How to Organize Paperless Client Files

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Organizing paperless client files is simple: organize digital client files exactly how you organized your files before you went paperless. Go with the “folder” analogy that your computer uses for organizing files, and use them just as you use your red ropes and manila folders.

Consider your “paper-full” workflow. You probably get a document in the mail, review it, then two-hole-punch it and add it to a manilla folder, which is put in a red rope “bucket file” and stored in your filing cabinet (or in a stack next to your desk). A paperless workflow is similar; but most of it happens on your computer. After you get a document in the mail, scan it and file it in a folder on your computer. That folder is similar to the manila folder, and it should be located within a folder for the client (the red rope) that is, in turn, stored in a Client Files folder (your filing cabinet).

Client files folder structure

Here is an overview of how I organize my client files:

client files structure overview 640x312 How to Organize Paperless Client Files

This is a screen capture from my actual client files archive, so I’ve blurred out the names of my clients, but you get the idea.

Instead of a filing cabinet, I have a folder called Client Files. Inside that folder are sub-folders (red ropes) for all of my client files. Each matter has the file number and client’s last name. You can use your /Client Files folder as a “tickler” for work planning meetings, if you are reasonably diligent about closing files.

Within my /Documents folder, I also have folders labeled BillingTemporary, Closed Client Files, and Declined. (The Billing and Temporary folders are not shown in the image above, because it comes from my archive.) Here’s how I use each folder.

  • Client Files. These are open files. I use a file closing checklist to close files promptly when they are finished.
  • Billing. Files that have been closed, but for which the client still owes me money.
  • Temporary. Any notes, intake forms, or other documents related to clients who have not yet signed a retainer.
  • Closed Client Files. Self-explanatory, except for one important point. I return all paper to the client, together with a CD containing a complete copy of their digital file. I keep my digital copy for 10 years, then delete it (the client receives notice that this will happen in the closing letter).
  • Declined. Files get moved here from the Temporary folder when the client decides not to sign a retainer, or when I decide not to represent the client.

I also have a Client Files Archive folder in my Documents folder with a folder for each year. At the end of each year, I move all the inactive (closed and declined) files into an archive folder for that year. It helps keep my Client Files folder uncluttered, and makes it easy to delete archived client files on a ten-year schedule.

Blank new folder template

I keep a blank new folder template handy for new files. Here is what it looks like:

file structure 640x364 How to Organize Paperless Client Files

It makes sense to stick your templates in your blank folder, as well. Put your letterhead and envelope templates in your Drafts folder, and a settlement negotiations spreadsheet in your Notes folder.

File numbers

If you do not already have a file numbering scheme, try mine. I decided it was worthless to assign arbitrary numbers, and started using numbers that reflected the date the client signed a retainer. So if the client signed a retainer on August 3, 2013, the file number would be 130803. If multiple clients sign a retainer on the same day, just add a letter, like so: 130803a for the first, 130803b for the second, and so on. This makes it easy to tell, at a glance, how long a file has been open. That’s not information I need all the time, but it is more useful than consecutive numbering that says nothing at all about the file.

File naming

File naming is also important. Generally, you would sort documents by the date of the document (not the date you scanned the document, which may be days — or years — later). To do this, start filenames with the date, year first: yyyy-mm-dd Filename.pdf. (You have to start with the year, or all your Januarys will end up next to one another. I prefer to separate the elements of the date with hyphens to make it easier to read the date when looking at a list of files.

One last thing. Do not store Word, WordPerfect, Pages, OpenOffice.org, etc., files in any folders other than Drafts or Notes. Those files are not copies of documents. They are malleable drafts that probably look slightly different on different computers, and can be easily edited. PDFs are documents (and PDF is the file format you should use).

The exception is when a client provides you with a digital document. In that case, store it in the format in which you received it in the Docs from Client folder, since that digital file is the actual document you were given.

This was originally published on October 20, 2010. It was significantly updated and re-published on November 25, 2013.

Featured image: “Paperwork in a filing cabinet” from Shutterstock.

Legal Technology, Practice Management

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  • Todd Hendrickson

    I use an almost identical set of folders in a “draft file” folder in my law practice. I can then simply copy or duplicate that folder, rename it to the new client and my “file” is all set up. My suggestion is that you include a set of frequently used templates and documents. In my case, I have draft forms for a client contract, intake, medical records authorization, standard request letters, etc., so that they are all there when I open the file. Keeps me from doing a lot of unnecessary search for frequently used forms.
    Now, if I could just figure out a way to have basic client information automatically inserted into those forms …

    • Pat Sullivan

      Todd,
      Have you looked into the “mail merge” tool in Microsoft Word? I haven’t used it but have a classmate who described that as being able to do just what you’re looking for.
      Pat

    • Dawn V Thurston

      What about TheFormTool PRO? Although I must confess that I own it, but haven’t gotten around to actually trying it out yet!

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

        What about it? It’s a cool app, but it doesn’t have anything to do with organizing paper files.

