You are here

Striving for Paper-light: Electronic File Management Basics

This article was written by Michael Dew, a Vancouver lawyer who practices civil litigation. Click here for contact information and further details about Michael’s practice. This article provides only information, not legal advice. If you require legal advice you should consult a lawyer. 

Research articles : 
Introduction to electronic file management
No question, paper, and collections of paper such as in binders, offer certain features that cannot be well replicated on a screen: paper is familiar, tactile, three dimensional, and welcoming of personal touches such as an individual’s unique handwriting. For these reasons paper is well suited to providing visual cues to refresh memories (I remember it was a blue sticky near the back of the contract…). For these reasons many lawyers will resort to printing certain documents, especially documents that are complex, static, and will be repeatedly studied in depth, such as a complex contract which is to be the subject of repeated review during extended litigation. Often it will be effective to us such printed versions side by side with an electronic version used to perform keyword searches etc. Sure, some lawyers may go totally electronic and use the markup and commenting tools in Adobe, but for many paper will still be desired on occasion.
In light of the above, striving for a “paperless” office is probably unrealistic for most lawyers. But striving to be paper-light is a sensible goal, and indeed while there are benefits to printing complex documents to be repeatedly reviewed in depth, there are conversely huge efficiencies to be gained from NOT printing documents not in the above category i.e. daily correspondence, 99% of emails, and perhaps 95% of documents produced in litigation, should NOT be printed and can be far more efficiently managed electronically.
But, and here may be a problem: skills are required! Computer skills! These skills were not taught in law school (or, with rare exceptions, in undergrad), and few lawyers take the time to attend technology training seminars, or spend non-billable time researching how they could use their computers more efficiently.
But things are changing, on the regulatory landscape at least. In 2012 the commentary to Rule 1.1 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct was amended to state that the ethical requirement for lawyers to be “competent” requires lawyers to keep up to date with the benefits and risks associated technology, and numerous states (32 as of October 2018) have adopted that commentary into their regulatory scheme. Similarly, section 3.1-1 (k) of the Model Code of Professional Conduct of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada states that competence requires lawyers to adapt to “changing professional requirements, standards, techniques and practices”. Therefore the ethical obligation on lawyers to be technologically competent is becoming clearer, and so it should because proper use of technology is an important part of providing accurate and efficient, and therefore fair value, legal services.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor will technology skills be amassed in a day, but incremental skills development is OK, and adopting an open-minded commitment to slowly improving technology skills is a valuable first step.
Windows is powerful; critically asses the net value of lawyer specific proprietary systems  
The following discusses some of the basic features of paper-light file management for lawyers using the Microsoft Windows platform.
Many a software salesman will be eager to sell lawyer-specific proprietary document management systems to lawyers. Wordox, Primafact and many others are available. However, such systems require effort to maintain, can slow down document creation and saving, and are sometimes set up to block out the flexibility and functionality of Windows, such as the ability to bulk extract file name data from the files in the Windows Explorer environment. No doubt there are some benefits to lawyer specific proprietary document management systems (especially for disorganized / undisciplined lawyers working in groups), but this writer (who admittedly works mostly alone on files rather than on multi-lawyer teams – but does perpetually collaborate with client in shared online folders) believes that the straight-jacket-like elements of programs like Worldox drastically outweigh the benefits, and that most lawyers will achieve greater productivity by mastering the tools already at hand i.e. Windows, Word, Outlook, Excel, Adobe. But I digress, the point of this article is not to debate the relative merits of alternative file management systems (that being a massive debate of its own), but to review electronic file management in the Windows environment.
Mindset shift: the electronic file, not the paper file, is the “master copy”
There is a significant difference between:
  • the paper file being the master copy, and select documents being scanned for narrow purposes such as emailing to others; and
  • the electronic file being the master copy and only very important documents (e.g. original wills, original affidavits filed electronically, court orders filed electronically, etc.), being retained in paper format.
