Management Assistance Program

Spring Cleaning Your Law Firm Data

By Jim Calloway

Lawyers have held and safeguarded client data for generations. Of course, in the past, it wasn’t called data. Our data was in paper client files, forms to “go by” and brief banks.

While it wasn’t planned this way in advance, my most recent Law Practice Tips columns blend as a series. In the January 2024 Oklahoma Bar Journal, the subject was “Automated Document Assembly is Easy, Right?” The February 2024 column was “A Time of Great Change Caused by Artificial Intelligence Developments.” If the connection with these three topics isn’t readily apparent to you, that is understandable. But to adopt automated document assembly, you must have your data in a usable, digital format. Otherwise, the best automation you can accomplish is “fill in the blank” or “copy and paste.”

We are moving to a time when many of us will employ artificial intelligence “assistants” to expedite task management. The primary way that it will operate is by “reading” your documents and emails. This will be relatively simple and largely risk-free, as the AI assistant will access the content stored on your computer – if it can!

I’ve attended several conferences and presentations focusing on AI. A main point that everybody is convinced of is that it is now time to make certain your data is well organized. This not only allows other law firm employees to access it easily, but it will also be more accessible when you want to access it with AI tools.

For solo and small firm lawyers, practice management software systems may be the best way for them to organize their information. As I’ve noted before, OBA Practice Management Advisor Julie Bays will assist you by answering questions or providing brief demonstrations to help in making your practice management software subscribing decision. Some larger law firms may opt for more powerful full-featured document management systems, which can be set up to track different versions of a document.

In some ways, your practice management software is like romance and marriage. In the early stages, it is fun. Exiting the relationship early on is relatively simple. But later, it becomes more like marriage – you can get out of it, but it’s often not easy or cheap. Transferring data from one system to another can sometimes be challenging. Plus, there is the matter of everyone retraining on the new system. So invest some time in this important decision if it has not been made for your firm or if you are considering a change.


Everyone in a law firm needs to understand how to name the new documents they are creating and how the documents should be stored. It is too inefficient for different lawyers to have different systems. If a staff member is absent, it is easier to cover if the documents are named and filed in the same system as the rest of the firm. Generally speaking, a good file name will include the client or matter name, something about what type of document it is (e.g. Decree or Motion for Summary Judgment) and some numbers relating to the date of first creation. Hopefully, combining these three elements will eliminate duplicate file names.

The firm must also have a policy on how documents are stored. Those using practice management software systems will have that dictated for you. But if you are storing everything in Windows file management folders, make certain it is a drive and folder that is secure and frequently backed up. Microsoft OneDrive is a good example and is provided as a part of your Microsoft 365 subscription. There are other options in the marketplace, of course.

No matter how well organized and well trained those who work in a law firm are, there will be some mistakes. And if you are searching for a misfiled document, one easy way to do it is by searching the computer for a unique word or phrase that appears in the misplaced document. To accomplish that, the document must be searchable.


When I receive a PDF from someone that I’m going to use later, I want to make certain it is searchable. As almost every lawyer understands now, a PDF can be made searchable by applying optical character recognition (OCR) to make it searchable. I usually do that at an initial stage so that I can easily find it, but a growing reason now to make certain that these documents are searchable is so your AI assistant can have access to them.

If you have a sophisticated scanner, it may be possible to set the default settings to OCR everything. While that may make the scanning process a bit slower on occasion, it means the scanner will produce searchable documents, which is well worth it, in my opinion.

All documents (except Excel spreadsheets) should be stored in PDF format. These are your digital file copies. Opening documents in Word creates the possibility of accidentally editing the documents. If you want to keep Word documents in the file so they can be used if an amended document is required, that is a fine idea. But I suggest you create a folder titled “Word Documents” in the digital client file to store these to prevent confusion.

Documents have a life cycle, and the firm should decide on a closed file destruction policy. The date of destruction need not be set until the client file is closed. I favor some file destruction policy for most types of documents, but a recent conversation with an intellectual property lawyer who does patents reminded me that there are certain types of law practices that may actually have a good reason to maintain client files for an extended period of time, maybe even permanently.


Frequently, I hear from law firms wanting to scan and then destroy old, closed client files that pack storage rooms. Sadly, I usually advise caution. First, it will cost a lot of money and time to do this. It is also very possible that the result will not be perfect. Automated document feeders work very well today, but there is still the possibility they will skip a page now and then. Those of us in the legal profession will be concerned that the missing page will contain critical information – even though the closed file may not have been opened for years. Finally, you will be paying workers to do much time-consuming work, removing staples and brads and fixing dog-eared pages to prepare for scanning.

The best plan is to make certain you are properly creating and storing documents going forward. There may come a time when you believe you will need some content from closed files to better inform your AI assistant. But that will mainly be completed documents and legal memos that are harvested from the closed file as opposed to scanning the entire file.

If you are going to be using documents from closed files as forms, then it is a wise and ethical decision to remove people and company names and replace them with simple placeholders like a few letters.

You may not be ready to jump on the AI bandwagon today. But making sure your client data is well organized and easily searchable will provide other benefits.

Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program director. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma? Contact him at 405-416-7008, 800-522-8060 or jimc@okbar.org. It’s a free member benefit.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal — March, 2024 — Vol. 95, No. 3


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