The two main models of organizing information, cataloging/databases and searching, each have their advantages and disadvantages. Alone, neither seems to satisfy the needs of an efficient, streamlined law office. Together, they start to look like a solution, but where is the software to tie them together in a package perfect for the solo or small practice?
One model when it comes to managing digital information is to catalog the information. In other words, you receive a piece of information (let’s say a PDF document), decide where to store it (client’s folder), what kind of document it is (pleading, correspondence, etc.), and associate other attributes with it so that you can find it again.
We do this all the time, with bookmarks, photographs, videos, etc. At some point, this starts looking more like a database, with multiple documents linked by certain assigned characteristics, tags, or categories. del.icio.us, YouTube, and Digg are all great places to see user-created databases in action on a large scale.
This is also the basic model on which case, document, and practice management software are built, without any exception I am aware of. You take a few seconds to catalog every e-mail, appointment, contact, task, and document at the front end so that it is associated with the appropriate case, contact, etc.
One major drawback to this is that it may be wasteful. You have to catalog every incoming piece of information, but you may never access that information again–or need to–until you close the file, and then only to shred it. A few seconds at a time, you may waste hours a month cataloging pointlessly.
There is another model of managing digital information that we also use frequently: searching. Google does not make any attempt to organize the content that it indexes. It just knows everything that it has ever seen. All you have to do is ask by typing in the words, document types, etc., that you want to view. This involves no conscious cataloging. If you want information, you just ask for what you are looking for.
In a law practice, you could theoretically dump every incoming document into one gigantic folder, and use search to find what you want.
But search also has a major drawback. It usually returns many more results than you want. You can type in “smith complaint filetype:pdf,” but even a specific request like that will probably display at least the complaint, answer, and a few memoranda and affidavits. It helps narrow down your search, but won’t always bring you right to the document you want.
There are hybrids, of course. “Tagging” is increasingly popular. This is the ability to add an identifier to a piece of information. Tag a PDF as “0123 Johnson,” for example, or as “pleading.” This makes it easier to group a pile of documents without really requiring cataloging. Or you can search a database or a heirarchy of folders.
Neither solution is the answer in and of itself. Search may miss things like scanned, handwritten notes, which will become lost in a one-folder dump. Databases are inefficient, and still may require searching to get to the right document, but they are far better at showing you “the file.” A hybrid seems the only answer. Some cataloging–as little as necessary to have a “file” and be able to access it quickly and accurately–plus some searching–a quick way to find e-mails, tasks, contacts, and appointments related to a file–coupled with good, solid procedures, is really the only way to manage the digital information every law office must manage.
Current database management software for law offices falls short in many ways, but indexed search is not a full replacement, either. I really hope to see some more creative solutions coming out in the near future, but with Thompson West mainly developing existing technology and living in the past, and with LexisNexis focusing on branding and buying, not developing, I don’t think the solutions will come from them.