It is an initially scary change to go from the “comfort” of knowing it is “all” in a paper folder in a filing cabinet to having almost empty filing cabinets. But that instinctual reflex that something tangible (i.e. paper) is more permanent and secure than something electronic is misguided: paper can be destroyed by fire, flood, and other perils, whereas electronic data backed up off-site is virtually immune to complete loss and destruction. The notion that filing and archiving in paper format is more reliable and secure than doing so electronically is wrong must be let go. No doubt this mindset shift must be facilitated by your team adopting (with the assistance of an IT professional) a robust electronic data retention and backup strategy that you all believe in, but with that in place the daily question  when handling documents can change from: “Does this needs to be scanned before it is put into the paper file?” to “This is saved electronically, so is a paper copy required?
An important part of becoming paper-light is not just adopting the technology, but also letting (most of) the paper go, and the required mindset shift described above is essential.
Having two screens is essential
Electronic file management requires skillful use of software, but also requires the user to have the proper computer hardware. If one will have less paper on the desk and will be reviewing more documents on screen it is highly desirable to be able to view multiple documents at once. Having two screens, ideally each at least 22 inches in size, substantially increases productivity when working with electronic documents and should be considered mandatory. Having two large screens allows four items to be easily viewed at once.
Fundamental rules of electronic file management
Before diving into the guidelines for electronic file management it is important to keep in mind that electronic file data will be stored in at least two places:
  1. Emails will be stored in Outlook.
  2. Pdfs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and other electronic files will be stored in folders in Windows Explorer.
Although email is the primary form of communication for most lawyers, paper will still exist in most law practices: 
  1. Various government organizations (e.g. tax authorities) refuse to communicate by email due to security concerns, and prefer hardcopy correspondence, or fax.  
  2. Other (non-government) third parties will send you paper correspondence (old habits die hard).
  3. Where old school payment methods are used (e.g. cheques) hardcopy cover letters are typically still used.
  4. Some documents are still required in hardcopy format e.g. Court claim documents must be personally served on defendants, courts may not accept court orders being signed electronically by counsel but require hard copies, etc.
Therefore, in addition to proper email management it is important for lawyers to implement workflows according to which all paper documents will be scanned and saved into the electronic file.  
With the above context in mind, the following table lists do’s and don’ts for electronic file management using a mix of email (in Outlook) and electronic folders (in Windows Explorer):
Do scan “everything” to file, and treat the electronic file as the master copy.
Every incoming and outgoing non-email document should be converted to pdf and saved into applicable electronic folders in Windows Explorer.
Outgoing letters sent in hardcopy format should be scanned after signing and the pdf file should generally include enclosures (e.g. outgoing cheque, invoice, signed court order, etc.).
Paper copies need not be kept of outgoing correspondence; the scanned copy in the electronic folder is all that is needed. This saves the effort of filing hardcopies on hard to use correspondence clips. Simply save the pdf to the appropriate electronic folder (see discussion below regarding folder structure).
Scanning after signing helps avoid doubt as to the contents of the version actually sent out (avoid that unfortunate historical practice of printing an unsigned “file copy” of an outgoing letter to be kept as a record of what was sent out).
Don’t use paper correspondence files
Historical correspondence can be more quickly found if properly named and filed electronically than if buried on a clip on an inconvenient-to-flip-through paper correspondence folder.
Scanning “everything” to file does require some effort, but the following make this initial effort well worth it: 
  • Avoid time spent locating, unclipping and reassembling correspondence clips.
  • Smaller paper files (not keeping paper copies of routine correspondence) means less in-office storage space required for open files, and reduced storage charges for closed files.
  • Never say during a phone call: “Oh, I will have to get my assistant to pull the correspondence file on that one” – the correspondence file is right there on your computer!
  • Previously sent/received correspondence can be easily sent again by dragging and dropping the scanned copy into an email without need to “pull the file” and send an assistant running to the photocopier!
