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January 24, 2024 Feature

OneNote 101: A Guide to Paperless Chambers

By Judge Willie J. Epps Jr. and Kaitlin M. Minkler

Five years ago, our chambers team relied heavily on paper and physical notebooks. We lived by three-ring binders to conduct routine hearings and periodic jury trials. We even used physical notebooks to organize a law clerk handbook, judicial travel records, materials for bar association meetings, and notes for annual judicial financial disclosure reports.

Life around chambers changed dramatically when the Administrative Office (AO) of the U.S. Courts gave the federal judiciary access to Microsoft OneNote. Chambers went from cutting down trees each week to operating paperlessly. We find OneNote to be a powerful tool for chambers’ organization, notetaking, and planning. This article is written to demonstrate how one federal judge, working closely with law clerks and a courtroom deputy (CRD), has organized his judicial functions with OneNote.

How to Get OneNote

OneNote is designed for information gathering and multi-user collaboration. Initially released in November 2003, it is no longer exclusively available in the Microsoft Office bundle. OneNote is now free, available as a stand-alone app in various app stores and in a web-based version as a part of Microsoft OneDrive. As a federal judge, you simply need to work with your information technology (IT) department to access OneNote because the AO previously purchased it. State court and administrative law judges with access to the Microsoft Office Suite should be able to download and use OneNote after confirming with their IT departments they are not prohibited from doing so.

How to Organize OneNote

Our chambers operate in one digital notebook with a not-so-creative name: WJE Chambers Notebook. Judge Epps, who created the virtual notebook, controls access. He has given his law clerks and CRD editing and reading rights. OneNote allows users to create a notebook with sections and multiple levels of nested subsections. WJE Chambers Notebook has three sections: handbook, hearings and meetings, and trials.

The handbook section is filled with pages introducing new law clerks to their job responsibilities, criminal procedure, civil procedure, chambers’ culture, the judge’s conflict list, chambers’ workflow, and directory of former law clerks. It is easy to attach links to sample orders to guide new law clerks. For example, in the criminal matters subsection, there is a page on detention hearings, which includes a link to a recent detention order. The handbook section has been instrumental in ensuring a smooth transition between term law clerks. There are step-by-step directions for most of their duties, and each year the outgoing law clerks update these directions to reflect changes in chambers.

The hearings and meetings section begins with a subsection titled scripts, which has pages for any type of hearing Judge Epps is likely to conduct. Those pages include key language Judge Epps must mention from the bench and a list of documents that are needed for each hearing. The rest of the hearings and meetings section is organized by day. Each subsection/day gets its own tab. Under that tab, the pages are organized by time, functioning like a calendar that allows any user to know at a glance when hearings and meetings are scheduled throughout the day. For example, a page may be titled “9:00 a.m. Initial Appearance and Arraignment,” “10:00 a.m. Detention Hearing,” “11:00 a.m. Meeting with Former Law Clerk,” or “1:00 p.m. Mediation,” appearing in order. Included on those pages, or as another subsection, are any documents needed for the hearing or meeting. For an initial appearance and arraignment, the indictment is included as a subsection along with a script (which even reminds users that an indictment needs to be uploaded). For a detention hearing, the indictment, the government’s motion for detention, and the pretrial service report are included as subsections with the detention hearing script. For meetings, recent email correspondence, notes, and relevant documents may be included as subsections. For mediations referred to Judge Epps, where the docket may be quite lengthy, it is easy to upload the parties’ briefing and the court’s orders. No longer are trees harmed when preparing for hearings, meetings, or mediation. At the end of the day, the subsection/day is archived. This is another incredible resource for term law clerks who can search the archive to access examples of how previous law clerks helped Judge Epps prepare for hearings and meetings.

The trial section is organized by case. Each subsection/case contains pages of the various phases of trial, from the pretrial hearing, voir dire, and preliminary instructions, to opening statements, direct and cross-examinations, and closing arguments. For example, in the pretrial hearing page, motions in limine are uploaded with relevant research from law clerks. During trial, it is easy to communicate notes about witness credibility, newly admitted exhibits, and lawyer performance because OneNote allows users to edit at the same time without saving the document and exiting. In other words, it has live editing capabilities. As one person types a note, anyone else accessing OneNote will see that note in real time. During trial, while helpful for organization, it is also a great communication tool.

How to Use OneNote

OneNote can be accessed and used on your phone, tablet, or desktop. Anyone granted editing privileges can upload documents and share notes. We use OneNote to track assignments, and law clerks monitor OneNote constantly to ensure Judge Epps is prepared for hearings. Each morning a law clerk uploads the pending motions report and summary of electronic case file (ECF) activity in the day subsection. As a team, we annotate next to each pending motion the name of the person responsible for drafting the proposed order, the date the draft is due, the date of the hearing (if applicable), and the target filing date. To prepare for hearings, law clerks are also responsible for quality-control checks, including ensuring documents, research, and any key language have been previously uploaded for Judge Epps’s access. The CRD prepares the day subsections to ensure they accurately reflect Judge Epps’s calendar. For example, when a hearing is scheduled, the CRD creates a new page to reflect the time of the hearing and uploads any documents or scripts needed. For a virtual meeting, the CRD includes the phone number or Zoom link. The CRD may also upload emails directly into OneNote for Judge Epps to reference during meetings.

To upload documents, users can use the print function. When selecting a printer, there is an option to select “Print to OneNote.” The user then selects the page on which the document should be “printed” or creates a new page for the document.

Complaints About OneNote

Despite how much we love OneNote, it is far from perfect. First, we sometimes experience synchronizing issues when signing in each morning. We have found that clicking on “stop syncing” followed by clicking on “sync all” often solves the problem. Second, OneNote occasionally runs slow, which is frustrating when we are in court conducting a hearing or trying to view notes during a mediation. We have found that closing the application and then reopening the application solves the problem. Third, the mobile version of OneNote has fewer features than the desktop version, making it more difficult to edit pages on a smartphone or tablet. Accordingly, we often lug around our laptops when traveling or working outside of chambers.

Helpful Resources

The initial use of any new system can be daunting. We found the following resources helpful when we first started using OneNote:

  1. OneNote for Lawyers
  2. 7 Reasons Every Lawyer Needs OneNote
  3. Judge Adams runs his courtroom from an iPad with OneNote, ProView, TrialPad, iCVnet, and MORE!
  4. Microsoft OneNote in One Hour for Lawyers, Second Edition

While Judge Epps’s notebook serves his chambers efficiently and effectively, the uses above may vary greatly from your needs. Thankfully, OneNote has a broad range of capabilities, of which we have barely scratched the surface.

Judge Willie J. Epps Jr.

Western District of Missouri

Judge Willie J. Epps Jr. serves as the chief U.S. magistrate judge for the Western District of Missouri and sits in Jefferson City. He is the immediate past president of the National Conference of Federal Trial Judges.

Kaitlin M. Minkler

Western District of Missouri

Kaitlin M. Minkler is a term law clerk to the Honorable Stephen R. Bough, U.S. district judge for the Western District of Missouri and former term law clerk to Judge Epps. She is a graduate of Cornell University and Washington University School of Law.

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