Technology Practice Tips Podcasts

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

More on File Management

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Lawyers have lots of files.  So many, that we're talking about it again!  In this second look at file management in a law office, Phil and David talk about storing your files (not naming and folder conventions, which we touched on last time), using PDF both because it's better to protect your documents and for keeping them long term, and topics related to document retention.
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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. Today we are going to talk about file management again.

DW: If you listen to our other podcast you’ll hear about how you can organize your files using file names and folder structures, using document management systems. Today we’re going to spend some time talking about actually manipulating the files so that they’re easier for you to use, store, interact with, and send to other people, whether it is to the court or your clients.

PB: So, we’re talking about electronic files, some of which were electronic to begin with, and some of which may be converted from paper.

DW: We’re not really going to look at paperless offices, but if you look at the documentation that’s out there about paperless you’ll find a lot of things that are relevant to managing electronic files. One of them is how to process paper that is coming in so that it is scanned, turned into a digital file, and then ready for you to use in whatever way you plan to in your office.

PB: And there are a number of different ways to scan paper files into electronic files, and different formats are used.

DW: Right, the ABA has a technology buyersguide that they put out each year that talks about some nice small scanners that you can put on your desk for making sure that all of the materials that come in for you and your staff are getting scanned in and processed. And then, the output can be turned into a Word document or a PDF, whatever you want. The one step you want to make sure you do if you scan something though, because normally it would scan as an image and that is not really very much use to you, is to scan it in and use what is called "optical character recognition (OCR)" to turn it into a document that you can then search, re-use if it is a precedent or something else that you want to re-use, cut and paste, and that sort of thing.

PB: Right, and we don’t want to actually save files as Word files necessarily, because not only do they contain a bunch of meta-data, they may also be changed.

DW: Right.

PB: For instance, when you call up a Word document on your computer, it will change it to today’s date.

DW: That’s right, and there is a good rule of thumb, and a good blog post about it at the Lawyerist website, that PDF is a great option for your final documents. That way you know that it was, sort of, locked in place and that can be your final document. So if you use Word documents, even if you scan into Word, then be prepared to use that as a draft or a work in progress and then focus on having PDF as your final outcome. A PDF document that has been OCR’d will still be searchable if you are using desktop or other search tools and can be organized and manipulated almost as well as a Word document, but not so much that it is actually going to change the document.

PB: And you can also tag these files as you are saving them. We talked before about having a very consistent and robust naming system so that you could find the files by name, but you can also find them by tags when you are searching.

DW: That’s right. In Microsoft Word especially, as you are saving the document, although it is actually a hassle that a lot of people will avoid, but there is something called document properties that you can turn on so that document properties always prompts you when you save a document to add these properties. One of them is the title of the document, and if you do not put a title in your document and then save it to PDF, the title of your document essentially is "Microsoft Word document" and then some other rubbish after it. So, it’s a really good opportunity to add keywords or information to the document that will not appear in the document itself, the meta-data that Phil was talking about, and you can then have these keywords appear in search. So if you have a lot of documents that are all forms, you can add a tag or a keyword called "forms" so that when you do a search, all of these documents will come up, even if the word "form" is not in the document itself.

PB: Now, after we have saved these files into a digital format, do we just throw out the paper files right away or should we keep them for a bit?

DW: Oh, absolutely, throw them right in the trash, same day. I’m guessing that that is not your answer, though.

PB: My answer would be to consider having a day box or something like that, so that after you have done your daily backup, which is always a good idea, you can then go and check to make sure that the files that you have recently saved are somewhere within the system.

DW: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. The thing that you will realize once you start making these documents into electronic and you have this second copy in paper is that it is the same thing that happens in records management. A lot of your documents really aren’t records. They are not things that you need to keep. They are just things that are used for the day-to-day operations of your law practice or the court or whatever, and so you will start to differentiate those things that need to be kept long-term and those things that really can just be in the day box or, at the end of the week, purged or shredded. You do not put them in a place that they can be re-used or re-found. There was a law firm in Minneapolis where one of their employees was taking the discarded documents to her kid’s school and they were using the other side for drawing and stuff, and they were medical records and things like that, so you really want to make sure that you are disposing of them properly.

PB: And speaking of file retention and file destruction, you should also have a policy in place on how to destroy these electronic files eventually, and a time-frame for doing that.

DW: That’s right. Even if they are documents you need right now for the case, they may not be things that you want to keep long-term for whatever reason. Making that distinction between Word documents and PDF can be really useful because that can actually be an easy way to quickly sort the files that you have saved on a particular client matter. At the end of the client matter, if all of your files are those PDFs, then you can quickly remove them for longer term storage and maybe get rid of some of the work product you have had in the middle.

PB: And there are a number of different ways to secure these electronic files with permissions to look at certain files that you can set within your operating system or within your file management system. You can also encrypt them. You can have password protection on certain files. There are a number of different ways to handle how those files are dealt with.

DW: It is also good to think about whether you are keeping lots of copies of the same thing. So if you have a document that you are re-using and have multiple copies across your file system or your document management system, you may want to think about starting with a single document and linking to it, and you can do that in Windows by just right-clicking on the document and creating a short-cut from the little menu. It will say "create short-cut." Or if it is web-based, you can actually create links. But that allows you to then get access to a document that is in a different folder in a different part of the system without actually having multiple copies of the same document appearing everywhere.

PB: And I know people tend to think of electronic data as being very cheap to store, but, when you are looking for a particular file, it makes no sense to have 12 copies of that file. You know, the email that you have saved from your inbox into a file folder and that file folder then going into a client file folder. When you are looking for that piece of correspondence again or some documents that were attached, you do not want to find it in six different places.

DW: That’s right. The cheapness of the storage is offset by the cost you will have in hunting around and making sure that you have the actual copy of the actual document you are looking for, so anything you can do to de-duplicate or find the duplicates and either remove them or just limit yourself to the actual number you need, will be beneficial to you and your staff.

PB: And the one place I would talk about redundancy being important would be your storage locations.

DW: Right.

PB: Having a physical location, maybe with a hard drive or backing up all of your files, as well as possibly, depending on your practice and your preferences and your clients, deciding whether or not you also want to backup securely in a Cloud.

DW: Right. One of the benefits of having your documents in the Cloud is that you can then share them directly to the client if you want to without having to email. You can essentially send him a link and password protect it, which provides them with secure access to the files that you have, but you do have to take into account that those files are then out and available to anybody who has the username and password that that client is using to access that file.

PB: Right, and we are not suggesting DropBox or anything like that necessarily, but either an intranet or some way to share those files with a client securely.

DW: Right, and having both that physical drive internally and some sort of off-site Cloud or otherwise, hosted storage system, can really give you some nice redundancies in case something happens to that hard drive or your office. You can keep working even when you can only get to things over the internet.

PB: And we’ve talked before about ransomware and people have had ransomware on their office computers, but the backups they have in the Cloud have been safe.

DW: Right, yes, I think that is still an issue for a lot of lawyers, this issue of ransomware and encrypting and making your files inaccessible. So if you have backups, the more the better, although, I guess you can have too many backups too.

PB: Yes, you can have too many backups. That is our second look at file management. I am going to guess that we are going to revisit it again at some point, but that is it for today.

DW: Thanks, Phil.

PB: Thanks, David.