Managing All the Paperless Pieces

Thanks to COVID-19, nearly every lawyer has had a taste of working “remotely,” i.e. physically severed from the credenzas, file cabinets, and rolling stacks of shelves that house their paper files. Suddenly, the “file” is everywhere: electronic documents that used to reside only on an office computer or server now may have been saved on a home laptop; letters to opposing counsel are mixed in with e-mails; and the few critical paper documents that have been scanned by your skeleton office staff and sent to you by e-mail seem to have since disappeared from your computer. Welcome to the deep end of the pool.

Not only are you having trouble keeping track of where all the pieces of your file are but, someday, a client is going to ask you for a complete copy of their file, which you are required to provide to them under Rules 1.15(c)(4) and 1.16(d) and (e), Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC). Failing to provide the client with a copy of their file is a very common basis for an ethics complaint. So, this seems like a good time to talk about how to manage an electronic client file, before a second or third wave of COVID-19 sends us all back home again.

File Naming. Electronic files need to be organized just like paper files. In an electronic file, every document gets a name, not unlike the “pleadings index” one might find in a litigator’s file. One of my biggest pet peeves is when a lawyer e-mails me a document titled “Scan0001,” the default name put on the document by the scanner. Not only is it impossible for me to figure out what the document is without opening it but the person who sent to me also cannot tell. A folder of documents titled “Scan0001,” “Scann0002,” and “Jones letter” is like a large random pile of documents sitting on the edge of a desk.

Unless you are using sophisticated document-management software, every file name should start with a client identifier, such as a file number, last name, etc. That way, when a document inevitably ends up in the wrong folder, you can still search your computer for all documents with that client identifier.

Next, I like to identify the type of document: ORD (order), PLD (pleading), LTR (letter), and so on. That way, documents of a similar type are grouped together when I look at the folder contents.

All documents should be dated, with the year first, e.g. 2020.0801. Use the whole year, not just the last two digits, at least until 2032. Avoid inserting the month first (e.g. 0801.2020), which will group all the July documents together over multiple years, making it more difficult to find what you are looking for. Similarly, if you write out the month (August 01.2020), then August documents will appear before January documents.

Putting it all together, a letter for client Smith might be named “ E. Kagan re counteroffer.pdf.” Even if you later cannot recall what exactly you named the document, searching for “SMI.LTR.2020” should reveal all the letters you wrote this year for that client. Of course, you can come up with your own naming system but it should have these elements.

Drafts and Finals. In an ethics investigation focused on whether the lawyer communicated with the client, it is not very convincing for a lawyer to produce a copy of a Word document, unsigned, no letterhead, with the date field updated to the date the lawyer most recently printed the document. Think of all Word documents as drafts. Final documents, such as pleadings, letters, contracts, etc., have signatures on them and should be preserved as PDFs.[1]

Preserving emails. Two guidelines about preserving e-mails. First, always save attachments to a document folder, renaming them as above or using your own system. Hunting through old e-mails for a poorly-labeled attachment is mind numbing. Second, move client e-mails from your inbox to a dedicated client folder. At the end of the representation, save them all as either one large text file or as PDFs. If you are not sure how, ask the Googles.

File notes. Except for a few narrow situations, your handwritten or typewritten notes of your conversations with clients, opposing counsel, witnesses, etc., are part of the client file. See Rule 1.16(e). Yes, your notes may be privileged or work product but nearly always the client owns that privilege or work product. Preserve the notes at the end of the representation by either scanning them (if handwritten) or saving them to a text file or PDF if typewritten.

Invoices. It may seem obvious that invoices are part of the client’s file but often the invoices are maintained through software that is distinct from the lawyer’s document folder system. Routinely preserve PDFs of invoices and save them to the client’s folder.

The good news is that providing a client with an electronic version of their file is much faster and easier than spending half a day in front of a copy machine pulling out staples and clearing copier jams. Another bonus is that attorneys do not have an obligation to maintain paper copies of client files, except for original documents, as long as the client will not in any way be prejudiced by the lack of a paper file.[2]

By the time the third wave comes, you are going to wonder why you bothered with all those paper files for so long.

[1] This concept attributed to Sam Glover.

[2] See Virginia Legal Ethics Opinion 1818 (Sept. 30, 2005).

This article was originally published in the Hennepin Lawyer, July 2020, under the title “Managing All the Pieces.”

Planning For What You Did Last Summer

Beachball1 Planning For What You Did Last SummerAt some point in our educational careers, we have all returned to school in September and been directed to write an essay titled “What I Did Last Summer.� And we have all had the same first thought: Nothing. I did nothing all summer.

If you are a first or second-year law student, you cannot afford to return to school in September without a long list of the things you did this summer to better position yourself to ultimately get a job in this tough economy. Even when times were good, 1Ls could not typically expect to find paid legal work over the summer; now many 2Ls are caught in the same position. But that doesn’t mean you should spend the summer sleeping in, taking Facebook surveys, and watching Hulu.

Get thee to a law office

One way or another, you are going to want to spend some time in law office. If you cannot get paid work in an office, then volunteering is your best bet. Most nonprofits, like the Legal Aid Society, cannot handle an unlimited number of volunteers but you would be surprised how few people try to volunteer outside of a paid internship (unpaid internships at for-profit law offices may be more trouble than they are worth). To make yourself useful to the nonprofit, you will need to commit to a certain number of hours per week, perhaps 20, and agree to show up on regular days and times. Don’t be surprised if you are not busy the first week you are there; it typically takes attorneys a few days to figure out what tasks can be delegated to the volunteers.

Because law students also need to make money in the summer, try to find paid work during nights and weekends. If you find yourself whining about having to work two jobs in the summer, go hang out with some unemployed 3Ls who are studying for the bar exam.

Join the bar association and a legal listserv

Many bar associations steeply discount their rates for students. Summer is a good time to join the bar, become familiar with its services, and perhaps participate in some bar activities. Sections and committees may meet less frequently in the summer but they may also have summer sports and networking events through which you can meet attorneys and learn more about the practice. Summer is also a good time to join a listserv and learn about the types of questions lawyers ask each other without becoming too distracted from your coursework.


There are few lawyers who operate general practices any more – specialization has been the trend for many years. One edge students have now that they did not have five or ten years ago is that there are blogs in every practice area, easily accessible, announcing and analyzing the latest decisions and trends in that area. Find and follow the legal blogs in the areas of practice that interest you and start yourself down the road to specialization. At the very least, you may discover that the practice area you were so hot about before law school is less interesting to you that watching paint dry.

Skip summer school

Many prospectively unemployed students decide to take a course or two in the summer, figuring they can lighten their load during the regular school year. Feh. Law school is an intense, competitive place, often divorced from the real world. Students need a break. Plus, taking summer school is, well, boring. Does nothing for your resume. I vote for working two jobs over summer school.


Forget the trashy novels. In addition to blawgs and listservs, there are two types of books you should read over the summer. First, you may not have a legal job, but you can read about the law: famous cases, supreme court biographies, Louis Nizer (who?), etc. If you are going to practice law for the next 30 or 40 years, you might as well learn something about its history or famous litigators.

Second, read good novels or nonfiction, anything that is either well-written or opens you up to new ideas and experiences. Why? Because hopefully sometime soon you are going to have an interview for a legal job you really want. A good book will provide an interesting topic for conversation and could save you from the dreaded “Tell me about yourself� interview question. If nothing else, at least you will be able to say what you did last summer.

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Planning For What You Did Last Summer is a post from the law firm marketing blog,

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