Even though we live in a world of digital data and cloud computing, law firms – especially solos and small practices – still deal with lots of paperwork.
And when it comes to case files, how those files are organized and stored could make or break your practice.
Misfiled documents. Lost folders. Messy files so disorganized it’s hard to find anything in them and impossible to know what might be missing.
These scenarios can lead to a malpractice claim, a bar complaint, or both. That’s why it’s crucial to have a system for assembling, storing and categorizing your files.
“File organization is a particularly daunting topic,” writes Karla J. Eckardt for Clio. “If you can’t get a handle on client files, start by creating a hierarchical folder structure. Success means consistently using easily identifiable numbering and naming conventions. Then you have to remember to store files where they belong (Hint: not strewn across your desk).”
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8 Step Process for Getting Your Case Files Organized
Step one: determine where the files will be stored. The right choice is to keep them in file cabinets located in safe, secure storage areas. The wrong choice is to pile them haphazardly on your desk or floor.
Step two: use checklists. Create a clear, point-by-point system for moving files from open to closed status. Consistency and redundancy are key. Make sure everyone in the office understands the checklist and follows it to the letter.
Step three: categorize files according to their status. Divide them into broad categories such as: Open Files, Consultations Only, Declined Clients, Closed Files.
Step four: create a numbering and labeling system for files in each category. “For example, client name, matter name, and matter number,” writes Eckardt. “The matter number can be YYMM###, where the last three digits correspond to the new file number for that calendar year. It would look something like Jane Smith_Employment Contract Litigation_2007050. This is the year’s fiftieth new matter, opened in July 2020.”
Step five: use consistent names for the subfolders in each case file. Examples: Retainer Agreement, Intake documents, Correspondence, Pleadings, Motions, Orders, Activity Log, Billing, etc. Eckardt recommends creating a New Client Folder Template for staff to use to ensure consistency.
Step six: make sure individual documents are placed in the correct subfolder. Identify the ultimate destination within the case file as soon as the document is created or received.
Step seven: use legal project management software. “Case management is not always the same as project management,” says Eckardt. “In a law firm, project management can be less to do with a specific client and more to do with achieving the firm’s broader goals and increasing efficiency by improving workflows or undertaking specific internal projects. Legal project management tools can help with planning, budgeting, billing, and other firm processes unrelated to a specific case, like getting organized.” Popular options include Clio, Trello, ProofHub, Accelo and Microsoft Planner.
Step eight: go paperless. Here’s a blogpost on how to get started doing just that.
What about your firm? How do you manage your paper files?
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