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January 17, 2023

Avoiding the Information Retrieval Time Vortex

Theorists may tell us that time is relative, but as a practicing attorney, you work with a finite amount of time that is very real to both you and your clients. When certain tasks take up more of that time than they should, you have less time available for other tasks. That time is just as lost as if it had been sucked into a vacuum. You’ll never get it back.

Obviously, we want to work in an environment where we lose as little time as possible, and one way to do that is to improve our systems for information retrieval. Members of your firm operating at all levels would be surprised at the amount of time wasted trying to retrieve and often recreate information. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to optimize systems in your office so that you can avoid suffering losses to the information retrieval time vortex.

Managing Documents Effectively

It used to be obvious when documents and files at a law firm were disorganized. Piles of paper and overstuffed files were a dead giveaway.

Since documents are now stored electronically out of sight, however, a mess that is just as chaotic—if not considerably worse—is out of sight and out of mind. Most attorneys have no idea how messy or efficient their stacks of virtual documents are.

In one sense, it can be much easier to find a document in a virtual stack rather than an actual stack because you can search for documents by specific terms. However, that type of search can bring up many documents that need to be reviewed before you find the right one—and then you have to determine whether you have the most recent version. Searching through electronic files can take nearly as long as searching through physical file drawers. It’s all time that’s better spent elsewhere.

Consistent File Naming Conventions Can Make a Big Difference

Despite it being obvious, how you and your team name files and documents can make information retrieval much faster and easier. When everyone uses the same methods, they can find not only files they’ve worked on before but also information from entirely new sources. Some techniques for effective file labeling include:

  • Using a consistent abbreviation for all documents relating to a particular client or matter
  • Adding a date to the end of a document so it is easy to find the most recent version
  • Using names and dates in a format that causes them to appear in a logical alphabetical or chronological order (such as using 01-01-11 for dates and omitting titles or articles such as “Mr.” or “the”)

Some files and documents are bound to slip through with unconventional names, but take the time to correct them, and it will be easier to stay with consistent habits.

Disciplined File Organization

When files were all stored in cabinets, disorganization (just like clutter) was a lot more obvious. Now it is much easier to hide, but just as problematic. Consistency in organization can save tremendous amounts of time when trying to retrieve information.

For instance, digital and physical files should be organized with the same hierarchy for all clients. If one client’s files are stored by legal topic, another’s are organized by task, and those of a third are organized purely chronologically, it takes staff extra time to find the files and documents they need. It even takes staff added time to figure out where to store new documents they create. 

If, instead, a staff member takes the time to develop a consistent method for organizing files and then the team makes it a priority to reorganize older files and abide by conventions going forward, it can substantially reduce the time needed to find files and documents. Maybe it’s only one or two minutes each time. Maybe it’s only 30 seconds. But hour by hour, day by day, that time really adds up. Finding documents faster also helps keep team members focused without breaking concentration and losing even more time.

Using Tools to Help with the Search and Retrieval of Information

Using the right tool for the job helps workers in every field produce higher-quality results in an efficient timeframe. This is true for information retrieval in a law firm as much as it would be for a carpenter building a cabinet.

Remember that when someone on staff cannot find critical information, the firm not only loses the time spent looking for that information but also the substantial time it takes to recreate that information. From trying to remember a password to determining billable hours, members of the team spend considerable time trying to retrieve critical information essential to firm performance. The two essential tools to speed retrieval and prevent loss of information are:

  • Password manager software that allows for instant access to applications and password-protected folders and documents. You only need to remember ONE master password, and then all other passwords can be generated by the software with random-string characters (which significantly increases their security).  All of the major password managers include apps that sync to all of your computers and devices. 
  • A robust search program such as  The built-in search functions on most Windows and Apple computers are certainly better than they were even 5 years ago, but they still lag far behind programs such as X1 with respect to ease of use, effectiveness of search results, ability to search remote locations, and what you can do with the found items (e.g., forward them from within the app to save time).

The most important (and often overlooked) step when adding tools for effective information retrieval is to ensure that every team member knows how to use those tools effectively. If you don’t invest time and effort in training, the tools can become a burden instead of relieving one. 

It takes time to change habits, so when training staff on new software or other tools, allow more time than you think is necessary to allow for substantial practice time. An extra hour of practice could prevent hundreds of hours of frustration and wasted time later, particularly when it comes to critical software such as programs used to capture time or tasks.

Small Delays Can Really Add Up When it Comes to Information Retrieval

Staff members can become exasperated or even distraught when they cannot find important information and need to recreate it. However, they may also be wasting small increments of time all day every day without really registering the problem. Those small amounts of time can add up to big losses for a law firm. To avoid losing time to the information time retrieval vortex, put some effort into considering whether your firm’s document and information retrieval systems could benefit from increased consistency and tightened procedures. The time management training team at Lawyer Time Management can help you review your systems and develop the processes you need to gain back that lost time and increase your productivity. Contact us today to learn more.