Technology Practice Tips Podcasts

Practical law practice technology concepts in an accessible, conversational manner with Phil Brown and David Whelan

Organize and Find Your Files

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A recurring complaint for lawyers is the time wasted managing and retrieving files and documents.  Listen as we discuss some basic ways to create and organize your files, and then tools like search that enable you to quickly find them again.
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Speaker Key: PB Phil Brown, DW David Whelan

PB        Hi. It's Phil Brown and I'm here with David Whelan, and today we're going to talk about file management.

DW      Hey Phil. This is obviously one the most exciting topics we have ever discussed, but files are an important part, a physical component, of every law practice and as you are taking your files and thinking about how are you going to manage that information on your computer or on your devices, it's important to think about how you're doing it right now so that you've got the best possible processes that you can move over to your technology.

PB        So we have two different worlds; we have the physical file world, and then we have paperless or electronic file world.

DW      Right.

PB        And I guess one of the things to note to begin with is if you're an absolute mess in terms of organization with your physical files, it's going to be a great leap for you to get into the electronic world.

DW      There are really two ways that people tend to go out about organizing their information in law practices. One way is to try and emulate, in their technology, the filing system they have in their office. So, for example, if you have a client folder and inside that client folder you have multiple file folders; one for pleadings and one for correspondence and so on, it's relatively easy to take that system and create a folder structure on your computer or on your device that reflects that same folder structure, so that you can you can go into a client folder on your computer and within that client folder there are sub-folders.

PB        One of the key things there, the key word that you mentioned, is structure.

DW      Exactly.

PB        And you have to have a very robust naming convention for all those electronic files or you may never find them again.

DW      That's a great point because if you start out with a very simple structure, say, you use the last name of client, you can very quickly get the point where, if you get a second client with that same name and have to create a new folder, of having to back through your system and fixing that. So the more complete your naming convention, both for the folders, as well as the documents that go in them, the better. The other approach is something that requires a little bit of flexibility. Think of a big pile of paper on your desk that has no organization at all, and some people like that on their computer too. So they'll just create a big folder and throw everything into it, and then they rely on search or some other technology in order to help them get it out. If you are the sort of person who likes to browse through folders and organise your information in that way, folders are a great way to go. If you don't browse but you're comfortable using search you can actually create a single folder with everything in it, but then you really need to focus on your naming conventions for all those files, so that when you do a search and retrieve all that information, you know what you're looking at.

PB        And one of the things related, of course, to file management is backups. It's a good idea to have some redundancy in the electronic world as well.

DW      Yes. If you've got all these folders in a particular location on your computer, it can actually make your backups much easier because now you know where all of your files are, and if you're sharing those files with other people in your office they know how to get around the same folder structure. Or, if you put it out on your network server they know how to get to the same information and also to create new files and folders in the system.

PB        Before we get into the concept of searching, one of the things I should mention is that if you're making this conversion from a physical file management system to an electronic file management system or a paperless office, one of the things you have to keep an eye on is to develop this system moving forward, and not going back and recreating and copying everything.

DW      That's a good point. I think one of the interesting things about moving your files onto technology, onto computers, is that you can start to get benefits that you can't realize with a piece of paper. So if you have a client folder, and inside that client folder you have a document that actually needs to go in multiple sub-folders, on your computer you can actually place that file in multiple locations. Now, you wouldn't actually want to place multiple copies there because if someone changed one copy that might not actually impact the other files, but what you can do is once you put a file into a sub-folder, you can create shortcuts to that file in other sub-folders. And that way, if you've organised your files in a certain way and a staff person or another lawyer comes along and wants to find information in that client folder but is thinking about it differently from how you organized it, they might still be able to find it because they can find the shortcut to the document even if that's not where the actual document exists.

PB        So one of the other things we can talk about at this point is limiting access to those files as well, electronically.

