pen on yellow legal pad

With all the options out there for storing things in the “cloud”—Dropbox, Evernote, and the like—and with as many apps as you’ve probably seen for working remotely, your head probably hurts from all the technology being thrown at you. Who’s got time to learn a bunch of new software, when you’re still trying to figure out how to get a Table of Authorities in Microsoft Word?

But what if I told you that one of the most lawyer-friendly apps was a Microsoft creation that you probably already have installed on your desktop or laptop? Would you at least give it a try?

If you’ve got Microsoft Office 2010 or later, you’ve got OneNote. Here are five reasons you should try it.

Unless otherwise noted below, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows.

It organizes stuff the way you do

Virtually every lawyer I’ve ever seen organizes information (particularly during trial prep) in one of two ways: file folders or notebooks. Unlike most information management software, OneNote doesn’t make you learn some sort of database driven organizing scheme. You simply start a new Notebook and make separate tabs for each category of information.


You can color-code tabs, move them around, etc., just like a three ring binder or a set of manila folders. And if you really long for that legal pad, you can even change the view to yellow ruled paper.

It’s not picky about your formatting

The great thing about that paper legal pad is you can write on it anyway you like. You can start at the top, you can stick a note at the bottom, you can write somebody’s phone number in the margin, and you can doodle that little diagram right beside your notes.

Good news: you can do that in OneNote, too. Your notes are held in discrete containers, which means you can simply click your cursor anywhere on the page and start typing (or pasting, etc.). It’s a frustration-free method of digitizing what you’d normally do on paper.

It’s multimedia

Unlike that paper legal pad, though, OneNote isn’t just for written notes. You can draw in it, scribble on it, record audio or video into it, save pictures to it, import documents into it, cross-link it … the types of content you can save into a OneNote notebook are virtually limitless. It’s perfect for keeping all of the information on a particular subject in one place, rather than having to organize it by media type.

It’s searchable (unlike your legal pad notes)

One advantage digital files have over paper files is their searchability. And if you start keeping all those random bits of information (and even more structured notes) in OneNote, it’ll make it a lot easier for you to gather together all the mentions of that one particular witness.

Even if the content you’re putting in OneNote isn’t typewritten text, you can still search it. Content like handwritten notes or that picture you snapped of a whiteboard at your last CLE or the audio you’ve just dictated can all be converted to searchable text. Snippets of documents you import into OneNote can be OCR’d to make those searchable, too.

You can share it (or not)

If you want to make your OneNote notebook a team project (say, for trial preparation), there are multiple ways of sharing. You can place the notebook on a conventional local-area network for shared in-office access.

But what if you want to be able to add or search notes at home or on a mobile device? Depending on what your security requirements are, you can either stash the notebook in the cloud via Microsoft’s SkyDrive (requires a Windows Live account) or on a Microsoft SharePoint server.

Want to share some of your notebook but not all of it? You can password protect selected sections of your notebook if need be.

Suggestion: start small

As lawyer-friendly as OneNote is, your first project shouldn’t be your next trial notebook. Instead, try using OneNote to organize your notes on witness interviews, to keep your deposition prep outline, or even to maintain a one-tab-per-client notebook of client information. Get comfortable with storing various types of content in it, and keep an eye out for the OneNote buttons in other Microsoft Office applications (on the Review tab in Word and on the Home tab in Outlook, for example) for pulling in documents or emails.

Before too long, you may decide you’ll never pick up another legal pad again!