Reduced Clutter = Big Dividends
by Garry Appel
Will reducing the amount of paper in your professional life make you a better lawyer? It won’t make you smarter, but it will improve the organization of your documents and your ability to find them. That will make you a more effective lawyer. In this article we’ll discuss converting paper to electronic files and organization of the electronic files. In a future installment, we’ll cover the display and use of electronic files in litigation and transactional settings.
To convert paper into a digital file you need a scanner. A scanner is just a fancy digital camera that "photographs" the paper to create an electronic file. The electronic file can then be saved on your hard drive and viewed on a monitor, e-mailed to a colleague or even printed to paper. Scanners create files in different electronic file formats. The most common are Adobe Acrobat ".pdf" and the generic ".tif." The ".pdf" format is universally accepted and probably the best choice. For more details about choosing a scanner, see Borgos, "Scanning Solutions for the Law Office,"31 The Colorado Lawyer, 45 (Dec. 2002).
With your scanner you can digitize paper documents produced by your client in litigation and distribute them electronically to opposing counsel or scan all your trial exhibits for later electronic display. Or, following a real estate closing, scan the documents and create an electronic closing book, which can be distributed to the parties on CD.
Scanning paper is only part of the puzzle, however. You also need to deal with documents that are already in electronic form, such as e-mails and electronic legal research. There are two ways to deal with these documents. Either leave them in their "native" format or convert them to the same ".pdf" format as your scanned documents. The benefit of converting everything to ".pdf" is that only one program, Adobe Acrobat, is then needed to view all your electronic files. In addition, converting all electronic files to the standard ".pdf" format ensures, to the extent possible, that the file format won’t become obsolete, and hence inaccessible, with new versions of application software.
Now you need to organize your digital files. But how? The simplest way is to organize them for Windows to retrieve. Care in naming the files will facilitate their retrieval. Arguably, the best naming convention is to begin each file name with the date of the document in YYYYMMDD format. Thus, a letter from Smith to Jones, dated January 3, 2003, would be named "20030103 Letter from Smith to Jones." An obvious benefit of this method is that when you look at the folder in Windows, the files will all be arranged chronologically.
Organizing your digital documents in one chronological mass, however, would be like throwing all your paper documents on the floor in a single pile. A more sensible alternative is to arrange digital files like your paper files: by client and then by matter. Do this by creating subfolders—for correspondence, legal research, notes, memos, documents and so on. It’s a lot easier to create folders electronically than it is with paper—all it takes is a right click of the mouse.
To move a file from one folder to another, simply drag and drop it from one location to another. If you need to reorganize your documents, this is an easy way to move a whole group of files from one folder to another. It provides amazing flexibility in organization and easy access to files. To retrieve digital files stored this way, browse with Windows or Adobe Acrobat. If a file is really "lost," just search for the file name with the Windows search or find function. Either way, locating a digital file is a cinch.
Reducing the clutter of paper in your office will pay big dividends. Finding documents with the click of a mouse is a huge benefit. The ability to store a large number of documents on a computer hard drive instead of in an endless sea of boxes is another. Finally, remember that when your files are all digital, it’s an easy matter to copy them all to your laptop or a CD and take them with you wherever you need to go: to court, to a meeting, or—for better or worse—home.
Garry R. Appel is a shareholder of Appel & Lucas, P.C. in Denver, Colorado, and one of the founders of Digital Office Systems, LLC, developer of paperless office software, www.DigitalOfficeSystems.com.