Practice Management

Pickin’ Up What You’re Puttin’ Down: Locating Your Files

By | Jan.07.13 | Daily Dispatch, Document Management, Law Practice Management, Legal Technology

man sitting in chair managing a law practice jared correia

In many ways, being a lawyer is still about pushing paper, even if much of that “paper” is now kept electronically, with redwelds and staples going the way of the triceratops and woolly mammoth, respectively. Certainly, the chief allure of electronic files is that you can find what you need faster … no more frantic, headlong dashes into a cold storage room, and a resulting drill-tip search through rows and file folders and papers, large, small, crinkled.

Of course, this only works when you know where you’re saving stuff, and how to retrieve it. If you don’t and can’t, paper can still push back, hard.

American Pickin’

The other day, I was watching my favorite TV show, “American Pickers,” wherein the Wolfman and the Bearded Charmer were once again on the road, visiting an elderly Southern gentleman of questionable repute—but then, that’s not really quite descriptive enough, is it? Who else do they call on, really? (I’m legit when it comes to “American Pickers,” by the way; I’ve even visited—okay, not really me—the home store in LeClaire, Iowa.) In this episode, “Guys and Dollhouses,” the boys end up negotiating with said gentleman over the cost for an antiquated dollhouse. But before they do, he introduces Mike and Frank to his collection of junk, warning them of the treacherousness of their impending spelunking expedition, by proclaiming, “I’ve got one hell of a filing system … but, my retrieval system sucks.

This admits of at least a couple of points respecting filing systems. Point, the First: You need a filing system and a retrieval system. Point, the Second: Your filing system ain’t worth jack if you can’t find anything after you file it. Let’s rap about this because: The more you know, the more you’ll grow.

One Hell of a Filing System

It turns out that creating one hell of a filing system is not so difficult after all. You really only need one thing: Conventions. This is where the “system” part of the filling system comes in. You’ll need to create a consistent method for naming your client files, whether that’s by client name (Doe, John), firm-assigned number (12.10.30-11), date (2012 09 18 John Doe), some other hybrid combination or whatever else floats your boat … as long as it is coherent and consistent.

You’ll also need a consistent naming convention for your documents, whether that is something intelligible to the masses (Motion to Suppress) or just to you and your colleagues (Having Swung Away, by the Chance-lor); include just enough information to allow you to tell, at a glance, what sort of document you’re looking at. Though, without an anchor, all of these grand plans for organization are quickly undone. And so you should at least attach to all of your documents a consistent date prefix (2012 11 28); you should also aggregate client files by date—if not by a date prefix, at least in folders covering fiscal years, so your master client list does not become an unruly catalogue.

If you apply coherent and consistent filing and naming conventions, you should be able to find everything you need, when you need it.

A Retrieval System That Doesn’t Suck

If you get yourself, and everybody on your staff, to buy into an established filing system, you should have no problem executing on the retrieval end of the equation. Of course, humans being what they are, issues will arise. Sometimes, data will be input inappropriately; other times, you won’t be able to remember which file a document resides in. Enter global search, for systems and databases.

For desktop search (scouring all the files on your computer), Windows and Macs have built-in tools. There are also third-party services available—some are free, some you’ve got to pay for. Popular among those numbers are Copernic, Locate 32, Everything and X1.

Now, desktop search is useful for finding files that you have saved to your computer or server. However, if you’re using a third-party program to store information (which process often includes redundancies respecting items saved on your computer), like a cloud drive (e.g., Dropbox) or a law practice management software system, then you’re looking at searching through files within those systems, using their global search functionalities. Assuming that your document has actually been input, and the data has been labeled with a sufficiently descriptive name, desktop and internal search options should allow you to recover just about everything you can’t find within the usual order of your file tree.

Tips for Orderly Conduct

Here are some additional suggestions:

  • Save some time by creating workflows within your document processing. For example, if your scanner can add the date prefix to papers that you scan, that can save you the time of adding it in yourself. Over time, those seconds add up.
  • Unless you have a compelling reason for doing so, it’s generally not useful to save multiple versions of documents. It will only take up space and confuse and clog your already bursting electronic files. If you’re going to use versioning (outside of keeping a stray draft, here and there, or saving templates), consider utilizing a document management platform, like NetDocuments, which can more effectively manage versions.
  • Even if you create a sensible filing system, it can get complex. If your filing tree has a lot of branches, you might try TechHit’s QuickJump, which is a nifty little tool for quickly navigating through subfolders in Windows.
  • It is a well-known tenet of carrying stuff in buckets that the fewer buckets you have, the better … just ask Mickey. With that wisdom in mind, avoid saving your stuff in too many places. There are other reasons beyond the fact of its being more difficult to keep track of it the more disparate it is; but that one suffices for our purposes. It’s relatively easy to store things all in one place when you have a server; but when you’re using various cloud services, or trying to collaborate, your materials can get spread out pretty quickly.
  • Of course, the ultimate “get back” is when you are able to retrieve files that have truly been lost, due to a catastrophic event of some kind (solely personal or otherwise).  So, remember to back up your files as well, to tangible devices and cloud-based products, like Mozy or Carbonite.

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4 Responses to “Pickin’ Up What You’re Puttin’ Down: Locating Your Files”

  1. Paul Burton
    7 January 2013 at 7:38 pm #

    Jared: Great tips for developing systems and processes that facilitate the practice of law. I emphasize the need to invest effort/time into developing these with all legal audiences and individual coaching clients. The short, throw-away cliche here is, “Garbage in, garbage out.” For filing and retrieval it’s the perfect fit. Moreover, search functions are only so effective because as the garbage can fills up with more and more stuff (if you will), the search returns become long and unwieldy.

    I was recently discussing this with a large-firm client. She had assumed a lot of work by her predecessor, in addition to having her own files. Between the e-mails and physical paper, she felt overwhelmed. We discussed considering all of the “information” in an organizational-chart architecture. If she was at the top of the org chart, what were the major areas of her professional world on the first tier below her. We came up with Clients, Administrative, CLE, and Biz Dev. Below those are the sub-departments (Client Matters, Specific Admin Areas, CLE Tracking Periods, and Specific Marketing Efforts). Below that, more of the same until the data contained in the e-mails and/or physical files all had a place to go.

    The upfront effort was relatively small = determine the categorical nature of her work. The rest of the system logically from that first tier and within minutes, she had a working, flexible concept of how to store information.

    With the initial storage architecture determined, retrieval gets much easy because she can localize her search efforts using the same system. The huge garbage can became a series of small ones organized in a way that she understood.

  2. Jared
    17 January 2013 at 10:04 am #


    Thanks for your comment; this is a great, in-depth addition to the discussion.