Are there any recognized “best” practices for file naming conventions?

By at 7 April, 2006, 8:01 am

I have been asked whether there are any legal industry “best” practices for file naming. Unfortunately, the answer is no. While there are certain elements of file naming structure that are universally accepted as being part of any good file naming strategy, there is no one method or structure that is universally recognized by any organization or standards body. Ideally, any file naming system that you implement should be flexible and allow you to sort the files in multiple ways. There are also available tools that automate to a great degree creating a consistent folder and file naming structure as well as providing the ability to search files if you’re unsure of a name or file number.



If you are currently using a practice management program such as Time Matters, Practice Master or Amicus to name a few, you already have a built-in Document Management System (DMS). In Time Matters you can create, open, save and modify documents from within either MS Word or Corel’s WordPerfect or from within Time Matters itself.


Time Matters uses what is often referred to as an “open” DMS as opposed to a “closed” DMS. What this means is that Time Matters stores the files and names them in a manner and form that you can always access using nothing more than Windows Explorer;  your files can be located without use of the DMS program. Other products work similarly.


“Closed” DMS software, such as Worldox, works differently in that it assigns a file number rather then a name to the file and relies on its own internal tables to track each document: think of this as it’s “cross reference” chart. Without the table, there is no way for you to determine what a document is without this “cross-reference” chart. The benefit of using a “closed” DMS is that it can normally offer more features and overcome some of the issues faced by extremely long files names since the file name is a number. Most DMS software whether “open” or “closed” allows for some type of import procedure for importing existing files.


Using Time Matters as an example, the first step is to set up the AutoName function at the system level so it applies to all users. AutoName allows you to build both a folder naming structure as well as how files will be named. Enabling the AutoName function automates many of the steps necessary for creating new folders and files as well as locating existing files.


 In Frame A, you see the Time Matters AutoName settings screen.

Frame A


For folders, the settings shown will create folders and subfolders starting with the Client Name followed by the Matter Reference and then, whatever other fields you select from the drop down lists. In the alternative, you can stop with just the Client Name and Matter Reference. This means that if you have multiple files for a client, files will be stored under the Client Name and then under a subfolder for the specific matter. For a client by the name of Jim Smith and a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy filing, an example of this is: Smith Jim/ Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. Other files for Jim Smith would appear under Smith Jim but in different subfolders.

In Frame B, the screenshot now shows the AutoName settings for file naming.

Frame B 

As shown, the file name will consist of the description from the document record entered by the user. Appended to the description will be the other information selected from the pull down menus. This can include the creation date in several formats, as well as other information including a separator such as a $ or -. This tells the DMS to classify the document type by what follows this separator. In this example, the separator will be followed by the document Classification Code. In Time Matters Classification Codes allow users to place a “tag” on each document so that it can be sorted, grouped or searched by this code which represents the type of document.


One such code might be PLEA (Pleadings). A user could search for all documents within a file that are pleadings from the Document sub list (Frame C)

Frame C 

or  from the main Documents list or create a saved search that only shows files with this code. (Frame D).

Frame D



A DMS also includes search capabilities that allow you to search not only the name and other information you attach to the Document Record, but many also provide the ability to do full text searches within the file as well. So with a DMS, you get not only a consistent folder and file naming structure, but also comprehensive search capabilities as well. These capabilities do come at a cost: they require the expense of purchasing and implementing either a standalone DMS or Practice Management software.

For those who are unable to afford purchasing DMS software or simply don’t feel that it is necessary for their practice, they can use the tools that are included with their computer operating system. For the majority of users this will be Windows Explorer which is included as part of the MS Windows operating environment.


Most non-DMS based file systems being used by firms usually work from a “filing cabinet” metaphor. Using this method, the hard drive is looked at as a filing cabinet or cabinets which are further divided into drawers and file folders. Some firms divide the drawers into the letters of the alphabet creating 26 “drawers” or ranges of the alphabet ex: A – AP, Aq-Az, and so on which can lead to 40 or more “drawers”. In these “drawers”, they then create folders for each client with subfolders for each case or matter. Many also then create further subfolders for items such as Pleadings, Correspondence, Notes, Closing Documents, etc. It is into these that the individual files are saved. For such a system to be effective, the initial structure should be readily apparent to any user. The one commonality all effective naming and storage systems have in common is that all files are kept in a common location, not under individual user  names or on local hard drives if there is more than one computer.


When it comes to the individual files, there are currently 2 naming conventions that appear to be the most popular:

1)      Files that start by placing the date created as the first part of every file name; and

2)      Files that start with the type of document.

File names that start with the date in reverse format i.e [YearMonthDay][Description] or [YearMonthDay][Author Initials][Recipient][Description] allow all files in a folder to be sorted into chronological order starting by year then month and then day.

An example of this would be a file named:


x\Files\Petro\349 E Riverside\Corr\060127 Ltr to Atty Teeter


So files under a pleading folder would look something like:

x\Files\Petro\349 E Riverside\Pleadings\051127 Complaint

x\Files\Petro\349 E Riverside\Pleadings\051128 Summons

x\Files\Petro\349 E Riverside\ Corr\051229 NJP David Clark Letter regarding Visitation


This system works well if you create separate subfolders for the different types of documents that will be utilized in that file. While this method allows the files to be easily sorted in chronological fashion, it doesn’t allow for sorting based on the type of document i.e. Letter, Complaint, Pleading , etc., by Windows Explorer.  If you are keeping different types of documents in one subfolder, you can’t sort them, so all letters or pleadings will appear in chronological order irregardless of the type of document together.


