File these tips away and add value to your firm

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Strategy & Leadership,Technology] May 30, 2019

Filing is an underrated and sometimes dull task within legal practices that is only noticed when something goes wrong, so make sure you implement smart planning and processes in this crucial management area, writes Kirsty McPhee.

Filing is an important and necessary skill for anyone working in the legal industry.

Poor filing costs a firm and clients money through wasted time, frustration and unproductive practices, as well as being a significant-risk management concern. This article is the first of two in a series and relates to electronic and hardcopy filing, and focuses on best-practice processes and systems from an administrative perspective. There are significant legal requirements associated with filing practices that are not covered in the scope of this article. It is important to consider that any system and process must be designed with a full knowledge of these requirements and that regular auditing is crucial to ensure compliancy by legal and administrative professionals.

In my next column, I will expand on filing requirements and explain how to create toolkits and checklists that guide workflows and put relevant forms and pro-forma documents at your fingertips.

Get all the team on board

It is important to involve your secretaries, knowledge managers, account managers and lawyers in the set-up and development and regular review of existing filing systems and practices.

The way each team or practitioner approaches filing and the systems they use can be as unique as they are complex. Systems and processes should be tailored to the specific needs and preferences of their practice; strive for a bespoke approach that is efficient, appropriate and easy for the team to use daily. This can and should mean that is it not always best to make an entire firm use the same system.

All filing should remain accurate and consistent across all files for the duration of a practitioner’s career. If a system or process is changed, this must be clearly identified and the files somehow marked to indicate which filing system has been used on which matter.

Senior management and partners can often remain with the same firm for 20 to 30 years. It is vital to ensure these systems are documented and updated, as many different people will be responsible for filing or finding documents during the course of the practitioner’s career, and even after the practitioner has left the firm.

The people who need to use the system may not be familiar with it and may not have an opportunity for training from an existing team member before they are required to use the system on a short- or long-term basis. Comprehensive and clear instructions and guides need to be created and followed by everyone who will be regularly involved in the filing. These guides also need to be easy to find and follow for anyone who is not in the team, including temporary staff or members of another team who may need to step in to help from time to time.

Apply this test in your firm

When it comes to writing instructions related to filing, a good test to apply is this: “Could a partner from another team follow these instructions on a Saturday afternoon in an emergency with no-one else present?” The basis for this test is that partners are the least likely to be involved in administrative work and therefore they are likely to be the most unfamiliar with the systems, particularly if they are from another practice area. So if they can, without any assistance in the office, successfully process and file or find documents in your system with your instructional guide, then your instructions will be able to guide any experienced secretary, administrative staff member, temporary staff member or junior lawyer. If the partners in your firm are too snowed under, simply choose a staff member who isn’t and use them as your litmus test for successful process-documentation testing.

There is no one one-size-fits-all approach to filing. It is important to develop a system that is:

  • convenient;
  • efficient;
  • easy to use;
  • simple for others to understand and implement;
  • reflective of statutory requirements;
  • capable of archiving and destruction processes.

Follow these tips

While the following tips for file management may seem like common sense, it is easy to forget them or slip into bad habits when your time is limited or the pressure is on.

1. Develop and use a consistent method for naming your files and folders – consider using the year or matter number in the naming convention for electronic documents and folders.

2. Avoid saving unnecessary documents – multiple versions and copies can present a risk-management issue. Document storage, whether it is hardcopy or electronic, is expensive. If version control is relevant to your matter, find an effective system for saving current and superseded versions. This can be achieved without an expensive document-management system with a little bit of forethought and planning.

3. Group related documents together.

4. Separate ongoing work from completed work.

5. Avoid overfilling folders.

6. Make digital copies of paper documents with a scanner – consider paperless or e-filing options.

7. Use coloured paper, coloured tabs, hyperlinks and shortcuts – any tools or technology that can be used to readily identify types of documents, communications and correspondence, forms and other items that may be retained or stored for the matter.

Beware of costly errors
Remember that mentoring, knowledge sharing and effective teamwork are all key elements of effective knowledge-management processes, and perhaps never more so than when it comes to file management.

Once a document is filed in the wrong place, it can be difficult, time-consuming, expensive or even impossible to find. Even worse, your practitioner may not even realise it is missing. If the matter is especially large or involves complex litigation, it could cost your client and your PI insurance an enormous amount of money if a key document is lost or unable to be found at the time it is needed.

Be extra careful when organising or filing original or single-copy documents – if they are lost or go missing, this could have an extremely negative impact on the matter, the client, litigation or costs taxation. If a colleague is making mistakes or is unsure, provide proactive training, mentoring and supervision to rectify the situation. It is always easier to provide further training or support rather than trying to retrospectively identify and fix errors.

When involving a new or junior member of the staff in filing, take the time to explain to them in detail how your team runs a matter from beginning to end, and how proper file management fits in to each of those steps.

Take time to educate your firm

Let us face it, administrative tasks are not always the most exciting and are often quite time-consuming.

Stress to someone learning the system that there is no limit to how many questions they can ask. It is not always easy to mentor someone effectively in a busy law firm environment, but make the time and do it right. Give them a sense of ownership and make them part of the practice team, and you and your team will reap the rewards for a long time.

As always when it comes to effective knowledge management, if you have access to a law librarian, engage them in the development and review of systems and processes. Collecting, categorising, storing and accessing information are at the core of all library services and your law librarian, whether they be in-house or hired on a consulting basis, will jump at the chance to work with a practice team to improve their information and knowledge-management processes.

You will be amazed at the value they add.

Kirsty McPhee is an Information Manager in the mining industry. She has previously worked for the past decade in law libraries and has been responsible for library, research and knowledge services, as well as IT and administrative functions.