  • Because scanning and saving to the electronic file is done before sending out correspondence, recently sent correspondence is never awaiting filing and “lost” on the assistant’s desk.  
  • The electronic file is backed up every time a server backup is done (daily, or perhaps hourly), unlike a paper file which is typically never backed up.
  • Folders full of documents can be indexed and full text searched for key words / phrases.
Use email, wisely
Most lawyers use email but consider it to be an “informal” mode of communication and so often send letters as email attachments. The desire for that formality is understandable, but electronic signatures should be used to sign pdf documents created directly from Word i.e. do not print the Word document to paper just to sign and then scan. Use an electronic signature and save the paper step – saving a word document to pdf and signing electronically is quicker printing to paper, signing and scanning, and it saves trees!
Juricert signatures (or equivalent in jurisdictions other than British Columbia) are preferable to signatures that are images of hand drawn signatures as the latter raise increased risks of forgery.    
Generally all attachments to incoming emails (whether such attachments be routine file correspondence or substantive documents related to the legal matter) should be saved to the electronic folder for the client matter in Windows Explorer.
Avoid paper correspondence, and do not print emails
Except in the case of cover letters enclosing “must be hardcopy” documents such as cheques, avoid sending hardcopy correspondence and rather communicate by email.
Do not print emails except on very special occasions. Finding emails using search in Outlook is far better than looking in a paper file, and if others need to see your emails then implement shared email folders to share specific email folders with others in your organization e.g. your assistant and other lawyers working on the file.
Outlook should not be used as a document storage location, but only an email storage location. Attachments left only in Outlook can be hard to find because they:
  • may not be OCR’d and therefore not searchable in Outlook; and
  • may have creation dates different to the email they were attached to.
It requires discipline to rigorously save all incoming email attachments to Windows Explorer, but doing so is essential to organized electronic file management in the Windows environment. Don’t be that person who lacks such discipline and then when faced with disorganization exclaims: “We need a lawyer-specific proprietary document management system. No, you don’t, you need to be disciplined, and follow this rule of saving email attachments to file and naming them properly as set out below.
Do provide incoming hardcopies to the addressee for review and then recycling
Where assistants receive incoming hardcopy correspondence for others then, to alert the addressee that the correspondence has been scanned to file, the assistant should write the letters “sc” (for “scanned”) in pencil on the top right corner of the first page to indicate that the document has been scanned and saved to the electronic file, and then provide that hardcopy to the addressee to alert the addressee to the fact that the correspondence has arrived. The address should typically discard the hardcopy after review, knowing that an electronic copy is saved to file for future reference.
Don’t waste assistant time with needless filing
Routine incoming correspondence should not be returned to an assistant for filing, but should be discarded (it has been scanned!). All systems rely on user discipline to ensure documents are retained in a known location, but this does not mean that paper needs to be kept. As mentioned above, paper copies generally need not be kept of outgoing correspondence. Time spent “filing” should therefore be essentially a thing of the past.
Do scan all file / project documents to pdf
Project documents (i.e. the documents related to the substance of the legal matter the lawyer is handling) should generally all be scanned. This should be done when those documents are first received by the client (or even better scanned by the client and provided to the lawyer), and then nobody ever has to make a trip to the photocopier ever again for that document.
Once scanned the electronic copy will always be readily available to email out, or to include in a library of documents to be shared.
Don’t user photocopiers
Using a photocopier is time consuming, and image quality degrades each time a copy is made. Think “scanner”, not “photocopier”!
Actual “photocopies” should barely ever be made and indeed, the word “photocopier” should be forbidden: documents should only ever be “scanned”, and then “printed” on a limited basis as needed. I would be inclined to say that full size photocopiers should be banned and replaced with desktop scanners and desktop printers, but those large machines do perform the following which most desktop printers do not:
  • Print on ledger sized paper.
  • Print in colour.
  • Hole punch when printing (useful when creating binders for courthouses that still require paper binders for court applications).
