Your documents and files are how you “show” your work, but it’s terribly embarrassing (and frustrating!) when you can’t find what you’re looking for. Establishing a standard and consistent method for naming and storing your files is a non-negotiable condition for ensuring a smooth-running practice.
Name Your Folders and Files
The first step is to outline a “folder structure” that makes sense for the documents you create, maintain, and organize in your practice. For most firms, a Client folder works at the top level, under which can be placed Matter folders. Under each Matter you can have sub-folders for document types such as Correspondence, Pleadings, Agreements, Family Papers, and whatever makes sense for the clients you represent.
Next, you must establish a consistent file-naming convention for your practice so you can find files when you need them. A best practice is to start every file name with the date structure YYYY-MM-DD. Putting the date at the beginning of the file name will sort all your files chronologically, grouping files from the same year and month together. The date will usually be the date you create the document, but you may prefer to use the date a letter was sent or received.
A couple notes on the YYYY-MM-DD date structure for your file names: First, some folks just smush all the numbers together as in “20200125,” but that looks too confusing to me. I recommend using either a dash (-) or a period (.) as a separator. Any other characters such as a slash (/) or an asterisk (*) might be ignored because the operating system uses some special characters for specific purposes.
Second, it’s extremely important to use “leading zeroes” so there will always be two characters for the month (MM) and day (DD). For example, if the date is May 6, you must type 2020-05-06. If you don’t use leading zeroes, your files won’t be sorted chronologically.
After the date, decide how much information should be contained in the file name. For example, you could include the client and matter in the file name, but if you’ve stored the file in a client/matter folder, that information is redundant. Instead, use a word or phrase (or even abbreviations) to describe the content and purpose of the file (e.g., “2015-03-26 John Smith Deposition” or “2019-12-08 Letter re Court Appearance”).
Sort and Search Your Files
The macOS Finder offers a wealth of options for displaying and listing your files that most folks never explore. When you follow the best practices above for consistently naming your files, you need to set up the Finder to sort files by Name. To do this, click the “View” menu in the Finder window, scroll down to “Sort By,” and select “Name.”
Next, you can view your files as a simple list or as thumbnails, but my preference is “Columns” so that you can see the folder structure, and selecting a file shows the preview and associated metadata in the right panel. Select “as Columns” from the View menu (or from the little buttons in the Finder’s toolbar).
From the View menu, also click “Show Path Bar,” which displays a handy “breadcrumb” view at the bottom of the Finder showing the sub-sub-sub-folders where the currently selected file is located. And those folders are all clickable if you need to jump to one of those folders.
To keep things visually organized when viewing a list of files, I like to have the folders always show at the top. Click the “Finder” menu and go to “Preferences,” and on the Advanced tab, check the box “In windows when sorting by name” under “Keep folders on top.” (See figure below.)
And while you’re on that Advanced tab, look at the drop-down options under “When performing a search” and make sure it says “Search the Current Folder.” That means when you use the search bar in the Finder, it will search the current folder that you’re viewing. But you can always expand that search by clicking “This Mac” to search all files in all folders.
The Finder’s search bar is awfully powerful, and you should be taking advantage of it! For example, when you type a word, a small drop-down menu appears underneath that says “Name matches”; if you click this, macOS will only show you files when that word occurs in the file name. If you do not click this option, macOS searches for the word or phrase in the contents of your files.
Once you run a search with a word or phrase, you’ll see a tiny plus sign (+) that appears under the search box. When you click that, you’ll be presented with additional options for filtering your search. For example, let’s say your search for the word “refusal” returned a lot of results, but you’re specifically looking for a PDF file you received from opposing counsel that you know contains that word (i.e., you don’t want PowerPoint or Word documents with that word). You’ll select “Kind” in the first drop-down menu and then “PDF” in the second drop-down menu.
Automate Your File Names
All these tips and recommendations are meaningless if you don’t follow a consistent file-naming convention in your office. The first step is simply to commit to creating an office policy that dictates how you create client and matter folders and exactly how you name files (starting with YYYY-MM-DD). If you or your staff or colleagues deviate from this policy, you might as well just “store” your files in haphazard paper piles around your office.
Here’s one last tip for ensuring your file-naming convention is followed: Automate the task. It’s a waste of time for you to look up the date every time you need to name a file, plus a percentage of the time you’re going to mistype it. Use a text expansion utility such as TextExpander (http://textexpander.com) or Keyboard Maestro (http://www.keyboardmaestro.com) not only to save you time, but to type the date accurately every single time.
In TextExpander, set up a snippet to automatically type YYYY-MM-DD so you don’t even need to remember what day it is or take time to look at a calendar. You can then have TextExpander prompt you for words and phrases to complete the file name or offer a drop-down menu with a prescribed list of descriptors that your office uses. The best part is that you can share these TextExpander snippets with everyone in the office so you’re all following the same protocols.
Find What You Need When You Need It
Don’t overlook the simplicity and crucial necessity for establishing a policy in your office for naming folders and files. It is absolutely essential for running a sound practice and, frankly, boosts your confidence that you can find files when you need them!
At some point, when your practice outgrows this “manual” method of storing documents and files, you should consider implementing a formal document management system (DMS) such as NetDocuments (http://www.netdocuments.com) or DocMoto (http://www.docmoto.com). These systems provide a single repository for all files, allow for full document “profiles,” and track document versions across your offices.