If you’re not familiar with Microsoft OneNote, you’re hardly alone. Although it debuted in 2003, OneNote has been one of the best-kept secrets coming out of Redmond, Washington, in part because most users had to purchase it separately from the Microsoft Office suite. All that changes, however, now that OneNote is included in the box with all versions of Microsoft Office 2010.
So what does OneNote do? Sit back and get prepared—here’s a snapshot of top things it can do for lawyers.
- Organize Free-Form Notes in One Place
First and foremost, OneNote is a powerful platform for capturing free-form notes, which for many lawyers means it replaces the yellow legal pad. Far beyond that, however, your OneNote notes are organized into digital notebooks, which can be further organized into sections, pages and subpages, via an interface that will likely feel familiar because it works much like a traditional three-ring binder. You can insert images and other items in your notebooks as well, to keep free-form information for a project together in one place.
Also, while most people type into OneNote, if you have a tablet PC or a digitizer with a stylus you can write directly into OneNote, in “ink,” to preserve your notes and sketches. It can even recognize your handwriting so it can be indexed for searching and converted into text if you like. Whatever information you input, OneNote’s powerful outlining and tagging capabilities will help you get—and keep—it organized.
- Capture Web Content
OneNote can also serve as a handy collection point for a lawyer’s Web research. Virtually any content you find on the Web can be dragged into a OneNote notebook for preservation alongside your notes. And when you do that, OneNote will automatically build a hyperlink to the source page, so you can quickly return to the original site from within your notebook whenever you want. For example, one of my attorney clients who specializes in real property law will bring up satellite images of disputed pieces of property in Google Maps and then copy and paste the images directly into OneNote, where he can refer to and annotate them as he likes.
- Integrate with Outlook
Microsoft Outlook and OneNote have a nice, cozy relationship. For starters, you can easily send e-mail messages, contacts and appointments to OneNote from within Outlook. They can then be referred to and annotated in OneNote or added to your electronic notebook for that project or matter. When you send a contact or appointment to OneNote, it generates a hyperlink that will open the related item in Outlook for you as well.
Also, if you’re adding an item in OneNote that you want to flag as a task in Outlook, you can flag that item in OneNote and it will automatically sync to your Outlook Tasks list. Mark the item complete in either program and that change will be reflected in the other program, too. It’s a handy way to capture or update action items when you’re taking notes in meetings about to-dos and the like.
- Record Audio and Video
Speaking of taking notes in a meeting, OneNote 2010 includes an audio-recording feature that lets you record meetings directly into OneNote through the built-in microphone on your laptop or an external mic connected via USB or the jack on your laptop. And not only will it record the audio—when you play the audio back, it will “follow the bouncing ball” to highlight the notes you were jotting into OneNote when each particular bit of the audio was recorded. You can also record video files to OneNote via a webcam.
To add to the options, here’s one of my favorite OneNote meeting tricks: When attendees write brainstorming or other notes down on a whiteboard in the room, I take a photo of the whiteboard before it’s erased and insert that picture right into OneNote, so I always have a record of what was written on the board.
- Search the Entire Contents of Your Notebooks
All of the text you type into OneNote is fully indexed and searchable, and all of OneNote’s tags are searchable, too. That’s not so surprising.
However, any picture that you insert into OneNote will be OCR’d and any recognized text in the picture will also be searchable. I’ve demonstrated that at conferences by taking a digital picture of a business card from the audience, inserting it into OneNote, and moments later searching for the name on the business card, which OneNote finds right before your eyes. Now that’s sort of surprising! And if you use the audio-recording feature and the recording is especially clean and clear, OneNote will even speech-recognize and index the audio file so that it’s fully searchable.
- Share and Collaborate with the Team
Last but not least, OneNote lets you place notebooks on a shared network drive (or a USB drive, a Share- Point site or the like) so that multiple people can access and edit a notebook’s pages, which makes OneNote a nice tool for collaborating on team projects. Individual user’s changes will automatically be synchronized, keeping the group’s notebook continually up-to-date. OneNote also caches a copy of the notebook to the local hard drive, so your mobile users can still access their notes when they’re on the road with their laptops. As a result, you can share notebooks seamlessly between multiple users in multiple locations in nearly real-time.
Plus, the new OneNote Web app built into OfficeLive.com means you can even host and use your notebooks “in the cloud” for better sharing and access as desired.
OneNote 2010 has other valuable features, including integration with Word and PowerPoint, too. And apparently, more and more lawyers and firms are discovering it now that it’s included in the full MS Office suite … I guess the secret is finally out.