Computers are a tool of the lawyer’s trade, and you have a responsibility to learn to use the tools of your trade properly. I don’t mean that you need to be a power user. But you must become tech-savvy. Learning the following will not make you a hacker, but they will make you a bit more competent when it comes to that box on (or under) your desk that you use all day to serve your clients.

Here are five things I wish you would take time out of your busy schedule to learn before you hurt somebody.

1. Get Over Your Fear of Your Computer

Many people experience a sort negative cognitive bias when it comes to computers. They sit down at a computer believing it will be hard to use. If you do this, your computer will be hard to use. Stop psyching yourself out.

Computers are easy. That is actually true, most of the time. And it will be true for you, if you want it to be true. I have watched lawyers who can spend hours sorting through statute books act completely mystified when asked to find a file they just downloaded. It should be embarrassing.

If you don’t know how to do something, figure it out. Don’t be afraid to break things. And even if you do break things, a broken computer is just about as useful as one you are afraid of. Plus, the more time you spend figuring out how to do things with your computer, the easier it will be to use. Play around a bit.

Okay, sure. Computers don’t always work the way you expect. When that happens, you just have a puzzle to solve. It’s usually pretty easy, too. Just go Google the problem and look for the solution. Speaking of which …

2. Search For Things

Search is the most useful tool on your computer, not just on the Internet. Stop wasting time. Search for things.

If you remember the days of waiting around while Windows 95 crunched through your entire hard drive trying to find something, think again. Windows (since Vista) and OS X index your hard drive like Google indexes the Internet, so that searching is nearly instantaneous. Desktop search is now so good it’s generally a waste of time to hunt through menus and file folders. Instead of searching as a last resort, it is often more efficient to search first.

In Windows, use F3 to search from the desktop (F3 also brings up a search dialog in many programs). On a Mac, use Cmd+space to search from anywhere using Spotlight. These searches will bring up programs, files, and help related to your search query. You can even set up smart searches like all PDF files in X directory that I saved in the last 30 days and save them (here’s how on Windows and OS X).

In addition to searching the Internet or your computer, you can also search within a web page or document. Amazingly, according to Google, 90% of people do not know how to do this. What are those 90% doing instead — scrolling down the page, scanning for what they want? That is just making things difficult, and results in a lot of wasted time and unfound things.

Searching a web page or document is as easy as pressing Ctrl+F (or Cmd+F on a Mac — think F for find). It works in documents and web pages, but it also works for searching within a lot of other software, too. Use it in QuickBooks to find lost transactions, or Outlook to find lost email (I get several emails a week asking me to re-send something to someone who obviously does not know how to search their email).

Ctrl/Cmd+F should be second nature. As soon as you think to look for something, your fingers should find the keys on their own.

3. Use Styles in Microsoft Word

No matter what kind of lawyer you are, documents are a substantial part of what you do, and they may be the only tangible evidence of your legal work. So why do so many of yours look so awful? I’ve gotten tons of Word documents over the years, from lawyers and from contributors to Lawyerist, and very few show any kind of understanding of how to use Word. Look, Word (or your preferred alternative) is probably the single-most-important software you use. So learn to use it.

How do you create a heading in a document? Here is the wrong way:

Type the text in all-caps. Center it. Highlight it and make it bold. Maybe underline it, too, for good measure.

Setting aside the typographical issues I’ve just raised, here is the right way:

Select Heading 1 from the Styles menu.

If you don’t like the way it looks, learn to modify it. If you do not use styles, you are using Word wrong. Or Pages or LibreOffice or whatever it is that you use. Here is a tutorial for Microsoft Word. Please remedy this. (Oh, and learn to use hyperlinks in Word documents, while you are at it.)

4. Name Your Files Properly, and Organize Them

The number of lawyers I have met who have never even looked at their files in Explorer (Win) or Finder (Mac) is alarming. (Far fewer Mac users, to be fair.) Especially because it is so basic. Managing files is what your computer does. That is, quite literally, its primary function. You should know where they are.

Once you know where your files are (i.e., not “in Word”), you can probably do a better job naming and organizing them.

Name your files so they sort into chronological order and so that you can tell what they are from the filename. Like this:

2013-04-09 Letter to Adam Smith.docx

By putting the date at the beginning, with the year first, your files will automatically sort in chronological order. (If the document does not have a date, I usually save it with the date I received it, and annotate the date like this: 2013-04-09r. I have a few other annotations for other situations, like e for the date I received something by email, or s for the date I scanned something.)

For easy version control of files you are working on, save a new version with the current date every time you work on it. That way, you will always know which is the most-recent copy. Or if you are working on it with multiple people, add extra information to the filename. I always add SGedit to a file with my revisions in it, for example.

By giving the file a descriptive filename, it is easy to tell what it is when searching for it or viewing it in Explorer or Finder. Add your client’s name or file number, if you don’t mind having longer filenames.

Organize your digital files properly, too. Keep them in one location, and use folders to organize your client files just as you would organize them in your filing cabinet.

5. Uninstall Crapware

At ABA TechShow, I walked up to the Thomson exhibit to check out the new Firm Central practice management software. I was kind of shocked to see an toolbar on the display computer. Those toolbars are just crapware — software that serves no valuable purpose and generally slows down your computer, crashes it, spies on you, or all of the above.

Remove crapware. Keep an eye on things when installing software so that you don’t wind up installing the Yahoo! toolbar when you update Java. If you get a new computer, get rid of anything you don’t need. If you don’t use it, get rid of it.

In Windows, go to the Control Panel (in Windows 8, you can just press Win+X to bring up the menu) and click the Programs and Features icon. Uninstall anything you don’t use (Windows even tells you the last time you used something). You don’t need to worry about uninstalling things like toolbars or anti-virus software you aren’t paying to keep up-to-date. If you are worried about other things, Google the name to see whether you ought to keep it.