  • Staple when printing (I could live without this, but sometimes it is helpful).
Do use electronic document workflows
Electronic document assembly and processing is an entire subject that is beyond the scope of this summary, but it bears mentioning here that once all documents are in electronic format in Windows Explorer huge efficiencies are achievable:
  • Documents, or parts of documents can be merged with one another using Adobe (Adobe Standard, or Adobe Pro, required), and documents can be broken up into parts. This allows for efficient assembly of affidavits involving numerous attached exhibits.
  • Optical Character Recognition (“OCR”) software (building into Adobe) can be used to turn scanned text into searchable text allowing keyword searches within documents, or across libraries of documents.
  • Bates numbering (i.e. sequential numbering of all pages in a typically large library of documents) can be applied (and removed) electronically using Adobe.  
  • Once assembled affidavit exhibit stamps can be inserted electronically saving the need (in the case of lengthy affidavits) to repeatedly fill out, by hand, the same details in numerous exhibits stamps.
  • Where all documents are scanned into an electronic library then a list of the documents in that library can be electronically generated from the electronic file names:
  • Share large libraries of documents (with the client, opposing counsel, experts, etc.) quickly and at essentially zero cost.
  • Use links in Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and in-house emails, to conveniently and efficiently refer to documents. 
  • Redaction of sensitive information can be done quickly, reliably, and without document quality loss using the redaction tool in Adobe.
Don’t use old fashioned paper workflows and ink stamps when processing large documents
Do not assemble documents such as affidavits by making photocopies of the required pages and manually gathering them into piles on a desk. Not only does the repeated photocopying resulting in poor image quality, but also such processes are drastically inefficient compared to what is achievable with electronic workflows. Manual redactions, and applying affidavit exhibit stamps and page numbering using old fashioned ink stamps, is desperately inefficient compared to what can be achieved with electronic workflows.  
Folder structure
Top level folder for each client matter
As noted above, electronic documents other than emails should be saved in folders accessed through Windows Explorer. Such folders containing the files may be saved on a server in the office, on a server in the cloud, or on C: drive of your computer. Regardless of where the folders are stored, procedures must be in place for regular backups to be taken.
Each active client matter should have its own electronic folder which is viewed in Windows Explorer. The folder name should likely begin with the client matter number, and may also include the name of the client e.g. the folder names for the two client matters for Lucas Jones may be as follows:
  • 1004-001 – Jones, Lucas re Will
  • 1004-002 – Jones, Lucas re Conveyance
However, care should be taken to avoid file paths getting too long, and since subfolders and descriptive file names are desirable it is advisable to not “waste” permissible path length with unnecessary details in the top level folder for the client matter. The path length is the total number of characters in the file name, and in all the folders and subfolders that the file is in. For example, the following path has 99 characters:
C:/Client Files/1004-002 – Jones, Lucas re conveyance/Correspondence/Client/2018-04-12_Retainer letter.doc
Available path length depends on the system the files are stored on, but 260 characters is a good guideline number for maximum path length. Therefore, client name and matter description data should actually not be included in the top level folders, and the top level folders referred to above should be renamed to:
  • 1004-001
  • 1004-002
Because you will not remember all file numbers, it is a good practice to include the file numbers in the folder names for the client matter email folders in Outlook e.g. the Outlook folder name may be: “Jones, Lucas re Will - 1004-001”. Since most lawyers always have Outlook open at all times putting the file numbers in the list of folders in Outlook provides a readily accessible list to look up file numbers in as needed.
When all documents will be scanned and saved to the electronic file even a typical file may involve hundreds of documents. It is unworkable to have hundreds of electronic documents of various sorts in a single folder.
Consistent naming of subfolders makes files easier to find, and the first level subfolders (i.e. at the top of the folder tree, directly in the client folder) for each client file should typically be the same on each file so that:
  • at the least the first level of subfolders on each file is familiar,
  • the first level subfolder names are not haphazardly devised on the fly, but are well thought out when setting up the electronic file management system.
