The Great Mesozoic Law Office Purge of 2015: A Professional Organizer’s Family Tale
Longtime readers of Paper Doll may have noticed that I’ve been on hiatus for much of the summer. It began in early July, when I embarked on what I detailed to my Facebook friends as The Great Mesozoic Law Office Purge of 2015. My father, a retired attorney and judge, didn’t really walk with dinosaurs, but he began his practice of law just about when Harry Truman struck this pose:
In his 90’s now, my father had not visited his law office in a few years and it was time to close it down. For about 45 years, my father was part of a downtown law firm. I can recall the scent of leather and old paper, the hum of the IBM Selectric typewriters and the mammoth floor-to-ceiling library. Some time after I left graduate school and moved out of state, that old law firm broke up and my father moved to his own suburban office suite. With him went a (still huge) subset of the books, and all of his case files dating back to 1948. And, honestly, every piece of paper he had ever touched.
With a mind for law but not for organizing or time management, The Judge (as he’s still generally known) was always the antithesis of Paper Mommy, at whose knee my organizing skills were first learned. With a revolving door of secretaries (much like Murphy Brown’s experience), the next two and a half decades did not see an improvement of his solo organizational skills or systems.
Prior to my arrival, my mother and sister had reduced the clutter somewhat, discarding office supply catalogs from 1987 and various DOS manuals. (The office never did transition past Windows 3.1.) Still, after months of labor on Paper Mommy‘s part, this was the sight to which I arrived:
That door back at the far left leads to a file room containing the majority of the 63 completely filled file drawers in the office.
I counted four printers, none much smaller than a VW Microbus, and not one of them was actually hooked up to a computer. That was not much of a hinderance, as the word around the office was that neither of the two computers had worked in many years. There were also two electric typewriters, a step up from the old Mad Men-style Selectrics: one circa 1980, and one portable (likely Paper Doll‘s from college). There was also a photocopier the size of my first dorm room taking up most of the middle of that file room.
Over the course of my time back home, we plowed through the various rooms, identifying items essential to keep for legal, financial, or sentimental reasons, and reducing clutter to four major categories:
- Charitable donations
I can’t say we whistled while we worked, but my mother and I chummily shouted questions and guidance back and forth across the rooms. Other occupants of the building often wandered by and peeked in, not shocked by the clutter (about which they knew) but by the steady progress. Even outsiders expressed some curiosity:
Each day, the hallway filled with satisfying piles of trash bags which magically disappeared overnight.
Each day, as we inhaled the stale air of the Eisenhower era, we forged onward. As with my organizing clients, I tried to give my mother the interesting folders to peruse. Meanwhile, I focused on the Zen-like plodding (of opening each and every file in most of those 63 file drawers) to identify which documents were not exactly as labeled, and to verify whether they could be shredded.
Over the course of week, amid the legal research, pleadings, real estate purchases, and wills of people who have long since gone off to their great reward, we found the expected and the mysterious. Dozens of identically-sized, never-opened boxes of tax-preparation instruction booklets created a faux-brick wall. Long before Costco, my father bought in bulk, and there were boxes and piles of hundreds of pristine yellow legal pads. You may recall a Paper Doll post from earlier in the summer about how terrible most after-market hanging file rails are. Well, we found boxes of them, both used and never opened.
My sister implored me to be sure to find some items worthy of Antiques Road Show. That, sadly, did not happen. Outside of legal paperwork, we found the same kinds of materials that I see in my clients’ homes and offices, things that seemed important when they tucked them away, but not so valuable many years later. Stacks of New York City hotel stationery, bound in a small portfolio, were covered with cramped notes from a bar exam prep course in 1948. This newspaper regaled the activities in our suburb, circa 1975, for the septquicentennial. (Did you even know that was a thing?)
No one in our family, or in our circle of friends, or anyone we could identify, was mentioned. This is the kind of thing about which a client might squirm. “Someone might want it some day.” Perhaps. But we are not curators of a museum for long-gone strangers, and we did not have the space to take on these kinds of obligations.
We also found a sealed envelope with a key to my (maternal) grandmother’s safe deposit box in Florida. She died in 2001, but we knew the box had been cleared out and closed long before that. My father labeled the sealed envelope holding the key, “Key to E’s safe deposit box that has been closed. This key is useless.”
As one does.
I must admit, we did find some nifty items. The first mystery was this vintage “1945 British Buttner Smoking Pipe Steel Tool w/Hardened Ground Edges,” as eBay described it. We didn’t know what it was at the time, and might never have guessed without the help of Google and friends on social media, as I’d never seen my father smoke a pipe.
Another conundrum was this little machine. Think you know what it is? Not so fast!
Nope, it’s not an adding machine, in case that’s what you were thinking. A Protectograph is a check-writing machine, and was used long before online banking or Quicken-linked printers.
