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10 Steps to Better Legal File Naming Conventions

by Ryan Anderson

on 26 April, 2018

First, the good news:

Law offices are more collaborative than ever. They’re more cloud-based and less reliant on paper than ever. It’s a shift that has revolutionized the practice of law. But it comes with a price. That price is file-naming hygiene.

Now, here’s the bad news: to harvest this new capacity for efficiency, we’ve got to buckle down and create consistent, agreed-upon methods for naming our files.

It’s awful enough when your own inconsistent names make you waste half an hour hunting around folders. But when we enter the realm of shared files, the nightmare truly begins. It not only swamps your productivity — it can mess with your entire team dynamic, as resentments and frustrations pile up. Creating better legal file naming conventions means less confusion and more efficiency for your firm.

So here are 10 steps attorneys and legal teams can take to sharpen their file naming process.


1. Do It Right the First Time
So you’re getting serious about your file naming ritual? Good. Give it time and thought. Read the opinions of more than one writer on this subject. Ask your colleagues and staff members what is already working for them and what they absolutely hate.

Because it seems like a small, finicky thing — but you don’t want to screw this one up. You don’t want to push out a naming system that will soon change or fall apart because it’s too ornate, counter-intuitive, or doesn’t include important information.


2. Stick To It
It’s better to have an imperfect system that everyone can stick to than a perfect system that others are prone to ignore. Like so many issues that arise in managing your practice: it comes down to consistency.


3. Systematize Your Folders
Filevine users save their documents directly into the case file or project file. Documents can be hyperlinked in task assignments and notes where they’re relevant, so you can bring them up with a click.

But sometimes you still want your docs housed in a clear, organized folder structure. For tips on using the easy folder system in Filevine, look here. And for those who don’t have Filevine’s luxuries, a clear folder system is an absolute must.

Sam Glover with Lawyerist suggests that these folders mirror the structure you’d use in an old-school filing cabinet. He recommends beginning with the following main folders:

  • Client Files (for all open cases)
  • Billing
  • Temporary (notes and documents for potential clients who haven’t yet signed)
  • Closed Client Files
  • Declined (for notes from potential clients who don’t sign)

Another smart idea from Glover is to keep a ‘Client Files Archive’ folder which contains a subfolder for each year. At the end of the year, you can move all the files from ‘Declined’ and ‘Closed Client Files’ into that year’s folder. If you’ve agreed with former clients to delete their electronic files after a certain number of years, this archive will help you follow through.

Inside each client file, you’ll want a set of subfolders. Glover suggests:

  • Archive
  • Billing
  • Correspondence
  • Discovery
  • Docs from Client
  • Drafts
  • Notes
  • Orders
  • Pleadings
  • Retainer

Customize this set-up for your practice areas. In-house counsel would likely need a matter-centric system with greater customization than the lawsuit-based set-up useful to personal injury attorneys.

But whatever your set of subfolders is, you don’t have to make it from scratch each time you get a new client or open a new matter. Instead, keep a template folder that includes all these empty, named subfolders. You can duplicate that folder each time, and rename it after your new clients.


4. Keep File Names Short
If your name gets too unwieldy, you won’t be able to see the whole thing on your screen. Also, if your naming conventions require inserting everything, you risk more inconsistency. Your staff and fellow attorneys are more likely to leave something out — whether by accident or exasperation.


One way to keep things shorter is to:

5. Standardize Abbreviations
Write down the abbreviations that are already commonly used in your firm. Determine which ones you can all agree to use every time.

