February 2017Volume 24Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Can you find it?

Attorneys have to be efficient with electronic storage to make it possible to organize files for the maintenance of information needed often or not so often but still accessible when needed. The more efficient the organization of the material, the more economical in terms of time the location of information becomes.

The question of how to organize files is mostly an issue of personal preference; however, working in an office where multiple employees may be using the same files, having a system understood by everyone is a must. The system must be uncomplicated but still be well organized and tied to the paper materials necessary for redundancy. If the office is paperless, the backup systems also need to be organized with a system understood by everyone.

Beginning with the assumption it’s much easier to locate records you want when they are filed electronically, the next step is to create a simple filing system that insures what you want is easy to find. Dealing with a large number of items that grows larger every day requires the system to be organized in some form of tree system to reduce the number of clicks need to find the exact item. While a number of very good data systems are commercially available, it is not necessary to spend the money for a commercial system. It is preferable to create your own system from both a cost and training standpoint. No training is necessary for a system you create. You understand a system you create without training.

This article will show you how to create your own data system using a Microsoft Word program. The concept explained uses the Word program because it is commonplace to use Word for word processing in most law offices. That notwithstanding, the tree organization discussion will be applicable with other programs such as Microsoft Excel or Access.

The organization tree begins with an alpha filing system. If the system is going to be used by multiple individuals, the alpha filing system should be placed on the server accessible to everyone. This article will not deal with security issues. The system can be password protected at multiple levels if desired. It is important to note access to the server will be universal to make it possible to access all data once the initial password entry is obtained. This type or organization makes it easy for every user to access every other user’s saved items. Every attorney can access his secretary’s files as well as the files of every other attorney’s secretary and all paralegals and staff files. With this in mind, the password protection put in place should create the limitations desired on access.

If the system is going to be limited to a single user, the alpha filing system should be placed on the C drive or the drive desired by the user. Multiple systems can be put in place on different drives if necessary. As an example, a separate billing system can be created. Similarly, a separate forms system can be created. The hierarchy that works best to make what is wanted easily accessible dictates the number of systems created. It may even be preferable to place the system in the “My Documents” folder, if only a single user is involved.

What is an alpha filing system?

The alpha filing system consists of the creation of a separate folder entitled, “DATA” under which a separate folder is created for each letter of the alphabet. Subfolders are then nested in each of the alphabet letter folders to contain data or additional folders.

What is nesting?

Nesting is the creation of downstream subfolders under the main file folder with an organizational system capable of identifying locations logical to what is being stored.

To illustrate how an item can be stored with nesting where the DATA folder has the A-Z subfolders, an additional subfolder would be created in the “L” folder for attorney “Larry”. Also created in “L” would be a subfolder “Larry Clients” and another subfolder “Larry Forms” and another subfolder “Larry Personal”. Nested in the “Larry Clients” folder would be separate folders for each of Larry’s clients listed by last name.

To illustrate further, under each of the Clients subfolders would be additional subfolders by case name, type of work, i.e. Estate Planning, Real Estate, Contact Information, etc.

In each of the Client subfolders Larry would nest additional subfolders for Correspondence, Pleadings, Discovery, Exhibits, Invoices, Jury Instructions, etc.

Under Discovery, separate folders for Plaintiff’s, Defendant’s, Depositions, etc. with specific titles created by Larry or Larry’s secretary or paralegal as he so instructs, will be nested.

Larry doesn’t need to be the sole source of the nesting. Larry’s secretary can create subfolders under “L” to be regularly used by Larry and others. An example is: “Larry’s Envelopes” or abbreviated “Larry’s ENV”. When she enters an envelope she follows the name with “.env” with Larry using the same convention when he has the occasion to add an envelope. While the envelopes could be placed in the “Contact Information” folder for each client, the “ENV” folder is more quickly reached to be more convenient. This practice is also convenient when the accounting department wants the client’s address, or when another attorney in the office needs the information. While convenience is one factor, it is not the only factor. It would also be appropriate to have the envelope information in the “Contact Information” folder simply to have it for backup purposes, and to have all contact information in a central location.

On the further subject of envelopes, keep in mind other programs like “Outlook” have systems for the maintenance of envelope data that can be used to print envelopes. If the user prefers Outlook’s method of maintaining the user’s envelope data, by all means use the Outlook method. It is not necessary for all of the user’s data to be maintained in the alpha filing system. Being able to find the desired file or data is the important thing. As long as the retention method is consistent, efficiency in recovery will result.