Files that begin with the type of document not only allow for sorting by type of document, but using tools that already exist inside Windows Explorer, you can also sort by modified or creation date. If these columns are not already present on the right hand Explorer pane, you can add them with a right mouse click on any existing column title such as Name or Type and then select the columns to be added as shown in Frame E.


Frame E



You can remove or re-arrange columns by selecting “More…” at the bottom of the list of available columns as shown in Frame E. This opens the Choose Detail window and allows you to remove, add and change the order of the selected columns as shown in Frame F.

Frame F


By adding the Date Modified and Date Created, you can now sort the files based on type of document, date created or date modified. However, in either system there are still pitfalls that you must be aware of to prevent problems.


While current Windows Operating Systems allow for long file names of up to 255 characters (including all directory and folder names), this can still present a problem as the entire file name may not display in a File Open dialog. You also need to avoid using non-alphanumeric characters such as / \ : ! @ # $ % ^ < > , [ ] { } & * ( ) + = as they may have specific uses within the Operating System or DMS program.


Many offices still change the trailing characters appearing after the “.” in a file name. You are better served today by not changing this designation and use the program default. An example of this is offices that change the default MS Word designator of “doc” to the type of document. A le

tter would be named as Ltr to John Smith 060124.cor not Ltr to John Smith 060124.doc


There are also times when the date of the document doesn’t match the creation date i.e. a letter is typed late on January 14 but is to be dated January 15, or your word processor is set to automatically update the date appearing in the document based on the date it’s opened and/or modified. In these instances, having the Original Document date as part of the file name can be extremely helpful.


So what do I recommend?

First, do away with creating too many subfolders. Don’t use letters of the alphabet as a folder level (you can sort folders alphabetically and you are only creating an additional layer to search through).


Second, don’t try and create subfolders for every type of document: by using the document type as the first entry in the file name, you can sort the name field to automatically group documents together into type. This again eliminates a folder level.


However, if you do want to use subfolders, then you must be consistent in their use. Ideally, you would create sample folders and sub-folders for the different types of cases or matters you have and then require them to be used when a new matter is opened by requiring these to be copied to the new client folder. This insures consistency. As to the file names themselves, I recommend the following file naming system:

[Document Type][Receiving Party][Subject][Original Document Date]

Files names using this method would appear something like this:

Ltr to Atty Teeter Rejecting Settlement Offer 20060115Ltr to Client Forwarding Settlement Offer from Atty Teeter 20060113Comp Forcible for 2200 Logos Dr Tenant Jones 20051112Memo to firm Personnel Handbook 20050821Memo to file Research on Notice of Termination 20060107 

You can use the Window Explorer options to sort by create and modify dates as well, providing more flexibility than if you place the date as the first entry in the file name. If there is a question as the original date of the file it is in the file name for reference. There should be no problem with logical abbreviations for document type so long as a standardized list is created for the firm and its use is required by everyone. If someone wants to add to the list, it needs to be reviewed and approved before anyone starts using it and then the list needs to be updated accordingly. Finally, no discussion regarding file naming would be complete without discussing search engines such as X1, dtSearch or Copernic.


Search Engines Can Help.

While good folder structure and file naming conventions can help you organize your files, there is always a time when you know you did something for someone similar to an existing problem you’re facing. The key becomes how do you find that file? You can search through your directories hoping to stumble on it or use Windows very basic and limited search function. But what if you stored it in PDF format or an email? A better option is to use one of the commercially available stand alone search engines that you can obtain. While there are free search tools available from Yahoo, Google and MSN, these all send some kind of information back to the parent company and you don’t know exactly what that information contains. They have policies, but these can change whenever it suits the company. Rather than gamble with disclosure of confidential or privileged information (SCR 20.1.6(a)), you are better off using one of the stand alone search engines that are either free or have a cost to obtain such as those listed earlier.


Search engines can help you rapidly find documents, information within files, emails and more on you computer or on the network. As an additional tool, they more than pay for themselves in lost time saved each time they are used. Some consultants have spoken to me that they believe that search engines will make a DMS obsolete in a few years. While I think they can be a great help, I don’t see them supplanting a well organized file structure or DMS at any time: there is still a reason for grouping related pieces of information together under a folder that you lose if you simply store everything under one folder and then rely on a search engine to find needed documents. However, you do need to check each search engine’s capabilities before you buy to insure that it will search the types of files that you want it to search. For most offices, you will want any search engine to search in word processing documents (Word and WordPerfect); spreadsheets, email, pdf, and possibly image files.

 Resources for this Section: 

The Importance of File Names     




Mac & Windows OS File/Folder naming rules


Technolawyer Fat Friday December 16, 2005


Desktop Search Engines: Which is Best?    


Find The Right Search Engine


Chapter 16.4 :The Lawyer’s Guide to Adobe Acrobat Second Editi

on by David Masters







Categories : Practice Management

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