I’ve been operating a paperless office for nearly ten years, ever since I realized a couple of months into my solo practice that I did not want to fill my basement or garage with closed client files. My paperless workflow is simple: I scan all paper that comes into the office and keep most of it until I close a file, when all of the paper gets tossed.

But I have struggled to find a good system for managing my handwritten notes of phone calls, meetings, court appearances, etc. As I wrote on Lawyerist several years ago, taking notes is very important for keeping track of what information you have exchanged with clients and other parties, and it is critical for defending ethics and malpractice complaints.

What to Do with Your Notes

Some paperless lawyers may have shifted to taking notes on their computers but I prefer not to use a speaker phone all the time, and a laptop is cumbersome in meetings. Besides, some studies that show that your brain remembers more when you hand-write your notes.

So, what to do with all those pages of notes? Scanning notes after every phone call or meeting is inefficient because you have to name and save each note. I could scan them to the same file or create a notes file for each client but that, too, was tedious. So I would just stick the paper pages in a folder and scan them all at the end of a case before I trashed them. Relatively efficient, and it meant I didn’t have access to my notes when I was out of the office.

I also used the legal pads as a sort of reminder system to keep track of who had not called me back. This meant I would end up with several legal pads on my desk with notes of active matters. It was kind of a mess.

Then last summer I saw Paul Unger of Affinity Consulting use an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil to take notes right on his iPad. A chorus of angels started singing in my head! Scales fell from my eyes! My note-taking woes would be solved!

Using the Apple Pencil to Take Notes

The transition to taking notes on a screen was seamless. As soon as I started using the Pencil, I was hooked and I have literally not written on a legal pad since. The key feature is that when you are using the Pencil, which is powered by a rechargeable battery, the iPad recognizes its tip instead of your hand. This means you can just rest your hand right on the screen while you are writing, just like you would on a piece of paper (particularly useful for us lefties). The tip of the Pencil is pressure-sensitive, so lines vary in thickness as you write. Writing on glass turns out to be not much different than writing on paper.

GoodNotes 4, an inexpensive app, is loaded with features that make electronic note-taking better than the old-fashioned way. If are a sloppy writer like me, the undo button will wipe away a word you’ll never be able to figure out later. The eraser lets you fix things elsewhere on the page. The “shapes” button will help you draw a box with straight lines or an oval. Of course, you can change colors, line thickness, etc. There’s also a tool that allows you to move blocks of handwriting around on the page, which is great for rearranging notes of calls with your non-linear clients. Your doodles will improve measurably and then you can move them out of your notes so your clients will never see them.

If you write neatly enough the app can translate your handwriting into type with a couple of clicks. I find this not as helpful as I might have thought—if my writing is neat enough for the program to read, then I can read it too. But that same functionality allows the app to search for a handwritten word within a particular file. That’s right, all your handwritten notes—stored as PDFs—are permanently word-searchable.

GoodNotes 4 automatically backs up your files as PDFs to Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and other programs. It will also back up files you haven’t named yet. It can search for file names within the app. You can import a Word document or PDF, take notes on the document, and then save it as a new PDF. Clients can sign their real signatures on your iPad, not just scrawl with their fingers. My only complaints about GoodNotes 4 is that it does not have an option for automatically numbering pages within a file and that the size of the thumbnails of your files cannot be adjusted.

Notability is another popular note-taking app. And Evernote and its alternatives, of course.

Choosing an iPad Pro

There are two sizes of iPad Pro: regular (the size of the original iPad), and full letter-page size (also known as Ginormous). I went with Ginormous. I’m glad I did, because more than 80% of the time I’m using it for taking notes and I like having the same full-size sheet of “paper” to work from that I’ve always been used to. But it’s a lot of screen space, and many apps don’t seem to know what to do with all that extra real estate.

The only downside for the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil is that the Pencil needs to be recharged periodically. You can stick it in the power jack for the iPad, but then you have this Pencil awkwardly sticking out from your iPad. I tend to use the very small, likely-to-get-lost-but-so-far-so-good power cord adapter. The only way to shut “off” the Pencil is to turn off the Bluetooth on the iPad, which I do at the end of the day so the batteries on both don’t run down. Recharging the Pencil is pretty fast and on a very busy note-taking day I might recharge it once in the afternoon.

… or Microsoft Surface?

In deference to Windows users, I need to acknowledge that I recently tried a client’s SurfacePro 4 with its powered stylus. The stylus is not as elegant as Apple’s (the Windows stylus looks and feels like an engineer’s mechanical pencil) but it is clearly more functional. The top of the stylus works as an eraser, it has a “right-click” button on it, and there is an embedded magnet that attaches it to the tablet. The contact with the screen is slightly different than on the iPad but you can achieve the same handwriting dexterity. Personally, the stylus alone would not motivate me to switch but it is a very good option for Windows users.

