The days of lawyers maintaining client files in paper form only are now a thing of the past. In the world we live in today, a law firm’s data might be spread out across multiple locations, including paper files, computer hard drives, external hard drives, local servers, flash drives, and cloud servers, among others. Improper file management can lead to incomplete files, missing information, or difficulty finding documents, affecting your ability to properly represent the client and creating unnecessary stress for you and your staff. To better manage the chaos, understand your storage options and file management best practices. Every firm is unique and requires a system best suited to its needs.
File Storage — What’s Right for You?Consider the following storage options to improve your file management system:
1. Paper. It doesn’t make sense to maintain physical files if most of your client data is already stored in digital format. If you receive paper documents from clients or third parties, scan and save them electronically, then return the originals to the owner as soon as possible. You may have certain papers in your possession that you need to retain, such as original wills, deeds, or contracts. Keep copies and return the originals to the owner no later than closure of the matter. Other types of documents many attorneys keep in paper form include intake sheets, handwritten notes, or trial notebooks. If any of these items are still taking up space in your office, determine whether you can scan and shred them.
2. Computer hard drive. Storage on a computer hard drive means the firm’s client data is stored inside the computer along with the operating system and applications. This is a common choice for solos and small firms because it is typically more affordable than a file server.
3. On-site file server. A file server is a central computer that stores and manages data that is accessible to multiple computers on the same network. File servers are popular with midsize and larger firms due to the access across multiple users. Depending on the storage capacity and number of users, the cost of a server can range from $2,000 to over $20,000. They require regular maintenance by a skilled IT professional.
4. Practice management software. Most legal practice management programs only include lightweight document storage and sharing, as well as email integration. Some programs are expanding their file management features to include syncing with folders on your computer or server, additional collaboration options, document automation, global file search, and automatic backup.
5. Document management software. These programs provide more robust tools for storing, organizing, searching, and collaborating on documents across multiple users. They perform functions like advanced search functionality, document versioning, check in/out, secure file sharing, tagging, email management, workflow automation, and integration with Microsoft 365. These programs can be expensive, especially for solo and small firm attorneys. Some options include NetDocuments, Docmoto, and iManage.
File Management — Best PracticesOnce you have determined which storage option(s) are best for you, adopt these best practice tips to ensure that your client files are being managed properly:
1. Minimize file storage locations. The goal should be to maintain a single file storage system, ideally, or as few locations as possible. Also, be more efficient in how you manage files. For example, saving emails manually can take countless hours. Practice management software or document management software can assist with email storage by forwarding emails to a matter or syncing with your email program.
2. Decide what you need in a file management system. Too often, firms have duplicate, unused, or inapt storage locations because they didn’t take the time to determine which features they really need. Review your current file management procedures and list all the functionality you think you will need to ensure efficient storage of your files. Ask the following questions when weighing any software program or other potential file storage system:
- Is it desktop or cloud-based?
- Is remote access necessary and how is it accomplished?
- How many people can access it?
- How will the documents be uploaded and by whom?
- Will the documents be searchable automatically?
- Are there storage size limits?
- Is there backup? Is it automatic or manual?
- Does it integrate with other programs? (e.g., practice management software or cloud storage)
- Can you collaborate on documents with someone in another location?
- Does it include additional features such as timekeeping or e-signature?
3. Maintain consistency. Regardless of where files are stored, you need a consistent file management protocol. Document all file management procedures and update them if adjusted. Procedures include things like where certain documents are stored, for how long, and folder and file naming conventions. Folder and subfolder names will vary depending on your practice areas and preferences. Many firms identify the folders by client, then by matter if they represent a client in multiple matters. Then create subfolders for the types of documents in the matter folder. It can be challenging and time-consuming to remember and recreate folder and subfolder structures whenever you open a new file, so consider creating a “template folder” that can be copied and pasted into each new matter. When naming files, be consistent. Make sure everyone in the firm is following the procedures. See our practice aid for additional tips.
4. Secure your data storage. Understand the security protections and limitations of any storage program you’re considering purchasing. Either use software designed for legal professionals or upgrade to the business version of software for general users. See our Checklist to Prevent and Prepare for a Data Breach for additional suggestions on ways to secure your data storage, such as proper locking of your devices and encryption of all devices and files.