A Cautionary Tale on Office Hoarding

Terryl Rushing

Article by Terryl Rushing Featured Author


Who among us has not had a co-worker whose office made you shudder? The office that you skirt around, eyes averted, on your way to the break room. The office that you make sure clients, prospective employees and visitors never see. Hoarders walk-and work-among us, of various types and preferred treasure.

Perhaps the most common office hoarder saves office supplies. Supply hoarders must believe that Bostitch will stop making staplers, Pentel will discontinue pens, Sharpie will stop making markers, and Post-It will stop putting sticky on its notes. Think of Milton and his red Swingline in the movie Office Space (“I believe you have my stapler…”) In many cases, it’s not the stuff they want, it’s the perceived power of having stuff. Give them what they need — go beg for one of those really nice gel pens. It will make their day.

Paper hoarding is perhaps more disruptive, because paper takes up more space. And while it might be relatively easy to count how many red markers you have, it’s much harder to sort through paper to decide what is trash and what is, well, just slightly more valuable trash. The paper hoarder often has the mess organized in his head, and many really can, if necessary, pluck a single sheet of paper out of a foot-high pile of documents.

Then there are the people who just — save stuff. Everything from twenty years of tax returns to yesterday’s hamburger wrapper. Photographs of ex employees who have been gone so long no one remembers their names. The weekly sales inserts from years of newspapers. Empty pill bottles. Half-full soda cans.

Organization is for people too lazy to look for their stuff.

Hoarders believe that the message they are sending with their clutter is that they are way too busy, way too important, to spend time cleaning their office. As Albert Einstein once reflected, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” What co-workers perceive, however, is an employee who’s less productive, or lazy, or, as my Delta relatives would say, “puredee nasty.” An Officemax survey says that more than half of their respondents admit to thinking negatively of their co-workers with messy desks. In fact, professionals who see a colleague’s cluttered workspace reportedly assume that person must be lacking in other aspects of his or her job (40 percent) or take it one step further and have a lower overall opinion of this colleague (13 percent).

If you’re hoping that one of those hoarding reality shows will appear to clean out your co-workers office, dream on. Food containers and used ketchup packets are not nearly gross enough for TV. Unless there’s a dead cat or two buried under the paper, they won’t be interested. That’s not to say, though, that your weird office mate doesn’t have a house full of psychosis.

You don’t want to be — or know — or live next to these guys:

“I want to be left alone.” — Marlene Deitrich

In early March, 1947, an anonymous call came in to a New York City police precinct, informing the police about a smell of decomposition emanating from a Harlem brownstone apartment. It was not the first such call — police had been responding to that apartment for one complaint or another for years. They had never breached the front entrance, behind which a forbidding tower of boxes and discarded items blocked the way. Instead, one of the owners, Langley Collyer, would meet whomever the City had dispatched and resolve whatever problem was presented.

This time, however, no one answered the repeated knocks on the door, and the police began the arduous task of dismantling the piles and discarding their contents. Not satisfied with the slow progress, another officer climbed a ladder to punch through a window to the second floor. He was also confronted with mounds of objects that should have been discarded. Finally, after five hours of digging, police found the body of — not Langley, but his brother Homer, who was blind and paralyzed. An examination revealed that Homer had been dead for only a matter of hours, and the cause of death was starvation and heart disease.

Initially, police suspected that Langley was the anonymous caller and began searching for him. When the search was unsuccessful, and Langley failed to attend Homer’s funeral, attention returned to the brownstone, and the search resumed amidst the mountains of refuse therein. A few weeks later, Langley’s body was discovered, covered by a suitcase and partially eaten by rats, in a “tunnel” surrounded by old furniture. Apparently, Langley was bringing food to his brother when he tripped one of the booby traps he had built into the hoard and was crushed. The cause of death was suffocation.

The story of the Collyer brothers gripped the City, and references to them still appear in literature and television. They were not among the grimly poor, living in squalor in cheap apartments. Their father was a wealthy, but eccentric, gynecologist, and their mother, from a patrician New York family, was an opera singer. The brothers both attended Columbia University. Homer practiced admiralty law, and Langley was a concert pianist. In 1933, however, Homer, who would have been around fifty-two, lost his eyesight due to hemorrhaging in his eyes; later, he was paralyzed by inflammatory arthritis, and Langley quit his job to care for his brother. Alarmed and frightened by the demographic changes in Harlem, the brothers became increasingly reclusive. Ultimately, Homer became housebound. Langley was also unseen, for the most part, and only ventured out in the dead of night for essential supplies. The Collyer brothers were hoarders before hoarding was … well, it was never cool, but before the disorder was listed in the DSM-5.

The Mayo Clinic defines “hoarding disorder” as “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them. A person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items. Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs.” Hoarding reality programs feature people whose hoarding (or “collecting,” as many of them call it) has gotten completely out of hand. The hoarder’s home is shown, and described, on camera. Typically, the piles of collected objects is immense, and the hoarder has retreated to a small “nest” within which to conduct the affairs of daily life. It is common to find that appliances and plumbing are no longer operational. In some cases, utilities have been cut off for lack of payment. Refrigerators are full of rotted food, vermin are everywhere, and an occasional cat skeleton will sometimes be unearthed during the cleaning process.

