Jump to Navigation | Jump to Content
American Bar Association

Law Practice Today

Font Size: Increase Font Increase | Decrease Font Decrease    Bookmark:   Bookmark page Print:   Print-friendly page   Email: E-mail This Page   


The Document Naming System in Our Paperless Office

September 2009
The success of running a paperless office relies heavily on organizing and naming files – learn how from two experts.

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asked, “What’s in a name?”. For an office that has decided to go paperless, the answer is simple – everything!! We have found that development of a comprehensive file- and folder-naming system is an essential key to the success of going paperless. In a previous article title 'Our Paperless Office' published by ABA's Law Practice Today ezine, tinyurl.com/mk4t9z, we described how and why we went paperless. In this article, we describe in detail the file- and folder-naming system that we developed as part of the process of going paperless.

We hope that by describing our system, you will find some ideas for the development of a similar system tailored to your firm's needs. If you haven't gone paperless yet or have tried but experienced mixed results in part due to the lack of a naming system, hopefully, we will inspire you to go (or continue to go) paperless by developing a naming system that works for you. We use the abbreviation 'pdf' throughout to refer to documents in 'portable document format'. Such documents are most often scanned or electronically printed to create a pdf version.

Our budget did not allow for the purchase of a document management system (DMS), such as Worldox™. We also preferred to have control over our naming system. so our alternative was to develop a comprehensive file- and folder-naming system which is used by all team members. In a small, one-lawyer firm such as ours, this may be easier than at a larger firm where the resistance of a few reluctant team members can easily frustrate firm-wide implementation of such a system. In our view, acceptance and consistent use across the firm is absolutely essential. The naming system must specify in detail how files and folders are to be named and stored (the focus of this article).

Our small law office includes one lawyer and five support staff, not all of whom work full-time. We work only the areas of wills, estates, trusts, and real estate law. We made the decision to go paperless in 2006 as we became increasingly aware of our growing need for file storage.

In a paperless office, it is important that, absent DMS software, all electronic documents are named in a consistent, standardized manner and stored within a logical folder structure. This ensures that documents can be located quickly and easily. We recognize that search software can be used to assist in locating documents; however, in our experience that can be a time-consuming process as one tries to guess what words or phrases might appear in the document being searched for. With our carefully thought-out naming system which is used consistently by all team members, we typically use search software only when searching for a document that was created prior to going paperless.

A Series of 'Protocols'

We developed our file- and folder-naming system in three stages over a period of three years, each of which we documented in 'protocols'. Each protocol is a comprehensive written code specifying exactly how documents, folders and sub-folders are to be named and structured. Although at first glance our system may appear complex, all of us find it easy to use. We believe that this is in large part due to having had everyone involved in developing the protocols so that the naming and structure are as logical and as relevant to our needs as possible.

We developed our Client Protocol first as we decided to focus on client matters when we started to go paperless in mid-2006. It is tweaked from time to time when we identify gaps or problems. In the latter part of 2007, we created our second protocol for naming files and folders for firm accounting. In 2009, we created our third protocol for business development and promotional materials.

Before exploring our protocols further, let's look at the basic components of file naming which is essentially the same across all three protocols.

Our File Naming System– The Basic Components

Here is a sample file name showing the common components which we explain below:

2009 08 04 let report re deed SENT rn.pdf

The names of all documents begin with the 4-digit year, 2-digit month, and 2-digit day. Unlike the date listed in the Windows Explorer 'Date Modified' column, the date that is typed at the front of each file name will not change (unless a team member chooses to edit it). The order of the date elements (year-month-day) and the fact that they are numeric, not alphabetic, allows all documents within a folder to be sorted chronologically. The date is when the document was created, not the date upon which it was scanned or printed to pdf. If we receive a letter as an attachment to an email or by fax, we convert the letter to a pdf and use the date which appears on the document itself as part of our file name, rather than the date received.

Following the three-part date is an abbreviation indicating what type of document it is, e.g., let for letter, eml for email, t-c for notes about a telephone call. At a glance, we can determine what type of document it is without having to open it. We also differentiate between received and sent documents; for example, 'SENT' is included in the file name for all documents that have left our office by whatever means (fax, email, paper mail, etc.).

The next element of the file name is a brief description of the document contents. This is where a team member can get creative and potentially wordy. However, we encourage very short descriptions.

The final element of a file name are the initials of the person who created the document. We like to know who authored the document or who scanned or printed the document to pdf in case there are questions later.

As many documents are worked on by more than one team member, on subsequent drafts, we may add the initials of the second team member to touch it, whether as author or editor. If revised several times, we may also add revision numbers to the initials of the person revising. This most commonly occurs with wills and powers of attorney being drafted for clients. The Wills Law Clerk creates the initial draft so her initials appear alone. Once the lawyer reviews, her initials are added. If the document requires further review, revision numbers are added to the reviewer's initials. Figure 1 shows how the file name of a Will being drafted for a husband (H) of a client couple changes throughout its development. Note that we differentiate between the husband's and wife's Wills by adding H or W.

First draft created by law clerk

2009 08 26 Will H ds.docx

Draft reviewed by lawyer

2009 08 26 Will H ds-rn.docx

Draft further revised by law clerk

2009 08 26 Will H ds2-rn.docx

Drafted further revised and finalized by lawyer

2009 08 26 Will H ds2-rn2.docx

Figure 1. File Name Changes as a Will is Revised

Client-Related Documents Protocol

For client-specific work, we have created a set of predefined folders and sub-folders for each type of matter (‘folder templates’) that we commonly handle. These folder templates are huge time savers and ensure consistency in folder and sub-folder naming. For example, Figure 2 is the folder template for an estate planning client for whom we will prepare a will and powers of attorney.


