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Imagine this: What if your attorney was on the phone with a client and wanted to know the new filing fees at the courthouse but the clerk’s office is closed for lunch and they had not yet updated their website. Where would you go for that information? Or one day on your way to work you are involved in an accident—an accident that leaves your return to work questionable and the date of said return uncertain. Who would take your place and how would they know what to do? Or, worse yet, what if you are one of those people—like me—who uses check sheets and progress lists to track your projects? Where do you keep all those productivity tools? There is one tool that can alleviate all of these anxieties. It is the humble desk book.
What is a desk book?
I refer to my desk book as my “paper brain,” that place where I keep pieces of information, document templates, and forms that I may want or need quick access to. If you were ever absent from work for an extended period and someone needed to step into your role, a desk book allows them to do so quickly and with minimal training. Those of you familiar with the concept of a judge’s bench book have a grasp on the concept.
Who needs a desk book?
Who could benefit by establishing a desk book? Just about everyone who serves as support staff to a professional—whether that professional is an attorney, a CPA, or the executive director of a nonprofit—would benefit from the utility of a desk book. Sadly, desk books are not as widely used as they should be. I have yet to step into a support staff role where a desk book was already in place. Every role in the law office, from the receptionist to the office manager, the word processor to the paralegal, lends itself to establishing and using a desk book. If you have information you regularly use, you need a desk book of some sort.
Why is a desk book important?
A desk book provides a place to keep everything you may want or need quick access to and in fact will limit stress in harried times. Let’s say I am working with a form and that form says “circle the number that best represents your circumstance” and then lists one through five. If I have the form instructions in my desk book, I can quickly turn to them to see what one through five represents so I can pick the best option.
A desk book provides two major benefits to today’s law office. First, it allows someone to step in during an unplanned worker absence to complete a project that is in progress. This ability to complete a project without time loss and without cost of extensive training or coaching is invaluable. Second, an established desk book standardizes your own work process, thereby ensuring accuracy and efficiency.
How does one build a desk book?
First, determine what needs to go in your desk book. What do you regularly do? If you do several child support actions in a week, but a real estate transaction only once in a blue moon, you could be forgiven for not having anything to do with real estate in your desk book; however, everything you use concerning child support actions should be included. What materials do you frequently use? If I were doing one or two real estate transactions in a week, in the state of Wyoming, I would have a copy of the Statement of Consideration in my desk book. What information do you regularly look up or what information changes from time to time such as the form and fees for filing a will with the probate court or timeline, contact information, and fees for a Sheriff’s sale?
Next, determine how you are going to organize your desk book. A paralegal who focuses on substantive law could organize her desk book by practice area. An office manager might organize by timeline with a section for daily tasks (getting the mail), weekly tasks (payables), monthly (receivables), and annual tasks (W-2s and corporate taxes). An administrative assistant might organize by task, i.e., buying office supplies and then sub-sections for each vendor with a list of frequently ordered item numbers and quantities.
Then, establish someplace to collect the pieces-parts that will become the desk book: a file folder, a stacking tray, or a digital folder for scanning them into. For those of you who are technically inclined and not scared of the cloud, Microsoft Office OneNote is tailor-made for this task. For a period of time—I recommend no less than four and no more than twelve weeks—put a copy of every resource you use into that collection space. If you print a form, print off two copies. If you think of something you want to include, jot it on a Post-it® note and drop the Post-it® note in the folder. This allows you to make building and gathering your desk book more a part of your daily work than a hindrance to it. Once all of the notes and materials are collected, it becomes a simple task of formatting and organizing the pieces you have gathered up into the framework you decided on earlier. Yes, this will take some time, but I have always found it was offset in being able to find information faster and easier later.
Do not fear the minutia. The more detailed your desk book is, the more helpful it will be, especially in your absence. Every one of my desk books includes instructions for completing a certified mailing. Why? Because certified mailings are, apparently, not part of our social consciousness . . . yet. Think of your desk book as a teacher that teaches in your absence. Some folks may need their instruction to include “get on the Internet” before “go to irs.gov.” Remember your desk book is there not only for your convenience, but also to prompt others that are not familiar with how things are done at your desk on a daily basis.
