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I am often amazed at the complicated systems law firms have in place to keep thousands of bulging client files organized, accessible, and within arm’s reach of at least a dozen people at any given time.
Whether it’s a numerical system, an alphabetical system, or one that arranges files based on client eye color and dietary preferences, the file is usually easier to get than the clients themselves. Unlike the client, files can’t cross four state lines and change its email address and phone number.
With all the checks and balances we have in place, it’s particularly frustrating when a file goes off the grid. Naturally, the files that suddenly fall off the face of the earth aren’t the ones that are sufficiently backed up electronically, with a string of emails to forward, document numbers to reference, and scanned exhibits waiting on the server to spring into action.
The wandering files are always the ones that contain, as far as I can tell, an extensive amount of doodling in the margins, half-finished grocery lists, and hand-drawn mind maps to nowhere. And these are always the bits of the files that the attorneys need right this hot second, or calamity will befall mankind and all hell will break loose. Potentially the entire United States justice system will collapse, all because in one office, one day, one file with one handwritten case citation on one Post-It went rogue and broke free from the shackles of the office filing system.
When Greg, the attorney who most frequently darkens my door, walked into my office the other day, he was already worked into a full lather over the fact that the file he wanted was not, at the exact second he wanted it, waiting eagerly at his fingertips. “Grace, do you have the Steffenpeff file?” he asked by way of greeting, his eyes scanning the shelves in my office as if he could discern each and every tiny file tab from across the room. If he does have that ability, then the man is in the wrong profession, that’s for sure.
I answer truthfully, even though I’m sure that in this case, a fib would serve me much better. “The last time I saw the Steffenpeff file was when I brought it to you yesterday. You said you wanted it for the conference call.” Translation: It’s on your desk.
Greg stares at me, and I can see him struggling to connect the event I reference with any point in his available memory. He eventually gives up and turns to walk out of my office. “Nope, I don’t have it,” he says over his shoulder. “Would you bring it to me?” Translation: Find it now.
As I watch Greg walk away and simultaneously begin to plan that morning’s scavenger hunt, there are two things I know for sure: There is a better-than-average chance that the Steffenpeff file is still sitting in Greg’s office, and there is a stronger-than-overwhelming chance that if I ask to look in his office, he will deny, deny, deny. I hop to my feet to begin my search. I’m glad I wore comfortable shoes, but I really wish I had roller skates right now.
I start my quest in what is both the most obvious and most unlikely place to find an errant file: the file room. Each and every one of the towering file cabinets in this cavernous closet may as well be encased in Plexiglass like relics at the Smithsonian, for all the times I’ve come in here empty-handed and hopeful, only to leave empty-handed and annoyed. Productive, working files don’t live in here. This is where old files come to die.
Sure enough, the cabinets reveal that our files skip directly from STEEL to TEPHANOPOLOUS, not a single tab marked STEFFENPEFF anywhere to be found. I brush from my shirt the dust that the crotchety, underused cabinet drawer had flung my direction, turn off the light, and vow not to return to the file-folder graveyard for at least another week.
As I walk down the hall to the next stop on my X, I glance furtively into Greg’s office. He’s talking on his phone, tipped back at a precarious angle in his chair, his foot on the edge of his desk the only thing keeping him from ending the life of the credenza behind him. There is a stack of files next to his keyboard, and I’m willing to bet my 401(k) that the Steffenpeff file is hiding out in the middle of the pack. I consider a stealth mission into his office to peruse the pile, but I worry that I’d startle him into falling backwards. Then the innocent credenza would have met its end, and in the ensuing commotion, I’d lose the stealth aspect of my stealth mission. I move on down the hall.
My next stop is the desk of Patty, Greg’s secretary, otherwise known as Command Central. Like all good secretaries, Patty seems to have a superhuman knack for keeping the locations, schedules, and moods of every single person in the practice group straight, and can fire off an immediate answer to any question you have, pulling the answer from her copious mental Rolodex. “Patty, have you seen the Steffenpeff file?”
Patty takes a break from the mail she’s opening and looks dramatically in the direction of Greg’s office, then looks back to stare me in the eye. She repeats this mimed monologue, and I realize what she’s telling me: She has seen the file, and it’s in Greg’s office. I nod and give her a thumbs-up before slinking out of her cube in the direction of my office, where I begin Operation Stakeout. Greg has to leave sometime, and that’s my chance to liberate the Steffenpeff file.
For the next two hours I bounce back and forth between productive, meaningful work, and nonchalant, casual stalking. Print something to the machine right outside Greg’s office? Absolutely necessary. Hunt for packages in the mailbox right outside Greg’s office? Important in the extreme. Count how many petals are on the roses in the picture right outside Greg’s office? It’s a matter of life and death!
Finally I hear Greg walk out of his office and tell Patty he’s headed to lunch. I hold my breath as I wait to hear him step into the elevator, making sure to listen for the doors to close behind him. As soon as they do, I dash into his office and make a beeline for the stack of files. Sure enough, it’s waiting for me right where I thought it was. I carefully rearrange the remaining files in the stack, and sneak back to my office, clutching the prize.
When Greg returns from lunch, his first stop is my office. “Grace, the Steffenpeff file?” Happy to look prepared and helpful, I pick the file up and hand it to him. I can see the relief on his face as he thumbs through it, ultimately removing a sheet of notepaper from its depths. “Great,” he says. “I was really worried I’d lost this!”
“The case citation?” I ask, referring to the crux of this particular case.
“No,” he replies. “The name of the place my wife wants me to take her for her birthday. If I ask her again, she’ll know I forgot. Thanks, Grace!” He breezes out of my office.
Well, at least it was for something important.
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This article was originally posted on the OLP website.