One perpetual struggle for lawyers is how to manage all of the documents in a client’s file once they’ve been created. Keep in mind that it’s not just the documents created in a word processor. You’re receiving electronic documents from your client, other parties, and the court. They may be e-mails, or calendar appointments, or other word processed or PDF files. All of these documents need to be managed.
I mentioned earlier I’m not going to touch on paperless lawyering. This has more to do with your practice area and your personality and ability to automate processes to ensure incoming paper is captured. It’s a good goal and I work largely paperless myself but it’s not for everyone, and technology isn’t the hurdle to success.
Also, I’m purposely skipping discussing e-mail as a communication tool. You probably think you’re already great at it, and if you’re not, I won’t persuade you. If you’re not sure, work on it.
By now you won’t be surprised at the range of solutions, from simple use of a folder system on a lawyer’s hard drive all the way up to cloud-based dedicated document management tools that have built-in search functions.
The real question is whether you can come up with a solution that enables you to store information and retrieve it when it needs to be found. Surveys done by LexisNexis in 2008 and 2010 found that lawyers felt they were spending a considerable amount of time finding information. Anything you can do to reduce time wasted storing and finding information will positively impact your law practice.
One of the easiest systems is to set up a folder structure on your computer that breaks out the elements of information you create for your matters. It usually involves a folder for each client, sub-folders for each matter, and sub-folders within each of those matters for the types of information you capture. These systems can be enhanced with rules on naming files clearly and using the full file name length possible.
A decade ago, lawyers might have to name documents using the 8 dot 3 names of early DOS and windows. A motion for summary judgment in the Smith matter might look like smitmtsj.doc. Not very helpful. Modern versions of Windows support longer names so Smith James – Motion for Summary Judgment – 20150203 – Final.docx is possible.
This is a boon for lawyers so here’s a caveat for you. A filename can have a length of up to about 250 characters. That filename, above, for the James Smith motion is 65 characters, including spaces. Safe, right? Maybe, maybe not. The character limit is 254 for filename and for the file’s path. In that case, c:\clients\smith james\apple tree\smith james – motion for summary judgment – 20150203 – final.docx is closer to 100 characters. As you create a naming convention and folder system, you will need to keep things like this in mind. These limits are not just for your local computer. Microsoft’s SharePoint limits filenames to 128 characters if you run the software in your office, and 256 characters if you use it in the cloud. Other systems probably have similar limitations.
Folder systems are popular because they are easy. You may prefer to load your documents into your case management system. They may still be saved to a hard drive, your local PC or one on your network or a server in the cloud, but they are named and managed by the software.
On top of that, there is dedicated document management software (DMS), like commercial Netdocuments.com or Worldox’s cloud and on-premises software and open source Alfresco and Nuxeo, among many others. These systems handle the naming and organization for you and enable you to add additional information to the files, called metadata, that helps to organize and describe it. Where you might have placed a file in a folder called Smith James, now you would fill a client name data field in your document to capture that information.
The DMS automates what is otherwise a manual process of naming and storing files. You may misname a file but doing so is probably less likely to result in you not finding it again. The software can support the same naming conventions but the software layer can force you and your staff to save the files in a place where they are backed up, it can manage multiple versions of files, and help you to search both the text and metadata surrounding the documents you store.
I’ve already hit on the issues of metadata as a hazard when documents are shared.
When talking about document management, metadata is an important element to consider. Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect support the addition of metadata in documents. If you look at the file properties for a Word document, for example, you’ll see things like status, author, subject, title. You can also create custom fields – like client, or matter, etc. – that can be stored within the file but not appear within the document when you look at it.
Whether you use a DMS or simple folders, be sure you add metadata to your files. Adding this to your processes for file and document management can make retrieving files easier. It can help you but it can embed information that only the person creating the document knows about the document, and which doesn’t appear on the face of the file when it’s opened.
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