A Digital Filing System

By Mindi L. Conerly and David L. Masters


Working in a paperless office environment requires organization skills in order to achieve success. As with a paper world, carelessness can result in documents being misfiled. You can organize the filing system of a digital law office similarly to the filing system of a law office with paper files. You can replicate, refine, and expand your paper file system in the digital world.

In the typical law office, large files reside in rust-colored accordion folders full of subdivided manila folders. Each manila folder bears a label identifying its contents: “Correspondence,” “Pleadings,” “Notes,” “Drafts,” and so forth. The manila folders are organized chronologically, one hopes, to make locating documents easier.

A letter comes in from opposing counsel. You make copies, two-hole punch the letter, pull back the metal prongs, find the correct chronological place in the file, push back the prongs, and file the letter in the manila folder. This tedious task occurs in a flash using a digital filing system. In the digital filing system, a document comes into the office, is scanned to Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF), and saved to the appropriate folder. The filing is done.

Electronic filing systems begin with the commitment to capture digital images of all incoming paper resulting in storage of digital files in a structured system. The digital “file room” consists of electronic filing cabinets filled with folders that contain everything found in traditional paper files. The concept of digital filing is not difficult if you equate it with paper filing. For example, think of a shared hard disk drive as the file room. The cabinets within the room are large divisions on the disk. Within those cabinet-sized divisions are folders for each client. Client folders are further divided into subfolders to aid in organization.

All documents that enter the law office should be scanned to the PDF and stored in client folders. All documents that leave the office should be printed to PDF and stored in the appropriate client folder. As high tech as scanning or printing to PDF may sound, the storage and organizational system adheres to an old-fashioned filing cabinet metaphor.

The filing cabinet exists in virtual space (on a computer hard disk drive shared over a local area network). The main filing cabinet has a name, “Work.” You may want separate digital filing cabinets for Closed Files, Administrative Files, or even for extra-large client matters (those that would require a separate filing cabinet to hold the paper). Each computer on the network links to the filing cabinets by mapping one or more network drives, e.g., X:\Work. Now each desktop has access to the filing cabinet “Work.” Within the filing cabinet are folders, one for each client, e.g. X:\Work\Downey. If a client has multiple matters, then that client folder has a subfolder for each distinct matter, e.g., X:\Work\Downey\Biota, X:\Work\Downey\Estate, X:\Work\Downey\General, etc. Within each client matter folder are folders for various types of documents, such as correspondence, pleadings, expense receipts, research, privilege, etc. See Figure 1 below.

The digital filing system uses alphabetical ordering. This happens automatically when you organize them by “Name.” You simply create a “New Folder” within the client filing cabinet (e.g., X:\Work) and name it with the client’s name. It will automatically sort alphabetically. To impose order on the contents of individual folders, documents should be named starting with the year, then month, then day, followed by a few descriptive terms, e.g. X:\Work\Smith\PleadPDF\020327 Complaint. By inserting the date at the beginning of the file name, you sort all documents in a given folder in year-month-day order. Consider adopting a file naming rule that calls for the date first, followed by the initials of the party who generated the document (followed next by the initials of the recipient if correspondence), followed a short description.

To make digital files look like paper files, all items of outgoing work product are printed (converted) to PDF. Printing to PDF can be as simple as clicking a button on a tool bar that invokes the PDFWriter print driver; you are then prompted to select the folder where the PDF version of the document will be stored. “Printing to PDF” differs from printing to a physical printer in that no toner or paper is used; otherwise, the final product (file copy) looks just like what would come out of a physical printer. In many cases we file pleadings electronically with the court, copies are served on the other parties by the filing service (either electronically or by mail), and we send a copy of our pleading to the client as an attachment to an e-mail message. In order to maintain a digital file that looks like a paper file, consider using dual folders for correspondence and pleadings. One folder contains the native application files (Word, WordPerfect, Excel, etc.), and the other folder contains the PDF versions. For example, correspondence files created with WordPerfect are stored in a subfolder named “CorresWPD.” All correspondence files in PDF format are stored in a subfolder called “CorresPDF.” The correspondence that originates in your office is in the “CorresWPD” file and correspondence from clients, opposing counsel and your printed to PDF work is all located in the “CorresPDF” folder. The benefit to the CorresPDF is that you can see the communication to and from all parties and be able to reference the communication. Because all incoming and outgoing correspondence is file-named as described above, e.g. 030705 MLC to JBL SettlementOffer, it is arranged chronologically and easily accessible. The same dual folder system exists for pleadings and offers the same advantages.

The digital filing system described above requires following a few simple rules:
1. Scan all incoming documents to PDF;
2. Print all outgoing work product to PDF;
3. Create a virtual filing cabinet with folders for each client matter;
4. Create subfolders within the client folders for clients with multiple matters;
5. Segregate document types within the client matter folders into appropriate subfolders;
6. Use dates when naming files so that they display in chronological order.

Predefined Folder Sets:
Use predefined folder sets to streamline the “new matter” process and provide consistency in your filing system. For example, create a master litigation folder set that contains the file structure for new litigation matters. The subfolders are empty. When opening a new litigation file, simply highlight the NewMatterLit folder, then select all (Control-A), copy (Control-C), then paste (Control-V) this file structure onto the folder created for the client. Now every litigation file has the same filing structure. Similar predefined folder sets are maintained for transactional and other matters. See Figure 2 below.

As you can see, this file structure may provide more detail than what you have been using in the paper world, and of course you can add all the sub-folders you want and then simply drag-and-drop the contents from one folder to another. File reorganization can’t be much easier.

Archived Files
Archived or closed files are stored using a system consistent with that described above. Closed files are stored in a separate filing cabinet, e.g., X:\Closed Files. To aid in navigation create a folder in this cabinet for each letter of the alphabet, e.g., X:\Closed Files\A. Now simply drag the client matter folder to the appropriate alphabetical archive. See Figure 3 below.

The above example divides the Closed File Archives folder into subfolders, some of which are named with a single letter, others with two or more letters (e.g., C-D), and some with client matter names. Make the divisions small enough to allow for easy navigation and backup media capacity. (If you want to put closed files on CD-ROM, then the contents of each folder must be smaller than 700MB.)

All law firms have some type of filing system. Digital filing systems can be modeled on existing methods or structured alphabetically. By simply altering the nature of the file room, file cabinets, and the type of media being stored (digital v. paper), you can make your office more efficient and better organized.

Mindy Conerly ( mlc@masterslawfirm.com) has a B.A. from Truman State University and a J.D. from the University of Tulsa College of Law. She is an associate at The Masters Law Firm, L.L.C. in Montrose, Colorado.

David L. Masters ( dlmasters@masterslaw.com) is a sole practitioner in Montrose, Colorado. He is a frequent speaker on legal technology and the law and a member of the Editorial Board of the GPSolo Technology & Practice Guide.


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