It’s not a bad idea to put together a shared list of these abbreviations. Here are some common examples:

  • ANS = Answer
  • AP = Amended Petition
  • Atty = Attorney
  • D = Defendant
  • DECL = Declaration
  • Depo = Deposition
  • Disco = Discovery
  • DMR = Demurrer
  • FRog = Form Interrogatories
  • Jmt = Judgment
  • Ltr = Letter
  • MB = Medical Bills
  • MIL = Motion In Limine
  • MR = Medical Records
  • MSA = Motion for Summary Adjudication
  • MSJ = Motion for Summary Judgment
  • Mtn = Motion
  • MTS = Motion to Strike
  • OC = Original Complaint
  • Opp = Opposition
  • P = Plaintiff
  • PMSJ = Partial Motion for Summary Judgment
  • POS = Proof of Service
  • re = Regarding
  • Rtnr = Retainer
  • RFA = Request for Admission
  • RFD = Request for Disclosure
  • RFP = Request for Production of Documents
  • Rog = Interrogatories
  • SRog = Special Interrogatories
  • Stip = Stipulation
  • Sub = Subpoena
  • Sum = Summons
  • V = Version
  • XCL = Cross-complaint

Are a few of your abbreviations confusing your team? Do they sometimes confuse yourself? Then it may be better to write out the entire word.


6. Know How To Write Dates
Most file naming conventions begin with a date. Sometimes this is the date the document was filed with the court; sometimes it’s the date it was created (as with a memo) or received (as with correspondence).

The most important rule with dates is to begin with the year first, then the month, then the day, in a YYYY-MM-DD format. This keeps your files in chronological order on an alphabetized list.

Some attorneys prefer an underscore between numbers instead of a hyphen. Others write out YYYYMMDD without any spaces. Whatever style you choose — you know what I’m going to say here — just be consistent.

Some attorneys even use the date in YYYYMMDD format as their case or matter number, based on the date the matter opens or client signs. This lets them see at a glance how long a case has been open, and where their oldest cases are.

If more than one case opens on a day, the number is followed by a lowercase letter. For example: if you open up two cases on New Year’s, their names would be 20180101a and 20181010b.


7. Zero Is Your Friend
With dates, make sure the month and day always have two digits, even if that means using a 0. February is ‘02.’ If you just call it ‘2,’ then October through December will sneak in ahead of it in an alphabetized list.

The same principle can be used for any series in your file name. Use zeros to keep files in order. If you’re naming 15 different pictures of a car accident, the first should be 01, then 02, etc. If you’re working on a big writing project that will go through many drafts, you want to add something like V01 to the first version.


8. PDF = Final Document; Word = Draft
Word files or Google docs are easily altered. They will format and load differently for other users. They should be saved as drafts, so you can return to them, see your version history, steal your best ideas for your next brief, etc.

But when you file a document with the court, you want to archive it in its exact form. Preserve that final draft as a PDF.


9. #Tag It
Every file naming system has limitations. You want an information-rich name that will help you find this exact document in some unforeseen future emergency. But if you put in too much information, you make an unwieldy, inconsistent monster of a name.

Other documents might seem to belong in two different folders at once. Maybe you want to keep tabs of all your cases that deal with a certain issue, or you want to compile together all the really great motions and memos that your team has written, as a reference. Can you do this without double-saving all of these documents in multiple folders?

The answer is metadata.

Look to see if your document management system has ways to add metadata in the form of tags. With Filevine, adding hashtags is simple. Any information that’s left out of a file name can be added to the metadata for that document. Want to keep a record of all your stellar writing? Try #wow. Maybe you need to mark some documents as #important. Mark practice areas like #medmal or #workerscomp.

The best part of hashtags is that there isn’t a limit: one category isn’t mutually exclusive of another, and having a lot doesn’t harm you.


10. Manage Teams, Not Just Information
Naming conventions aren’t just about information management: they’re also about managing your staff.

Take time to explain why you’re being a stickler about this. Clarify to others how conventions will make their lives easier. Incorporate their good ideas and preferences, to help others have a sense of buy-in.

And then remind people about it. Give them a reference sheet with your naming rules and list of abbreviations. Point out bad examples in the spirit of mutual improvement.

In theory, we would all tidy up after ourselves without a reminder. But look to the office fridge to see the reality of this theory. When we’re dealing with shared space and resources, we need a culture that includes intentional rules and reminders to keep communication clear and productivity optimized.