Every year, nearly five million pages of documents get produced for legal cases that go to trial. This doesn't even include the majority of cases that settle outside of court.
As an attorney or paralegal, your workday is already full. While you're busy communicating with clients, it's easy to neglect that pile of papers at the corner of your desk. Over time, it gets more and more challenging to locate the documents you need when you need them.
It's no wonder that the average attorney only works 2.3 billable hours each workday. The rest of their time goes to basic administrative tasks — which is where an effective filing system can make a huge difference.
Keep reading as we outline five actionable tips you can take to organize your legal files and streamline your workflow.
1. Sort Through What You Have
The first step is always the hardest. Before you can create a logical filing system, you first need to determine what you have. Pour yourself a fresh cup of coffee, roll up your sleeves, and get ready to tackle that mountain of paperwork.
Whether your files are already (somewhat) organized or not, start with a rough inventory. Make space for different types of files and start dividing documents by category.
For example, you might categorize files by:
- Client name
- Closed cases
Whichever type of filing system you choose, consistency is key. For example, you can use custom printed tabs to organize your folders and divide them into logical sub-folders.
An inconsistent folder structure will hinder your workflow rather than help it, so decide how you want to organize your files before you proceed to the next step.
2. Purge Unnecessary Documents
Chances are you'll find plenty of old documents you can part with during the decluttering phase. This will create more space for the documents you need to keep. Before you reach for the shredder, though, double-check retention rules in your jurisdiction.
Legal firms are required to retain case and client records for a certain number of years. In California, for example, the required length of time is five years, while Washington state mandates at least seven years.
Meanwhile, in New York, attorneys must retain their closed client files indefinitely. The only exception is if the client requests their documents to be returned.
Once you're clear on legal requirements, you can start to purge. If you have old client documents that are past the retention period, dispose of them. If they're still within the retention period, dispose of any duplicate copies to reduce unnecessary clutter.
Pro tip: Moving forward, establish a file retention policy for your law firm. Outline clear rules and policies for what to keep (and for how long), as well as how to dispose of files when appropriate. Make sure everyone in your firm knows and follows these rules.
3. Outline Standard Operating Procedures
With your purge complete, it's time to organize the files that remain.
If you haven't already done so, implement a set of standard operating procedures for everyone in the firm to follow. This will create clarity and consistency and help everyone to save time when they need to locate a particular document.
You'll want to standardize policies for each of the following:
- Opening files for new clients
- Scheduling new client consultations
- Ordering supplies for the office
- Billing and payment options
- Preparing documents for trial
- Closing and archiving client files
- Destroying old client files
Ensure everyone on your team is consistent with naming conventions and folder structure. It's an upfront investment in time, but it will save you a lot of frustration and effort in the future.
4. Evaluate Your Storage Space
Next, take a look at the physical space you have available for document storage. How many filing cabinets do you already have in your office? Are they sufficient for the amount of paperwork you need to store?
If the answer is no, what types of drawers or cabinets do you need to meet your needs? Is it time to upgrade your office space or invest in a separate storage unit?
To help save space, you might consider going partially digital. Scanning old documents from closed cases allows you to meet retention requirements while freeing up valuable space. You can also ask clients to submit some of their paperwork electronically to reduce the number of physical files you need to store.
5. Implement Your Filing System
The final step in legal files organization is implementing your system. Chances are you'll use a combination of hanging files, binders, and drawers.
Whatever system you design, remember: Uniformity is key. You're not the only one who needs to find files. Everyone in the office should know and use the same system to streamline the workflow process.
For example, decide on your firm's file naming system. Will you organize files by:
- The client's last name?
- The lawyer working on the case?
- The date the file was opened?
- The case number or matter number?
- A numeric indexing system?
Your file naming should be logical, consistent, and user-friendly. Store related documents together, and be sure to separate current cases from completed ones. Use side tabs to keep each folder or binder organized so anyone can quickly locate the document they need.
To make things even easier, consider using color-coded labels or tabs as well as expanding files.
The Best Tools for Organizing Legal Files
A logical filing system is crucial to the success of your law firm. Admittedly, it can be challenging to organize your legal files — especially when you have a heavy caseload.
Exhibitindexes.com has the practical tools you need to make organizing legal files much easier. From dividers to exhibit labels to custom printed tabs, you'll find everything you need to keep your paper files in order.
Click here to browse our complete line of products designed to aid your legal filing system.