Intriguing, but a little research showed that these long-kept items had no significant financial value. Indeed, the greatest appeal of anything in The Purge was one of my father’s (many) box-style leather briefcases, which looked like old-fashioned suitcases. We’d set them out in the hallway with the trash, as they were broken and bruised, but a young man in the building was delighted to carry one off, intending to carve it into a retro-style stereo case. One man’s trash is indeed another’s treasure.
Perhaps the most exciting thing to be unearthed during this process was personal rather than tangible. A small stack of letters on onionskin paper, sandwiched between 1970s medical bills, contained an interesting mid-1950s correspondence between my father and a Rochester, New York school district. From those letters, I learned that my paternal grandfather’s first and last names were not originally what I had believed them to be, and I learned the names of both sets of my paternal great-grandparents, people about whom I’d previously known, literally, nothing.
Entirely coincidentally, upon returning from the trip, I was contacted a distant cousin, a family genealogist, who was able to provide two photos of my grandfather. This one, circa 1890, shows him on the right.
Standing on the far right in the next photo, taken a few years later, he appears to be an extra from Downton Abbey.
When I work with organizing clients, we often find unexpected amusement amid the daily labor. This project was no exception.
To get the first set of large boxes of donations out to the car, Kim, the building manager, and Ed, a nice gentleman from an office upstairs, helped me maneuver a large rolling cart. We got it down the ramp, but just as we made it to the parking lot, a front wheel fell off. Ed and I held it up while Kim tried to put it back on. We rolled perhaps 10 feet, and one of the back wheels fell off. Then, after the car got loaded and we started rolling back to the building, the front cart handle fell off, leaving it largely unmaneuverable and me looking for Candid Camera.
However, the big Lucy & Ethel moment came when Paper Mommy and I were taking boxes to the car for another round of donations. After the rolling cart disaster, I opted to carry the heavy box, as my mother was certain she could carry the smaller, lighter box as well as her purse. Unfortunately, when the elevator came, she dropped her key ring containing her house and car keys down the elevator shaft, between the hall and the elevator.
Eventually, the same Ed of the leper-like rolling cart tale, attached some super-strong magnets to the bottom of a metal pole, and when that wasn’t long enough, Kelly, a woman in the building, taped her Apple lightning cable to it. I held open the elevator, Ed held the flashlight and went fishing with the pole, cable, and magnets, Kelli scooped the keys up as they got close to floor level…and my mother prayed.
Certainly I wasn’t surprised by the organizing challenges of the Great Mesozoic Law Office Purge of 2015. I practically wrote the book on it. (Oh, wait, I did write the book on it.) None of these tactics should come as a surprise to readers of this blog, let’s review a few of the basics.
Keep personal and business paperwork separate. A few posts to help you start might include:
Family Filing—As easy as (eating) pie
Financial Filing—Scrapbooking snapshots of your money’s life
Mom, why is there a receipt stuffed in the turkey?
I Fought the Law…and the Paperwork Won!
Patient: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” Doctor: “Then don’t do that!”
Paper Dolls Live In Paper Households
I Hope Nobody Ever Writes a Nasty Tell-All Called “Paper Doll Dearest”!
Have a system for separating papers into categories. The alphabet may be a great organizing principle around which to file things by name, but it doesn’t work particularly well for active projects and research in progress.
Label your files accurately. Start with How To Avoid Paper Management Mistakes–Part 3: Libel of Labels.
Anticipate acquisitions and develop a plan for periodic purging of active files. Peek at How To Avoid Paper Management Mistakes–Part 2: Fat Vs. Skinny Jeans to get started.
If you run out of room for files, the alternatives are to reduce the number of files (or papers in the files) or create space for archived documents. Trust Paper Doll, a couch is not a superior choice.
Schedule time regularly to review your possessions and purge items that are not necessary. (Labeling an envelope, “This key is useless” isn’t ideal.)
Don’t keep your system a secret. My father had created a three-page letter for my mother, carefully detailing where important documents could be found. In 1979. While many of the files were in the same cabinets, the cabinets (remember those 63 file drawers?) were not in the same order, nor in the same rooms, nor in the same building they had been. We can only hope the important papers that were in “a big, black metal safe” in the old building were retrieved before relocating, but we will never know for sure.
Document your important papers and their locations, and make sure your loved ones (or co-workers, or other appropriate parties, including your future self) knows what is where. Get some guidance from The Ultimate Treasure Map: Creating A Document Inventory.
The Great Mesozoic Law Office Purge of 2015 is only one of the reasons for this summer’s blog hiatus; you’ll be hearing about other, more exciting projects in the near future. For now, thank you for your patience, for your emails, and for your ongoing readership.
And seriously, don’t drop your keys down an elevator shaft.