Many tricks are connected with the alpha filing system. One of the practices utilized with it include adding the prefix “a” in the front of a subfolder in a grouping of subfolders to cause that subfolder to be the first one at the list of subfolders in any level. Adding the prefix permits users at that level to mouse click the first folder at the top without having to traverse all of the folders at that level. The prefix is a shortcut for a particular folder in frequent use by multiple users or even by a single user with the need for that particular folder frequently enough to justify it.

Larry’s personal folder can be the repository for items such as a copy of his driver’s license, bar identification card, credit cards, and similar items, utilizing various subfolder nestings. Things like combinations to push button door locks, bowling locker combinations, home safe combinations, birthdays, anniversaries, special event dates, etc. can all be maintained and quickly retrieved using folders only Larry would normally visit. A word of caution is due when dealing with this type of information. The subfolder should be the subject of password protection. If not protected by a password, Larry should use only subfolder names he alone will recognize to keep unauthorized users from stumbling on the information. If Larry cannot retain the subfolder information sufficiently remotely to be comfortable he alone will access it, another method of retention should be used.

Because the alpha system is based on the Microsoft Word program, it is possible to save PDFs, Excel Files, Photographs, Power Point Presentations, E-mails, and similar items in any of the folders or subfolders. The hierarchy is intuitive based on labels the user names the subfolder and is familiar with. Tagging is unnecessary. If a subfolder is to contain important items also located in other subfolders, there is nothing to prohibit saving the item in multiple places. The practice of saving the same item in multiple places should be minimized or limited to PDFs and similar fixed items unless a version is attached to the name. Revisions to items saved in multiple locations require updating to the item in all of the places the item is located. Being sure the version is the same in all locations becomes problematic unless a convention is in place to keep track of the versions of the item.

There is always the question about where to retain items where there is no specific cubbyhole (subfolder) maintained for that purpose. The alpha system doesn’t need to be modified to resolve locations for such items. A “Miscellaneous” subfolder can be created in the “Clients” subfolder as well as in the “Forms” subfolder or any other subfolder containing a classification of items including Larry’s personal subfolder. Note a “Miscellaneous” folder should not be created in the “DATA” folder containing the A through Z folders. If the “Miscellaneous” folder is to be used so frequently it needs to be reached quickly, naming the Folder “aMiscellaneous” will bring it to the top of the subfolder it is located in when the subfolder is opened. If an item is so insignificant as not to qualify for filing in the “Miscellaneous” subfolder, a subfolder named “Junk” or “Graffiti” or “Worthless” can be added. This type of subfolder should be specific to the “Larry” subfolder, and having it as a category similar to “Clients,” or “Forms,” would make it quick and handy. While the number of items retained in that type of file should be small, having it handy is still efficient so that little time is spent with placement. Further, this type of file should be culled frequently. Retaining junk or graffiti for any period of time simply takes up drive storage space unnecessarily.

Finally, when dealing with an alpha system, there are numerous helpful hints that can be utilized in the process. While the discussion below is far from all inclusive, keeping the hints in mind on a regular basis is beneficial from an efficiency standpoint.

First, name folders so it is possible to identify the contents without having to open the folder.

Second, use the “Save As” feature to name items early on so the name of the item will identify the contents and dictate where it will be located.

Third, for folders containing items becoming stale by date, include a date in the name. “2013 Invoices,” “2014 Invoices,” “2015 Correspondence” as folder names are self-explanatory.

Fourth, use the “aMiscellaneous” name type to force folders to the top of the list.

Fifth, name folders “Jones” or “Jones – Jack,” not “Jack Jones” using a consistent convention.

Last, work with all users of the alpha system to follow the same naming conventions and folder creation practices across the system so it is not necessary to keep found items in each user’s mind. Having consistent conventions and practices with the alpha system makes finding items easy while creating efficiency in the process.

Donald E. Weihl practices in the St. Louis-Belleville firm of Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, P.C. and is a past chair of the ISBA Law Office, Economic Section Council now Standing Committee on Law Office Management & Economics, dew@greensfelder.com

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of the ISBA's Law Office Management & Economics newsletter.

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