Now that we’re in the age of digitized documents, you’ve probably gotten one of those CDs, DVDs, or USB drives containing what would otherwise be reams upon reams of paper. While the digital versions certainly take up less space in your office, there’s no obvious physical structure to what’s been produced. And if you’ve gotten the disk from an adverse party, there’s probably no folder or file list available, either.

So how you get a handle on all that (virtual) paper?

Obviously, printing the whole disk and organizing everything into physical folders is too cost-prohibitive and space-intensive (although I have seen it done). And I was a little shocked recently when one of our firm’s paralegals announced that the only way to get a definitive list of an expert deponent’s voluminous document production was to take a bajillion screenshots of the Windows Explorer view of his USB drives and directories and paste them into a Microsoft Word document for her boss, a task she said would take her all day.

“Oh no,” I said. “There’s a much easier way to do that.”

One simple DOS command saves the day (literally)

Graphical user interfaces like Windows are great, but some problems are really best solved by good old command line DOS. A lot of Windows users don’t realize they can still use DOS commands. But you have to open a special window called Command Prompt to do it.

The easiest way to get to the Command Prompt window in any version of Windows is to click the Start button, navigate to the Accessories folder, and find Command Prompt in the list. If you’re using Windows 7 or Vista, you’ll need to right-click on Command Prompt and choose Run as Administrator to get the proper access to the disk. (If you’re still in Windows XP, you may simply be able to left-click Command Prompt, or you may need to right-click it, choose Run As, and choose an Administrator account to get the right permissions).

Click Yes at the next prompt and you’ll get a small window like this:

Now, all you have to do is type one simple DOS command:

Adapting this command for your use

For those not familiar with DOS, let me break out the example above for you:

dir – This is the “directory” command in DOS, instructing the operating system to list the files in a certain location meeting specific criteria.

g: – This is the drive letter I used for this particular example, an external drive I have attached my computer. In your case, you might want to list the files on d: (your CD or DVD drive) or e: (a USB flash drive) or whatever other disk you’re examining. Just substitute the right letter with a “:” after. (If you don’t know which drive letter is assigned to that particular device, go to My Computer to figure out the right one.)

*.* – The asterisks in this part of the command are wildcards which tell DOS, essentially, “I want a list of all the files, regardless of their names or file extensions.” If you just wanted to see a specific file type (like all the Adobe Acrobat files), you could use *.pdf, or you could use *.xl* to capture all the Microsoft Excel documents (since the file extensions vary slightly between versions of Microsoft Office).

/s – This is what’s known as a “switch,” which modifies the dir command and instructs it to list the contents of all subdirectories (what you probably know as folders). If you’re wanting to get a list of everything that’s on the disk, this is key.

> – This is a redirection command. Without it, DOS would simply scroll a list of all the files onto the screen, which won’t do you much good. What you want is for DOS to dump the list into a text file instead.

c:\list.txt – For this example, I instructed DOS to save the directory listing in a file on the main hard drive (c:) in its root directory (\) and call the file list.txt (the .txt file type is a generic ASCII text file any word processor can use). Obviously, you can redirect the file directory into any disk, directory, and filename (although you will probably want to still use the file extension .txt).

Once you type in the command above and hit the Enter key, you might feel a little disappointed. The Command Prompt window’s cursor simply returns to a blank command line prompt after a few seconds without showing anything — no confirmation, no error message, nothing. But open up Windows Explorer, navigate to the drive and directory you designated above, and double-click on the file name you chose. What you’ll see is something like this:

As you can see from the example above, the DOS dir /s command starts by listing everything in the root or top-level directory, then listing everything in the first directory (a.k.a. folder), then drilling down into all of that folder’s subfolders before coming back up to start the process over again with the next folder, etc. The end result is a truly comprehensive list of every folder and file on the disk, logically structured and searchable, too. While you can leave that list in its original text file, you can also copy that into any word processor and dress it up however you please.

10 seconds versus an entire day

When you’re hurriedly preparing for a deposition (as was the case here), the last thing you need is busywork. (Our under-the-gun paralegal was thrilled that I’d just freed up several hours of her time to work on something else just as critical.) If you work in litigation or another practice area where electronically produced documents are the norm, this one DOS command is a good little trick to have in your back pocket. And the best part is, it doesn’t cost you a dime.