Taxonomy is somewhat subjective, and different lawyers may prefer different top level subfolder names, but the following list indicates recommended folder names for the top level subfolders, and the type of documents that may be contained in each top level subfolder:
  • Accounting
    • Scanned copies of invoices for legal fees.
    • Scanned copies of backup documents for disbursements (e.g. invoices for expert reports, receipts for court filing fees, courier receipts, etc.). 
    • Cheque requisitions.
    • Copies of letters to the client enclosing legal fee invoices. To facilitate easy identification of particular invoices (for when the client inevitably asks for historical invoices to be resubmitted) use the following file naming convention for letters to the client enclosing invoices: “YYYY-MM-DD_ Letter to client re invoice ……. -  …..)”. For example, a letter dated February 16, 2018 enclosing invoice 73038 dated January 31, 2018 would have the following file name: 2018-02-16_Letter to client re Invoice 73038 – Jan 31, 2018).pdf.  (See further discussion below regarding file naming).
  • Admin
    • Conflict check sheets.
    • File opening sheet.
    • Other miscellaneous admin documents.
  • Correspondence 
    • Correspondence between counsel representing the parties to the litigation,[but not historical correspondence related to the dispute between the client and opposing parties – that goes in the document production folder],
    • Correspondence with experts, third party records holders, witnesses, etc.
    • As the number of items in the correspondence folder grows, consider using a subfolder for each party. Name subfolders according to the name of the party not the name of the lawyer or the law firm representing the party (so that when parties change lawyers the same correspondence subfolder still applies).
    • If a correspondence subfolder grows very large it can be helpful to have “to” and “from” subfolders i.e. a subfolder named “John Smith (to)” and another named “John Smith (from)”.
  • Documents production
    • Documents from the client related to the substantive legal matter.
    • Documents from opposing parties related to the substantive legal matter.
  • Lawyer work product 
    • Work product of the firm e.g. memos of law.
    • The “File notes” document, which is a Word document that includes typed notes of all conversations with opposing parties, experts, etc. and other key information about the file.
    • Scanned copies of lawyer handwritten file notes.
    • Use logical subfolders e.g. “Spreadsheets re pre judgment interest”.
  • Pleadings
    • Includes actual pleadings, as well as other documents in formats defined by the Rules of Court e.g. lists of documents, examination for discovery appointments, affidavits, interrogatories, etc.; basically anything that has a style of cause on the first page.
    • Add logical subfolders over time. For example, a subfolder should be made for each court application, with the name of the folder indicating the date the application was filed and the general nature of the application e.g. “2013-05-24_Application of the P for production of documents”.
  • Expert reports
    • Add logical subfolders; likely one for each expert.
Never use folder or subfolder names (or file names) such as “temp”, “junk”, “final”, or “keep” Such names may be momentarily meaningful to the person first using them, but are not helpful in the long run.
Similarly, do not use “scanned” as a folder name. The fact that a document was “scanned” rather than received in pdf format by email, downloaded from a website in pdf format, etc. is irrelevant. “Scanned” may have been a logical folder name many years ago when in-house scanning was the primary process for creation of pdf documents, but now that pdf documents arise from many different sources the folder name “scanned” is barely better than the folder name “stuff”.  
File naming convention
Using a consistent file naming convention followed by all users on the system helps users anticipate how documents will be sorted in the folders, and over time becomes a familiar format that allows users to rapidly discern information from the file name.  
The same file naming convention should be used for all documents on the file regardless of whether they are scanned documents, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, etc., and regardless of whether they were created by your office or by an opposing party.
It is recommended that each file name be a date followed by a description in the following format:
Where “ext” is the file extension indicating the file type e.g. “pdf”, “doc”, “xls”, etc.