What does this have to do with lawyers? Turns out, attorneys are some of the worse office hoarders of all. Some of this stems from the nature of our practice; we’re obligated to hang on to papers that, technically, belong to someone else. Ethics rules require document retention: Rule 1.16(d) requires a lawyer, after the termination of representation, to “take steps to the extent reasonably practicable to protect a client’s interest, such as… “surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled…” However, “The lawyer may retain papers relating to the client to the extent permitted by other law.” Rule 1.15 of the Rules of Professional Conduct requires that “records of … trust account funds and other property shall be kept and preserved by the lawyer for a period of seven years after termination of the representation.” Documents that prove the steps that an attorney took to prosecute his client’s case can support a defense to a malpractice suit.

That’s all well and good, but how much is too much? What about deadlines that are missed because your “tickler” system is, basically, strewn across your office floor? What if an associate, paralegal, or secretary uses the same system? Your ethical responsibilities extend to subordinate lawyers (Rule 5.1) and staff (Rule 5.3) and require you to make “reasonable efforts” to put in place managerial practices that ensure that others conform to the ethical rules. Preamble “In all professional functions a lawyer should be competent, prompt and diligent. Rule 1.3 provides, “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.” The most common basis for bar discipline and malpractice suits is a claim that the lawyer missed a deadline. In reviewing several articles on “How to Pick a Lawyer,” I found that a common piece of advice is to get a look at the lawyer’s office. If you see that the only way to his desk is via a hoarder’s path through documents, it’s safe to assume that the file you step on could be your own.

You don’t want to be this guy.

Artistic, creative types often thrive on disorganization, claiming that they work better in an environment that is not regimented. That’s great if you’re a talent scout, a sports agent, or a painter. It’s a not-so-wonderful trait for lawyers. Clutter leads to disorganization, which leads to failure to properly document deadlines, which leads to missing deadlines, which leads to sanctions, bar discipline, and malpractice suits. Similarly, disorganization leads to missing documents, which leads to non-billable, wasted time searching for documents that should have been readily available. Missing documents lead to failure to prepare for meetings and hearings. Wasting time leads to haste, which can lead to legal error, failure to properly record billable time or commingling of funds. It also uses time that could have been spent communicating with clients.

Here’s what happened to a lawyer who repeatedly missed deadlines because he lacked a proper, organized system of keeping up with his cases. He blamed his secretary, which is the legal equivalent of saying your dog ate your calendar. In a disciplinary action brought by the Bar of the state where he practiced, he was placed on suspension. Among the conditions imposed were the following:

  1. Law Office Organization. The respondent will establish and utilize a diary and docketing system which includes a mechanism by which approaching court deadlines and statutes of limitations are noted. The respondent will review each of his cases at least every two weeks to determine what action needs to be taken. The respondent will update his calendar on a daily basis. The respondent will reconcile his calendar with his assistant’s calendar on a daily basis. The respondent will reconcile his calendar with the Johnson County District Court’s calendar on a weekly basis.
  2. Audits. The practice supervisor will conduct audits of the respondent’s files every six months, beginning September 1, 2013, and continuing throughout the time the respondent remains on probation. The practice supervisor will make a report of each audit. In conducting the audits, the practice supervisor will review each of the respondent’s open case files. In the report of the audit, the practice supervisor will determine if deadlines were met, if the respondent maintained adequate communication, and if there were any irregularities in the cases. Additionally, the practice supervisor will note any matters which amount to a violation of the Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct or the Rules Relating to the Discipline of Attorneys. In the audit report, the practice supervisor will also provide the respondent with a list of changes to incorporate in his practice to improve the respondent’s practice. The practice supervisor will provide a copy of the audit report to the respondent and the disciplinary administrator.

Seems to me that picking your files up off the floor is a small price to pay to avoid having to report to the calendar police on a daily basis.

Help me!

These tips are common to most de-cluttering advice:

  • Clean off your desk every Friday afternoon. Reward yourself with a beer afterward, if necessary, but don’t condemn yourself to starting in the black hole of data on Monday morning.
  • Work on one project at a time. That’s the only project that should be on your desk. Well, okay, in the middle of your desk. In front of your monitor.
  • Don’t be a digital hoarder. Just because nobody else can see your clutter, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, especially in your email boxes. Delete unneeded emails on a weekly basis.
  • Sit in your visitor’s chair to see what others see. Okay, take the files off the chair first. Making your office attractive will make you feel better, especially on Monday morning.
  • Set up a filing system and use it. File, don’t pile.
  • Only touch a piece of paper once, then file it or throw it away. That goes for potato chip bags, candy wrappers, and ketchup packets — why are you eating at your desk anyway? Go take a walk.

What if it’s not you who is the hoarder, but a co-worker? At all costs, keep them from “colonizing” beyond their assigned area. Hoarders follow the common properties of gas — they (and their stuff) will expand to fill any available space. Lobby to have them moved to the least accessible office in the building; the hoarder may even support you in this. Don’t loan them anything you want to see again, and never, never rely on them for time-sensitive information.

Hoarding is a complex disorder; the causes and the manifestations are individualized. If it’s you, be sensitive to the impact your condition creates for yourself, your career, and others. If it’s a co-worker, be sensitive to their condition, but always mindful of your own boundaries. And if they disappear into their officefor days, well, remember the Collyer brothers.