This was originally published on April 9, 2013. It was revised and republished on December 19, 2013.

Featured image: “früh übt sich” by Methos04 is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. This image has been cropped and the colors have been adjusted.

  • Bret Moore

    Styles is a huge one. Almost nobody really understands them. It should be a required part of associate orientation at big firms. But it ain’t.

    I like the file naming convention, the “r/e/s” part is slick. I’m pretty lazy about this part of it, so I’ll try to get better and do that bit.

  • Great suggestions – lawyers shouldn’t any longer be proud to brag: “I’m computer illiterate.” (Could you imagine what that would sound like if a lawyer said, “I’m telephone illiterate?”)

    The most important suggestion here is to search for a solution to your problem. It is highly unusual that you’re the first person to encounter a problem of any type. And there are many people who helpfully contribute answers on forums and bulletin boards, so you can commonly solve your own problems with a simple search.

    I’d quibble with the date-stamped file names, though. Why not just name them descriptively, then when you need them sorted by date, simply click the header of the date column?

    • Because the date you save something is rarely the date of the actual document.

      Think of the pile of documents you get from every new client. If you didn’t add a date to the filename, they would all sort to roughly the same date. If you add a date to the filename and describe the file accurately, your client’s file folder becomes a timeline of the case.

      • Can’t agree with this enough.

        Going through and doing this kind of organization can take time though, and in the past I’ve ended up with a bunch of unnamed scans (with the standard ScanSnap naming convention) mixed in with my neatly organized client files. I’ve since modified my workflow by creating an “Unsorted Scans” folder in every client file so that when I don’t have time to go through everything I can set the ScanSnap to dump everything in there and come back later to organize when I have a moment, all without ruining the organization I’ve already worked on.

        It occurs to me I may spend too much time thinking about this.

        • No, I think you are spending an appropriate amount of time thinking about this. I actually just use an inbox for scans. When I sit down to scan the mail or whatever, I just dump everything into that one inbox folder. Then, when I have time, I go through and date, name, and sort everything into the client folders where they belong.

        • If you’re on a Mac, you can get Name Mangler and rename files in bulk.

          @Ed Tsk, tsk. You should know better!

      • Jay

        I have always disagreed with your date naming suggestion because it is archaic. My former firm used dates and abbreviations in the
        late 80s when file names were limited to 8 characters.

        I always use the client’s name and matter then the type of document and perhaps a date if there is more than one of that type (I.e. Smith john letter re binder or smith john acme widgets complaint). It is easier to find when scrolling through a folder than looking for a date of a document which could be meaningless to what I am seeking.

        • Organizing files by date is pretty useful, at least in litigation. A glance at my files gives me the timeline of the case. In my drafts folder, dates ensure that the files I have been working on most recently are at the top, where I can find them without sorting through the whole folder.

          Don’t do it if it doesn’t work for you, but archaic or not, it works pretty well for me. Your system sounds like it would have me spending a lot more time trying to find what I’m looking for.

          However, it also sounds like you have more than one client’s documents in a single folder, which just seems like bad organization. You wouldn’t pile all your clients’ paper documents in a single file, right? Why do it on your computer?

  • KMan

    SO many more things I could add to this list (basic keyboard commands instead of reaching for the mouse EVERY TIME for one thing), but yes, great start!

    • Go ahead and make suggestions. I have a couple in mind, too. 5 More Things I Wish You Would Learn About Computers is already under way.

      • KMan

        How about learn the basics about email attachments? You just email someone 75mb of PDF files and photos and expect it to go through as if you were emailing one small Word document. Similarly, learn the basics of file systems: File date, file size, folder structure. You can’t email or e-file a 200 (or 800) MB case file just because you want to. Details should always be the default file view, not list view or icon view (horrors!). Learn to switch among details view, thumbnail view, etc. Learn basic file manipulation (as you mentioned in the article, the files are not “in Word” and Word is not the tool that opens every file on your hard drive), and the folder structures to know where you files are actually stored, starting from the top-most level (My Computer or however your OS refers to it). Knowing where the files are will help when it comes time to attach them to an email (particularly web-based systems), e-file system, and so on. And the proper way to copy a file from one folder to another is NOT to open the file (in Word, right? LOL) and then “Save As” to put a “copy” in another folder.

        Learn how to USE PDF files, not just read them as if they are paper but on a monitor. Know how to rearrange pages, delete pages, swap new pages in and out, append new pages to the end as needed. Learn to OCR so the scans can be searched.

        I’ll see what facepalm-worthy questions come up in the next few days and add more if I remember…

  • I am so pleased you included using styles as one of your suggestions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had attorneys call me at the eleventh hour to generate a Table of Contents in their Brief or whatever, and they have not used any styles at all. Even the most basic heading styles would be helpful.

    I am not an attorney; however, I have worked for attorneys nonstop since June 1971 so I feel I’ve earned the right to post here. *smile* I am also a Microsoft Word MVP (2008-2011) and document expert.

    Please continue to encourage lawyers to use styles. It can only make their lives easier! Thank you again.

    Joanne M. Orzech

  • Sheila Baldwin

    Love this column. I have been encouraging attorneys to read law blawgs for years and yours is one of the very best. They would learn so so much. I agree with your comments on styles, thanks for the link to tutorial.

  • Sam,
    I am not even a lawyer, but I do have a private coaching practice for business. I love your articles about billing, tech stuff and more. Just wanted to say: I learn a lot from you and your professional approach to solo practice / business. Thanks for all this great stuff. You never know where it all gets to ….

  • Nerys Parry

    Sam, please keep sending this to your father until he reads it ;-)