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OCR: The Next Level of Legal Information Management

by Ryan Anderson

on 25 October, 2019

Escape information overload with OCR

In 1821, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story warned of a growing problem: information overload in the legal field.

“It is impossible not to look without some discouragement upon the ponderous volumes, which the next half-century will add to the groaning shelves of our jurists,” he bemoaned.

Justice Story already felt bad for the imagined lawyers of the 1870s, their library shelves sagging under all that weight. How might he imagine the lawyers of today, 200 years on, suffering from an exponentially greater burden of legal information? He would probably assume that we had turned whole cities into labyrinths of legal libraries.

What Justice Story couldn’t imagine is the Information Revolution. Alongside the rapid growth of legal information came the invention of tools to manage that information. These tools moved information away from those ‘ponderous volumes’ and ‘groaning shelves,’ and they made it all accessible to smart devices that weigh a tiny fraction of one single leather-bound tome.

One tool that allowed this transformation to happen is Optical Character Recognition (OCR), the technology that transforms images of text into digital files that can be searched and edited. Early OCR technologies helped move case law out of books and onto servers (with the help of a host of human transcribers).

Now, lawyers can utilize a sleek, updated version of OCR technology to make sense of their own case files. With this tool, lawyers can stay ahead of the increasingly complicated information they are expected to manage.

In Search of Searchability

The word ‘search’ is from the Latin term circare, which means to go around in circles. It’s connected to the word ‘circus.’

And sometimes, that’s how it feels to search for an essential piece of information. Could it be in a case note? An email? A paper document physically mailed to your office? Could it have been sent in a text message? You go around and around the possibilities through a circus of information, and if you’re lucky, you finally land on what you need.

But lawyers can’t depend on luck. They have to shorten the search. And the best way is to keep all the information centralized and searchable.

First: legal professionals need an operating core that allows them to centralize all relevant information easily. Not just case notes and documents but also emails, text messages, photos, faxes—everything.

Secondly: it all needs to be searchable. For lawyers, the big headache for searchability has been PDF files. It’s a remarkable file type, transmitting text and images with the format fidelity that is crucial for many legal documents. But traditionally, it isn’t searchable. To most search tools, a PDF is just a picture of something—the computer can’t distinguish between a drawing of a kitten and a draft of someone’s Last Will and Testament.

That’s where OCR comes in. With Filevine OCR, any PDF scanned in or uploaded to your system is analyzed by sophisticated technology that deciphers the words within the document. It attaches the second layer of searchable text onto the file. Now, any time you’re looking for one of those terms, that PDF will be included in your search results.

And it’s not just for PDFs. OCR will also read JPG files and a number of other file types.

Less Searching, More Finding

What does OCR mean for lawyers? It means finding what they need quickly, instead of leafing through paper files, or going ‘round and round’ the digital files.

It means instantly calling up any relevant document, whatever its file type. This could mean targeting a set of medical records that deal with a specific ailment or a particular doctor. It could mean finding all contracts that relate to a particular property or issue. It could mean streamlining the discovery process by being able to cut through the noise and focus on relevant terms quickly. The specific uses will vary by practice area. But, however it is used, OCR allows lawyers to understand, utilize, and better manage their documents.

And with Filevine OCR, this technology is connected with all the other powerful document management tools at your disposal. You can use Filevine search tools to key in on specific kinds of documents. You can also use boolean search queries to expand or limit results. You can search for specific phrases, combined terms, or documents that contain one term and not another. You can also exclude certain words, or even allow for various suffixes or alternate spellings. (For more about Filevine’s extensive search abilities, look here).

And since Filevine OCR automatically indexes all files that are uploaded into the system, they’re searchable when you need them. This index happens in the background, so you can carry on with your work while the program runs.

To learn more about enabling OCR on your account, talk with a Filevine representative.

The Information Race

With the hindsight of 200 years, we can chuckle at the worries of Justice Joseph Story. But his concerns continue in new forms. We’re still living in an information race. On one side is the rapid proliferation of information. On the other are the tools that allow us to make sense of that information.

In Justice Story’s time, that race was between the weight of the books and the sturdiness of the shelves that held them. Now it’s between gigabytes and processing power. But regardless, the amount of information that lawyers must manage continues to grow exponentially. Legal matters are increasingly complex, requiring more documents, more expert knowledge, and greater connectivity. And it’s not slowing down.

That means that even the most advanced information management tools will eventually be obsolete. As lawyers make decisions about the technology that will support their practice, it’s not enough to go with the cutting edge. They need to find the systems that will continue growing and developing to stay ahead of the information race.

That’s the commitment offered by Filevine. Not only do we currently have the best tools for legal document management—but we’ll also continue developing to make sure tomorrow’s lawyers can skillfully manage an even greater amount of information.