How to: Organize Your Files for Mobile Use

Depending on the depth of your practice, including how much time you spend in court, I’m sure you’re always searching for suitable methods to organize the papers. Of course, if you’re not running a “paperless office,” it’s time to start. That includes purchasing a scanner — preferably a desktop version — and increasing your storage capacity.

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The paperless office

Establishing a paperless office isn’t difficult. Like any large task, creating a paperless office is all about establishing a baseline for behavior, and then following that paper through the space of the project. The paperless law office is a hot topic, and everyone has their method — here’s a good reference point on the basics.

However you decide to prioritize the steps, properly naming and organizing the files is one of the most important tasks. If you intend to use your documents with your tablet or smartphone, it’s extremely important to find a file naming system that’s easy to understand, organize, and highly accessible.

Personally, I prefer to organize all of my documents into client folder, using the client’s name, then matter number, followed by the subfolder. Thus, a client’s folder looks something like this:

file naming

If you decide to use a document management system, the program should organize your files according to the system setup. You can opt out of a document management system easy enough, but just remember to remain consistent with your naming and folder creation.

I tend to use the same sub-folders with each case, so I’ll create a “template” folder I can copy with each new client. My generic folder generally looks like this:

generic folder

Properly naming the files is the final step in setting up the basis for using digital documents on your mobile device. One of the core requirements of having a good system is being able to quickly reference materials needed at motion hearings or docket calls. Android has an awesome search feature, but it’s only as useful as the name of the file it’s looking for. If all of your digital client files look like 3501302100_20141015_101303, you’ll likely have a very difficult time finding the appropriate document. I follow this simple formula for naming all of my files:

Document Creation Date (mmddyyyy) – Short description of the document or contents

So, a letter from opposing counsel about an upcoming hearing would have this file name:

10012014 Letter from opposing counsel regarding scheduling conference

Similarly, a pleading in the case will look like this:

10012014 defendant’s motion for summary judgment

I often hear complaints, and usually horror stories, about an attorney’s inability to locate documents when they’re need. I think we often forget about the search power contained in our desktop and mobile device. My theory is that if I properly describe the document, then I can find it when I need it later.

Making sense of the documents

Generally, mobile documents users fall into two groups. The first group prefers to have every document in the file available for every hearing or appearance. These are the lawyers who used to lug red roper folders and bankers’ boxes to every court appearance. The second group, to which I closely align, recognizes that you don’t need every document at every meeting with opposing counsel or in front of the judge. I recognize this fact and use some of my appearance prep time to transfer the correct documents to the cloud or my device.

For instance, if I’m appearing on a motion to dismiss, and the issue is whether plaintiff stated sufficient facts — 12(b)(6) — I probably don’t have to worry about all of the plaintiff’s medical records, our firm’s attorney-client contract, or correspondence. I can save time and space by choosing to upload the appropriate, and relevant, documents. Therefore, I’ll probably want a copy of the complaint, defendant’s motion to dismiss, plaintiff’s response, and any subsequent replies. Similarly, if there’s a facts summary, I might include that. Now, rather than copying and searching through hundreds of pages of documents, I may only need to deal with five or six.

Obviously, the underlying event determines what documents and information you’ll need.

Moving to mobile

With your files properly organized and the papers digitized, you’re ready to move and use the documents on your mobile device. Android users tend to utilize USB transfers or the cloud to move documents from their desktop to mobile devices.

USB transfer

Your group preference will likely determine how you transfer documents to your device. Those users in the first group will likely want to avoid transferring confidential client documents to the cloud, and you’ll prefer to connect via a USB cable. You should receive a prompt to view the files on your device.

usb connect

If not, verify that the proper USB drivers are installed for your device.

From the cloud

Group number two’s users will probably feel more confident loading their documents to the cloud, and then opening the file on the device as needed. Personally, I prefer this method since I can view my documents on any device. I like using Google Drive to store my files, especially since I can opt to make file available offline, if needed. The offline capabilities help when I can’t tether files or access information because of a poor cell signal.

To set up offline viewing, simply select the information icon (google drive information icon) next to the file name and toggle the “Keep on device” button to on.

google drive save offline

Google Drive will begin downloading the files to your tablet or phone for use later. The download process also speeds up the document access time, since the file is locally stored versus being held in the cloud.

On the tablet

I try to avoid making any changes to the file or folder structure on my device, since it’s generally familiar to navigate. If I opt to use USB transfer, I generally use a file explorer program to move my folder to my phone’s home screen. If I use Google Drive, then the files are in the corresponding folder in Google Drive. Knowing where the files are located, and having a easy-to-manage folder structure will save a lot of hunting hassles in the future. Now, when I go to court, I have all of the documents available and ordered.

But availability and organization is only one portion of the in-court battle. One of the benefits of physical documents is that they’re very accessible and you can easily see margin notes and counter arguments. On a tablet, you can’t really see those markings. I’ve found that the best way to use digital documents, especially at arguments or other hearings, is to create an argument “cheat sheet” with Google Docs, which references particular paragraphs, pages, or pieces of evidence. This is a good practice for creating overall organization, and helps me to fine-tune my oral statements.

The tough stuff is behind you

Using digital documents isn’t difficult when you focus on the basics and surrender bad habits. You don’t have to abandon everything, but getting organized and maintaining a law practice with less paper will make you a very satisfied practitioner. I’m curious to know how you use digital documents in your law practice. Let me know if the comments. And if your not, it’s time to start!

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Jeff Taylor

I’m just an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life. I’m also an attorney and I blog about Android for lawyers. You can follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Google+.