  • Greta Kirkland

    I break out my discovery folders by party — “Discovery to Plf” — so all requests to and responses by each party are in their folder.
    If there are no doc files in your Correspondence folder, does this mean you save all final documents as pdfs? Do you mark the final version as final in the draft folder in case you want to pull it up and modify it for something else? I label all drafts with DRAFT in the title, and change it to FINAL when it’s done and sent out.

    Greta
    Houston

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    @Greta: I separate discovery by party only in more complicated cases. I find the extra folders cumbersome in simple two-party lawsuits. Likewise, for long-lasting cases, I usually add folders for each year, to make browsing easier.

    All final documents are PDFs. Word files are drafts. I sometimes mark the final version final, but it’s usually easy to find, since it is the file with the most-recent date.

  • Ralph perez

    I do something very similar with the file names so that they are in chronological order, but I have not used the default folders in each case file. It makes sense. It’s gonna take me some time to do this with current client files so I may begin with new clients. Although I don’t do this with paper files, I divide digital files by area of law so that all of my bankruptcy clients, litigation clients, nonprofits are all grouped together.

    Great post.

  • Bill

    I limit the number of folders I have to one per case.

    Instead of folders, I preface each file with the word “pleading” or”letter<" if it is a pleading or letter. Everything else is named what it is. All dates are at the end of the file name.

    I hate drilling down multiple folders for documents.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    We tend to skip the folders on smaller matters like one-off unbundled services. But for anything document intensive, I find that folders make the file more manageable. I think it’s down to personal preference, though. Indexed search is just as convenient to find the file you want as a set of folders.

  • Ronin Vladiamhe

    This is the same type of information I give to clients ‘thinking’ about going paperless. A lot of it comes down to getting people to let go of the ‘old school’ way and realizing the benefit (productivity, reduced costs, organization) of going paperless. Many lawyers resist this, believing that having paper in hand is lawyerlier, and having to stare at a computer screen can be a bit draining. The medical profession and judiciary are a lot more open to the paperless process. I will definitely forward this article to a few managing partners I know. Good work!

    ps That is the first time I’ve actually used ‘lawyerlier’ in a sentence. ;0)

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    I’m officially putting “lawyerlier” into my vocabulary next to “lawyering.”

  • Jeff Brumlow

    We use the blank templates as well with the sub folders for each client matter. The hardest part for us throwing away the paper that we get in the mail once we scan it. The other issue we hav encountered is accidental write overs of existing documents (thank goodness that dropbox has a version save feature! We have had to use that twice now). I’m interested if Clio’s online storage is similar and if others have tried that.

  • Jen K

    I am setting up a new practice and I am finding all of the posts on a paperless office hugely helpful. What do you do with the word version of the correspondence after it is final and saved as a pdf? Do you keep the word version saved in the drafts folder (in case you want to use it as a starting point for future correspondence) or delete it completely?

    Thanks!

  • http://www.DowlenLaw.com Zale

    I used to use “template” folders, but I ditched them for the simple ability to sort the entire file by date. In more complex cases, I set up files inside the named client file, but so often my cases move quickly and there’s just no point in all that extra effort.

  • Denis Jodis

    What is the best way to put e-mails into the paperless system?

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      If you want to save them one at a time, just save them. If you’re using Outlook or Thunderbird (or pretty much any other software), just drag the email from Oulook (or whatever) to the folder you want to save them in.

      You can also convert emails to PDF, either one at a time or, as I do it, when you close the file. I don’t see any point in saving emails one at a time. They are easy enough to find by searching my email. Instead, I wait until I close the file (or I do this periodically, for open-ended matters), gather all the emails, and save them as one giant PDF.

  • Charles Gurd

    When you name a file in your paperless system, do you give the client’s name (before or after the date) or do you use a numeric system to protect the client’s identity?

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      No, I just put it in the client’s folder.

      (Why would you need to protect the client’s identity in your own files?)

  • GeeBird

    I operate from my e-file, with active cases archived to paper files for convenience in court and with clients. Within my /Clients folder, I have a folder (000 Client Templates – the zeroes keep it at the top) with a template for each matter type (000 Template Criminal, 000 Template Civil, 000 Template Family, 000 Template Appellate). The templates folder also holds the .pdf label forms I use to create the paper archive which I keep in ring binders until the case closes (eg. 000 Labels Crim Law.pdf). These were created on the Avery website (I use Avery 1682 Labels on colored paper for paper file dividers). 11 document type subfolders per matter type (eg. Administrative (No label, not in paper file), Correspondence, Client Documents, Discovery Requests, Discovery Responses, Legal Research, Notes & Memos, Pleadings, Releases, Settlement, Witnesses & Exhibits). 10 folders are the max for the paper file because the Avery labels come 20 to a sheet, making it easy to print labels for two archive files at a time. Each document type subfolder has a Drafts subfolder which, in turn, has a templates subfolder containing about 20 common documents for that document type and matter type. (eg. Pleadings->Drafts->Templates->000 Template Caption w CoS gets me quick access to a caption which I have customized to the current matter.) When I begin drafting from a template, I save it in the Drafts subfolder (eg. YYYYMMDD Plaintiff Motion to Stay.rtf) I use RTF files because they are the most universal word processing files around. I create an Outlook folder for each client with a subfolder for each matter if necessary. I only archive final documents. When the case closes, I search the file for .pdf files, with are archived, and for .rtf files, which I save as appropriate for future uses. I advise the client he or she can pick up the hard copy within 2 months, after which time it will be destroyed. I keep the electronic files for 5 years. All files are kept on a NAS drive that is mirrored. I back up using SyncBack SE – automatic backup to a workstation every 4 hours M-F; Even and Odd manual backup every evening via USB docking drives to SATA 2.5″ hard drives; Weekly backup to SATA 3.5″ hard drive; Monthly backup (after billing) to SATA 3.5″ hard drive. Figuring it all out and setting it up was a bear, but now it is very easy. The toughest part is shredding the paper files when the case closes. Eventually I would like to do away with the paper altogether, but I need a good, tablet solution to make that really happen. I figure another five years… *sigh.