Conclusion

Despite the fact that the iPad Pro has been out since the spring of 2015, few lawyers seem to be using it. It’s often a conversation piece when I show up to meetings with it. But this is the best piece of technology I’ve bought since I purchased an iPhone. Now I can say my practice is truly paperless.

13 Comments

  1. iohannes99 says:

    Love electronic hw notes. I have been using a combination of onenote and a galaxy note pro for several years, and only print in limited situations (court appearances, some edits of long agreements)

  2. yendi diaz says:

    I’ve gone my last four semesters in college with my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. Taking five classes every semester I can easily go back and see any notes from any past class with no hassle. It’s been enjoyable so far but I’ve yet to see anyone else except a co worker do the same.

  3. James Torres says:

    Onenote is wonderful for this purpose. I have been using Onenote since 2003 for this purpose. Windows Tablet PC Edition through Windows 10. All client meetings/ depositions/mediations/ trials are on there. The handwriting recognition is uncanny. I dont convert but I can search my handwriting and it works everytime. I also can read, edit and search from my Note 5 or my Galaxy Note Pro 12.2. I have used about 5 different Fujitsu Tablets, a NEC Versa Litepad, a Surface Pro, A Surface Pro 3 and finally a Surface 3 with built in LTE. I can do my normal wordprocessing (WordPerfect), legal research, RD to office and am not limited to just wifi locations. It is perfectly fast for that purpose. I generally charge it once a week and leave it in my briefcase in the car. I use the Note Pro 12.2 in the office. Using sync with Onedrive my office desktop is almost instantly synced with my tablet, my phone and my android tablets. No matter what computer I have I am up to date within a few seconds of taking my notes. Nothing else comes close IMHO. You really should try it out. I believe it works on Ipad as well.

  4. Another vote for Onenote. OneNote is the best note taking app out right now. It acts as a complete trial notebook, takes handwritten notes beautifully, and is cross-platform. Nothing else comes close. I use it with my iPad Pro 12-inch and with my Surface Pro 4 and can jump back and forth seamlessly.

    You are absolutely correct that handwriting is better on the iPad Pro than on the Surface Pro. While I do like the eraser function on the Surface Pen, writing with it is just tolerable. The Apple Pencil is far superior. IF Apple shortens the pencil just a bit and adds an eraser it will be perfect.

  5. Stacy says:

    I have reviewed several reviews on the exaltations of using iPad Pro + Pen to take and store notes, but no one has addressed the issue of exported file sizes.

    I’m a rabid notebook user (analog notebook) but my notes do stray from me as my notebook stack grows. I am really interested in confining my doodles and client notes to the iPad however, storage is an issue (even if going for cloud storage – I plan on using evernote). I want to purchase the right storage size for my needs.

    Could you address the file sizes of some of your PDFs from small ‘quick’ note taking sessions to larger client based ones, that are exported? PDFs are notoriously bloated and I’d like to keep certain note files around longer than others.

    Thank you!

    • Sam Glover says:

      If you use Evernote, you probably aren’t storing PDFs, actually. Taking a snapshot of a notebook page results in a JPG, not a PDF.

      If you’re worried about storage capacity, though, just get an iPad with more storage. You can get up to 512GB, which should be enough for anyone.

  6. Stacy says:

    Thank you for your prompt response, I truly appreciate it. I am still on the hunt for answers as to file sizes (as are many others I presume) as the different in prices between the smaller GB iPads and largest one is significant enough for me to be asking these questions.

    • Sam Glover says:

      If you want to see an example file size, you can just create a note in Evernote and export it. You don’t need the Pencil in order to create a note. Any stylus or your finger will do.

  7. Stacy says:

    I haven’t purchased a tablet yet, that’s why I asked the original question. Thanks for getting back to me.

  8. Stacy says:

    Thanks! That’s pretty big if you think long term (in storage terms). But my goal is to not hang on to every note I make but will hang on to them until a project is completed.

    Along with hand written client notes, I was going to journal but that may be a huge data investment long term :)

    Black and white is probably a smaller file, I’m hoping. Thanks for your input. I’m narrowing down which model to get.

    Now to which size. I felt most comfortable at the Apple store with the 10″ version. 12″ seemed like too much to hold on my leg to take notes. (I’m female with short legs).

  9. Joseph Rockne says:

    Going out this morning to gat an Apple Pencil. You convinced me.

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