” by Andrea Cannavina
“Home Office Setup: Best Products for Comfort, Productivity and Joy” by Bull Garlington
“Think Holistically About Your Workspace for Better Office Health” by Amy Bradac
“Books Every Lawyer Must Read Before Opening a Law Firm” by Ruth Carter
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