Get Organized! Time Investments for Better Legal Information Habits

We are living in unusual times. While some of us are battling illness, overwork, or the exuberance of nearby small children, others are finding ourselves with more self-directed time than usual. If you are seeking some direction for your work, here are some ideas for research challenges or organizational methods so that you can learn something or organize something to make your future work life easier. They’re arranged according to the approximate time they’ll take: very short tasks, tasks for an hour or so, and multi-hour tasks.

Organizational tasks for five minutes or less:

Organize your inbox. For almost everyone, the first step to organizing your inbox is acceptance. You must accept that you are most likely never going to organize the vast unorganized mess of emails past. Now is the time to make peace with that. But there is one way to begin to take care of the innumerable emails you will receive in the future, and it takes less than one minute per email. Every time you receive a new email, after you read it, invent a category for that email. Make an inbox folder with the name you’ve chosen and put the email into it. Take a moment to savor your small victory. Don’t let yourself get hung up on creating the perfect categories at first. Once a week or so you may notice that you have duplicates, like a folder called Slaw and a folder called Slaw updates and you can merge the two, but even that task won’t take more than a minute.

Unsubscribe to unwanted emails. When you receive an email and do not want to categorize it, take a moment to ponder whether you might have preferred not to get the email at all. Look for an unsubscribe button at the base of the email which could rid you of future emails from that list or sender. If the email doesn’t offer an unsubscribe feature, consider setting a rule for your emails. It only takes a few seconds now, but you could make a rule that causes all emails of a particular type to go directly to a folder.

For example, the university where I work sends a daily update. Before I had folders, I’d lose approximately fifteen minutes reading the human-interest stories every time the newsletter hit my inbox. Unfortunately, it often cost me more than fifteen minutes to rebuild my momentum and proceed with whatever I had been working on before the interruption. Now those emails go to a folder for daily updates, and I read them in the afternoon while I drink my tea. If you’ve never set an inbox rule before, here are some easy instructions for Outlook or Gmail.

Research that take about an hour:

Anecdotally, it appears that many people are setting unreasonable goals for their time in social isolation, like learning a new language, becoming professional indoor athletes, or teaching their children to respect bedtimes. Rather than setting unreasonable learning goals for yourself, why not devote an hour to learning a specific aspect of something new? When you research a legal question, take an extra hour and answer the same question a second time in another jurisdiction. It’s often hard to accomplish a task like “learning about the legal system of New Orleans,” but if you’ve already researched something specific like the child custody rules following divorce of same-sex spouses in Ontario, why not try to find the answer to the same question under the legal system of New York or New Orleans or even Paris? To get started you might want to look at some compiled information about those legal systems. Many libraries create free guides which are a good place to start your research on other jurisdictions. You can find information about the state of New York, Louisiana, and France.

If you don’t want to add a new jurisdiction to your knowledge base, pick an area of law and choose one new source to read every day. If you haven’t subscribed to Slaw, you could always start now, but if you’re already a regular reader, choose an additional list or site to subscribe to. I used to be pretty hesitant to subscribe to things because of the brain drain of receiving too many emails each day and being constantly interrupted by email. But now that I’m more conscientious about removing subscriptions I no longer read (see above), and more deliberate about using rules to automatically move emails into folders, I’m more willing to subscribe to a new information source.

If you’re really restless and the idea of sitting at your computer to learn something makes you want to scream, what about an educational podcast? Load one up on your portable device of choice and take a walk while learning something. The University of Oxford has podcasts on public international law. The American Society of International Law has a podcast called International Law Behind the Headlines. The BBC Radio 4 has a series called Law in Action.

Tasks that take multiple hours:

If you have many hours to spare, why not challenge yourself by choosing a new legal topic to learn about? If nothing strikes your fancy, consider learning about divorce law. Divorce is so common that it’s a generally useful subject in which to be conversant, but be warned that it may be a bad idea to let anyone else know that you have this knowledge. Like a dermatologist, you may find yourself in the uncomfortable situation of being asked to practice your skills on friends, family, and casual acquaintances.

This spring might be a particularly good time to learn about divorce, as it’s possible divorce rates are going to rise following social isolation. So if you wanted to learn about divorce, where could you start? Find a secondary source which gives a fairly good overview of the subject, and then find a specific area you might want to focus on in more depth. Here are online resources on divorce law in the US. You could go straight to a primary source and read the Divorce Act of Canada. Or, if you want to look through the laws of a specific (non-Canadian) jurisdiction, I offer you this guide to divorce law in Franklin County, Ohio.

If divorce law is not your cup of tea, why not delve into learning about the EU? If you’ve always found the structure and history of the EU institutions a bit complicated, try reading The ABC of EU Law, by Klaus-Dieter Borchardt. It’s available for free on the EU website in all of the official EU languages. It’s not a quick read, unless you are fortunate enough to be able to read 150+ pages quickly, but it’s full of helpful diagrams, and it would be a great way to brush up on your directives versus regulations and the difference between the Council and the European Council. Whether you want to read it cover-to-cover or just skim it and keep it for later reference, I would recommend this to anyone who wants to understand the EU without ever having worked in Brussels.

If all of these tasks sound like too much to handle when we are already dealing with a worldwide crisis, remember that staying safe is the most important thing for now. If you want to accomplish something on this list but only have a few seconds, just add it to a to-do list for later, once things have calmed down.


  1. Welcome to Slaw, Amelia! This is a great first column!


  2. Lyonette Louis-Jacques

    Thanks for these tips, Amelia! And congrats on your first column for Slaw! :-)

  3. Filippa Marullo Anzalone

    Dear Amelia, thank you for this thoughtful and very sensible column! Peace, Filippa