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 Ask.com 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.