Consider the following examples:
  • 2012-05-24_Notice of Civil Claim.pdf
  • 2012-06-13_List of documents of the plaintiff.pdf
  • 2013-04-02_Letter to Mr. Smith enclosing list of documents.doc
  • 2013-05-26_Letter to Ms. Jones re conduct money required for XFD.doc
This file naming convention:
  • results in electronic files being automatically sorted into date order when stored in a Windows Explorer folder, allowing them to be easily found; and
  • ensures that native files (e.g. a Word document draft of a draft letter) and the corresponding pdf files (e.g. the final signed letter) appear side by side in the folder (i.e. they should have the same file name, apart, of course, from the file extension).
The following rules apply under this file naming convention:
  1. Do include the dashes between the numbers of the date and do not use spaces between the numbers in the date. Inconsistent use of dashes will cause the files to not sort in date order in Windows Explorer. Dashes are recommended because if the file name data is exported to Excel then Excel will recognize the dates without trouble. Be sure to enter four characters for the date, two for the month and two for the day e.g. “2011-03-05”, not “2011-3-5”, or else sorting in Windows Explorer will be disrupted.   
  2. An underscore must be used after the last digit of the date (this is a visual cue as to the start of the descriptive part of the file name, and is used as a marker when manipulating data in Excel).
  3. There is no space between the underscore and the start of the description.
  4. Apart from the underscores preceding the description, do not use underscores anywhere else in the file name.
  5. Do not use # anywhere in the file name (these prevent links in the Windows environment).
  6. Descriptions should generally never be more than about 30 characters, but should be useful in providing the reader with a sense of the contents of the document, including the subject matter of the correspondence where applicable. Consider the following additional guidelines for the description portion of file names:
    1. Don’t use descriptions like “memo”, “scan 0012455547”, or “letter”; be more descriptive so that it will be clear what the document is without the user having to open the document.  
    2. Assume others will interpret the descriptions literally, so do not use file names like: “2018-04-12_Tom Lucas.pdf” or “2018-04-12_Foundations.pdf”. A human cannot be contained in a pdf file, and nor can foundations. Use more descriptive file names such as “2018-04-12_Passport of Tom Lucas.pdf” or “2018-04-12_Drawing of Foundations.pdf”. As these better descriptions indicate, it is ideal for the first words in the description to indicate the nature / type of document (email, letter, drawing, invoice, cheque, etc.) and the latter part of the description to indicate of the contents of the document.
    3. Be alert to avoid unnecessarily long file names e.g. “2018-04-12_Letter to B. Smith.pdf” is better than 2018-04-12_Letter to Bartholomew Smith.pdf”. Don’t start a description for a pdf file with “Copy of…”; that introductory phrase will generally not be helpful and makes the file name unnecessarily long.
    4. Avoid abbreviations like “Ltr” or “LT”, write out the word “Letter”.
    5. Don’t use colloquial abbreviations that may not be widely understood e.g. don’t use “crs” as an abbreviation for “clinical records”.
    6. Don’t include numbers when describing letters e.g. don’t use “Letter to Mr. Smith 001”. Such numbers are sometimes used in an attempt to get letters to sort in sequence, but if file names commence with the date then they will automatically sort in sequence. 
Everyone is comfortable with paper; we all grew up with it and using it is second nature. The same is not true for electronic documents. But, with practice, using electronic documents becomes more familiar and the category of documents that are truly preferable to review in hardcopy format becomes smaller. As noted above, complex documents to be frequently reviewed are the primary candidates for printing even by lawyers expert in law office technology. But without question handling and reviewing routine correspondence, and large libraries of documents, can be done far more efficiently electronically than in paper format. Legal assistant time saved through reduced filing of paper documents in clumsy clip folders, and storage space saved through dealing with less paper, are additional reasons to move to paper-light file management.
Although this article does not get into detail about the specific workflows used in effective electronic file management, it provides an overview of the framework used for electronic file management in the Windows Explorer environment and will hopefully assist “paper-heavy” lawyers transition to paper-light electronic file management.