    • Dawn V Thurston

      Wow. Do you have anyone working for you? If so, does that person follow your system accurately? That is one of the problems that I have – communicating with the people who work with me regarding the importance of consistency, etc. I tend to be a laissez-faire kind of “boss” and have difficulty staying on top of other people. :-(

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

        I used to, and yes, they did. Following the system was part of the job.

  • Erin

    Our office has been paperless for about 2 years and one tip that has been very helpful to me is, at the very beginning of a matter, creating a Word doc named “_file notes Smith” – the underscore keeps it at the top of the list of files and whenever anyone in the office needs to make notes to the file or record info from a phone call with the client, etc., they go to that doc and add to the top of the page with the date of the entry, their initials and any notes. Anyone in the office can then go into that clients notes at any time and see what has happened most recently and what is going on with it. This is a great way to have searchable notes for matters that drag out over a long period of time, too. I have found it is important to have the client’s name as part of the file name so in the unlikely event something gets mis-filed, it is easy to locate.

  • Mark Symms

    How do you handle CMRRR receipts and returned green cards?

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Tell me what they are and I’ll try to answer.

      • Mark Symms

        Receipts from mailing Certified Mail Return Receipt Requested showing postal fee paid (say demand letters, discovery etc.) and the green cards that come back evidencing the receipt of the mail by the addressee.

        • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

          Oh, those.

          I’ve always just scanned them and filed them in the Correspondence folder. You could attach them to the scanned correspondence, if you wanted to.

          • Mark Symms

            Wait. I am assuming that you discard everything you scan. Sometimes originals are necessary. This would be returned to the client as you mentioned earlier at the end of the matter.

            • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

              Most lawyers can’t discard everything. I keep originals when I have to, like signed pleadings (in my jurisdiction, parties often serve before filing) and discovery responses.

              I’ve never kept return receipts, but you could, if you felt you needed to. There’s no harm in keeping the original, as long as (a) you have scanned it, and (b) you don’t mind storing it, at least until the matter is closed.

  • Jimmy DiBella, Esq.

    Great tips in this article! Is there an easy way to set up a Blank new Folder template on Windows 7? I tried setting up one folder called “Blank” with all the proper subfolders within, and then use copy and rename for each new client. Is there a better way? Thanks in advance.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Yeah, that’s the best I’ve been able to come up with, too.

  • Was Big 4 Actg

    Why use a Word file? Wouldn’t an Excel file be preferable?

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      I’ve encountered very few lawyers who show any real understanding of how to use Word. Now you want them using Excel?

      • Was Big 4 Actg

        True. Most are probably lucky to save the typewriter styled text in MS Word. Most probably cannot do math beyond multiplying by 1/3. If they could, they would be attorneys. But it is fun to challenge their minds. And I did try to be nice by not suggesting that they should use MS Access.

  • Bill B from SD

    Sam, for better or for worse, your posts have consistently been the most helpful, insightful, and realistically adaptable while I have been setting up my own office over the past couple months. Thank you.

    (Also, the link to your client intake form/checklist is broken)

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Thanks! (For better, most of the time, I hope.)

  • Jay

    Erin, this might be the best tip on Lawyerist all year. We will be using this in my office to document information flow between my two part time clerks and me on our probate files. We started yesterday. Thanks.

  • Bill B from SD

    One thing that I’ve found really helpful is color-coding folders. I did this with our paper files (green=billing, yellow=discovery, orange=pleadings, blue=my notes) and had trouble recreating it for a paperless system. I found a free utility called Rainbow Folders (Windows) that does exactly what I wanted. Obviously this doesn’t come over when I’m syncing to my ipad, but it’s helpful for me to find things quickly.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      I suppose it doesn’t help you, since you are a Windows user, but on a Mac, color-coded folders are baked into the operating system. I don’t use it, but it’s pretty nice. With something like Hazel, you can even automatically color-code things. For example, you could probably highlight any folder with new files. That would be kind of cool.

  • New Lawyer

    What’s the difference between a file number and a matter number?

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Same thing.