DW      When you put your files onto a system, you can change the properties of the folders and of the individual files, so that only the people that need to get access to those files are able to. In many cases you'll want to have larger access, broader access, so that you don't have to open a file or share a file every time someone needs access to it, but it allows you to really control access. If you have an issue like a Chinese wall to keep people from looking at particular content, you can use the security to help to block.

PB        And you can change security when employees leave as well.

DW      Right.

PB        So let's talk about finding these files now that you've created them and saved them in various places. Presumably you have backup copies which are off-site in case you have some sort of business interruption, but how are we going to find these files again?

DW      Well, the most obvious way is browsing, and that is really the digital version of what you're already doing. You're walking to a shelf, you're opening a folder, and then you're looking at sub-folders and the papers that are inside them. You can still do that in a digital world, but the benefit of having your content digitally is that you can now start to search for the information and not have to go and browse and try and remember how a document was filed. You can use search both on your computer and on the web to find information that you've stored.

PB        Do you need other software or can you search from the software itself?

DW      At a very basic level you can do search within your operating system - with Windows 7.  Windows search has finally gotten to the point where it's reliable enough that you can pull back information very, very quickly. With earlier versions of the Windows operating system it wasn't always that good. Windows 7 users should also make sure that they look at their Indexing Options in their Control Panel, and this is a little geeky, but Windows, when it comes out of the box, doesn't automatically index the contents of all the documents you would want to search. It often will only index the file name, so you need to go into your index options, and make sure that it is indexing the contents for all the files that you are looking for particularly if you use WordPerfect or something that is not a Microsoft file.

PB        And the Mac has the similar function with Finder and those are the built-in options. There are also some search apps that you can add to your computer.

DW      Two of the best-known ones are X1 and Copernic and they are software applications that you download and install on your local computer and they provide you powerful search options and the ability to do keyword searching and other things on your computer. There is a free version of Copernic, but that is only for personal use, so if you use Copernic make sure you're paying for the business license.

PB        Some people are storing information in the Cloud which is basically just... we've talked about this in other podcasts; servers that aren’t within your organisation. How would you search information stored in the Cloud?

DW      When you load information up to Dropbox or to Google Drive or one of these other Cloud sites they typically will have a search interface built into the website, so when you go to your Dropbox account at Dropbox.com you can do a keyword search and it will automatically search all the files that are out there. One of the interesting things about using Cloud search or Cloud storage is that even if you don't want to put all of your client files up there... say you've got a large number transcripts related to litigation or to some other large set of text documents, you can load those into the Cloud, and then use the search in the Cloud to, very rapidly, pull back files that might take longer to look for if you're using just your operating system or a local search application.

PB        And there's a couple of different apps built specifically so that you can search all of your social media applications as well.

DW      Right. One of the best known is CueUp which used to be known as Greplin. CueUp.com and CloudMagic.com is another one, and what that allows you to do is that if you have a Dropbox account and a Twitter account and Google mail account, you can search all of those systems all at once. So the benefit of using search in addition to browsing is that you can have a way to pull back information from multiple locations without having to remember where the information was stored before you start looking for it.

PB        And you alluded a bit to tweaking Windows 7 to be able to turn on the indexing. Do you want to talk a little bit about indexing and how it works?

DW      Sure. Indexing is a shortcut for search programmes so when you type in a search it usually isn’t actually looking at all of the files on computer right then. It has built an index prior to your search, and the index is a file of information about the files that are on your computer, and that makes the search go faster. So when you do a search the search application looks at the index, finds the files that have the attributes, the  keywords, or whatever you're looking for that match and then returns those matches. So the index is stored on your computer somewhere. You won't necessarily see it but it allows you to have a faster search on your computer. If you're using Cloud-based storage or Cloud-based search like CueUp or CloudMagic then that index is also stored in the Cloud, and you'll want to make sure that it is protected and secured in the same way as the actual documents are.

PB        Great. That's our quick look at file management. Thanks, David.

DW      Thanks, Phil.