Do absolutely make this fun too. If you decide that a three-ring binder is your tool, get a cool designer one and have fun with the divider tabs. Getting in touch with your artistic side serves the dual purpose of making it fun to use and distinctive so your eye can find it quickly, whether it is on the shelf or buried on your desk. If you do an electronic desk book, have fun with graphics or font types and colors.
Where does one keep a desk book?
The answer is—that depends. Are you more comfortable with a digital or a paper book? Is your practice digitized or paper based? For quick response, is it easier to right click + print or flip and photocopy? Do you live or work in an area where power outages are an issue? If you are responsible for ordering-in lunch on deposition days, a paper book that includes take-out menus might be useful. If you work in a forms-based practice such as bankruptcy or child support, a digitized desk book may be more practical. Another factor to keep in mind is how often you might use your desk book at someone else’s desk!
So when is the best time to build a desk book?
Ideally, when you start a new position, your predecessor will have one in place and it will only need a personalizing tweak. If you are not so fortunate, or you are in a new role with the office, I advise giving yourself a month or two to settle into the position and learn about both the job and the office a bit, then start collecting your materials as outlined above. This should have your desk book completed within the first six months. For someone already in their role and who already has a grasp on the necessities of the job, it is just a matter of collecting materials and assembling them and may only take a few weeks.
Which begs the question, when is the best time to update the desk book?
When do you update your desk book? The short answer is whenever something changes. But, we all know that is neither realistic nor reasonable. The long answer is the bigger the change is and the more it directly affects your day-to-day work, the sooner that change should be reflected in your desk book. Code changes should be reflected immediately. Internal changes, such as billing rates, should be updated within a shortened timeframe. Inconsequential changes, such as the operating hours of your favorite office supply store, can be made by hand in the paper book or at your leisure in a digital book.
A Few Miscellaneous Tips . . .
Designate an area in the book for update materials. I reserve the back pocket in my three ring binder as “update materials.” If you keep forms in a paper book, it is helpful to keep one original and one copy to use. The original should be marked as such—I like to mark it with yellow highlighter. Yellow does not show on a copy machine, whereas other colors such as green, pink, and blue will copy. Do not think that keeping two books is overkill. I always have one paper copy and one electronic copy. The paper book keeps things like menus from local restaurants, while the electronic copy keeps items such as letterhead, envelope templates, and pre-built notary blocks.
So let’s revisit our scenarios: If your attorney needed those updated filing fees ASAP, it would be as simple as a page flip or a mouse click to access them. The desk book provided instant answers for your attorney, instant value for your client, and instant credibility for you.
If you were in an accident that kept you from work for an extended period of time, anyone could step into your role because you could direct that person to your desk book for guidance. Even more important, you could focus on your recovery and healing instead of being worried with issues at work.
What about those checklists, progress sheets, and task matrices? Well, one could be forgiven for thinking desk books were almost purpose made to corral all those sheets and other tools.
While they may seem like Jurassic-era technology, desk books are as relevant today as they were at the dawn of the legal profession. I encourage everyone to look at how they can utilize a desk book in their role in the law office.
Christa M. Fuhrer-Warrington, PP, PLS, ALP, is a resident of Elko, Nevada, with her husband Shawn and son Levi. She is a paralegal and holds certifications through NALS as a Professional Paralegal, an Accredited Legal Professional, and as a Professional Legal Secretary. She is also a notary public. Christa holds a bachelor of arts in social sciences from Washington State University with a major in sociology and a minor in psychology. She also holds an associate of applied science with honors in paralegal studies from Columbia Basin College.
Christa began her career in the legal field, first with a prominent, local personal injury attorney as a legal research assistant and later with a top construction law firm. She learned the ropes of being a paralegal on everything from developer/contractor disputes to large public transportation projects. Christa plans to continue her professional education by earning her credentials as an alternative dispute resolution mediator.