Figure 2. Folder Template for a Will/POA Matter

Each folder template name begins with a ‘$’ symbol so that all of the folder templates sort and display at the top of the file index for ease of copying. In Windows Explorer, we copy the top folder ($Surname FirstName {} WillPOAs 2009 0000) and then paste it into the correct alphabetic surname folder. We immediately rename the folder so that the client's actual first and last names replace '$Surname Firstname'. 'WillPOAs' tells us which type of matter it is. '2009' confirms the year the file was opened. We replace the final '0000' with the file number assigned by our accounting system. Sub-folders are those we need for this estate planning client and are pretty much self-explanatory, e.g., $Surname FirstName {} WillsPOAs 2009 0000. NLO is an abbreviation for our firm name. Figures 3 and 4 below show our folder templates for a real estate sale and for an estate matter.


Figure 3. Folder Template for Real Estate Sale Matter


Figure 4. Folder Template for an Estate Matter

Firm Accounting Protocol

The second protocol that we developed sets out the file- and folder-naming for all documents related to firm accounting. The top level folder, NLOAccounting, includes a large number of sub-folders, e.g.,

  • Client Invoices
  • General Ledger Accounts
  • MasterCard
  • Office Correspondence
  • Human Resources
  • Period-End Financials
  • Petty Cash
  • Reconciliations
  • Statements – Bank
  • Statements – Other
  • Warranties

Most of the above sub-folders contain further sub-folders named and organized by financial year. In the Client Invoices sub-folder, electronic version s of all client receipts are stored. C ontrary to our general rule of naming a document beginning with the date of creation, the file name for a client invoice consists of only two components: the invoice number and the initials of the person creating it. Our governing body requires us to track invoices by assigning consecutive numbers. Putting the invoice number first allows us to easily sort the invoices in numeric order and makes it a simple matter to see if one is missing.

Publicity Materials Protocol

With our firm's increasing involvement in various conferences, seminars and workshops, and various forms of publishing such as magazine articles, blogging and twittering, the need to develop a protocol for publicity materials became apparent. We developed a naming protocol that applies to anything that promotes the firm in any way.

As figure 5 illustrates, six sub-folders were created, each beginning with 'Publicity' to ensure they are grouped together in the index. These six sub-folders contain further sub-folders named for the organization that we are working with.


Figure 5. Publicity Folders and Sample Sub-Folders

The 'Blogs + Twitter' folder contains blog ideas and tweet ideas as well as drafts not yet published. Once published, the file is moved to the 'posted' folder. 'NLOPC' (representing our firm name) contains promotional materials that we have developed or efforts that we have initiated such as a series of informational brochures, marketing ideas, etc. 'Ex-House' includes any promotional material for which the request came from an external source, i.e., outside of the firm such as seminars and workshops for local charitable organizations, the ABA and so forth.

As always, the basic file-naming rules apply; however, we have created some acronyms particular to publicity materials such as 'brch' for brochure and 'pod' for a podcast script.

Team Involvement

Direct staff involvement in the creation of the file- and folder-naming system has two main benefits: a better overall system and increased compliance. A well-developed system will more likely result if created by the very users who work with the documents being named and who have relevant, pertinent comments and ideas. The result will be a fine-tuned, efficient system that makes perfect sense for the way the firm actually works with its documents. The chances of compliance are increased exponentially if the system is created by those who will be using it on a day-to-day basis or those who are directly affected by it rather than a system imposed from the top down. Direct involvement also engenders a feeling of teamwork and pride and ownership of the system which translates into increased conformity. 

If you do not think that all of your staff will abide by the system or you believe that any rules, no matter how inclusively developed, will be unenforceable, it may be less painful and more cost-effective to purchase a document management system and let it be the enforcer. The key point is that without either a file-naming system that is consistently used by everyone or a document management system that imposes order, going paperless will be an exercise in frustration. Being able to find a document as quickly and easily (or more quickly and more easily) than pre-paperless is the goal.

Everyone on our team was involved in the initial and ongoing development of our file- and folder-naming protocols which we feel has directly contributed to 100% compliance. What we have developed is a complete document management system which directly contributes to the efficiency and effectiveness of our firm's work, from providing services to clients to managing accounting matters to client development.

It takes time to develop a system suited to the way that your firm works and which everyone will use. Start with one small area, test it, and continue modifying until it works well.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, although a rose may still smell as sweet by any other name, an electronic document with any old name won't be as sweet in the paperless office!

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

About the Authors

Donna Neff is a solo attorney practicing in Ottawa, Canada, in the areas of wills and trusts, estate planning and administration, powers of attorney, succession planning for small businesses and real estate. She has extensive experience in the development and use of technology in a business setting and selectively applies those that can improve service to clients and increase the enjoyment and productivity of the practice of law. She is Co-Chair of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Solo and Small Firm Conference and Expo.

Natalie Sanna is a once-practicing attorney currently working as a Law Clerk for Neff Law Office P.C. She assists in the areas of wills, powers of attorney, trusts and estate planning. Following the births of her children, a paperless office has allowed her to continue working in the legal profession as she is able to work entirely from home.

Back to Top