I was recently approached by the general counsel office of a university to help them come up with some guidelines for naming documents - a pretty common issue. I love getting calls like this because it means somebody had the sense to realize something was wrong and they want to do something about it. The GC was frustrated with the state of the document names she was seeing in search results. She couldn't tell what was what and felt she was spending too much time opening or previewing documents to identify the right one.
In this particular case, the group has a formal document management system (thank the legal technology gods - for those of you still using Windows Explorer to manage thousands of client matter files, you have an entirely different problem). They use FileSite - a product I train almost every week, so these are some ideas I have based on my experience with it and its ilk.
Establishing naming conventions that are used constantly across a Firm will improve searching efficiency - that means SAVE A LOT OF TIME. I mean, if you are going to pay the thousands, if not tens-of-thousands of dollars that a DMS will cost - you should definately be using it to the fullest. These systems are designed to make the saving, searching, perusal and retrieval of a document or a set of documents quick and effortless. I've found that no matter what system you put in front of them, users still tend to browse through search results looking for the documents they require. Why? Wel I think this is often due to lack of training (we know how I feel about that) and also because of poorly named documents.
The purpose of file naming conventions / standards
So why bother? Many people think that the POINT of a DMS is to remove the need for structure and just search everything because everything will be found. And that's actually the problem. I have a client with 10 MILLION docs in their document repository and searches are so fast and effective that they do find everything - to the tune of a 5000-result search. That's not helpful. But as people become better searchers (a topic for a whole 'nother post) - the document name will help narrow the search to the exact document they want. A document that is given a well-structured name based on a file naming convention is easy to search for, identify and retrieve. However, the key to successfully executing this strategy is that everyone must and understand and follow the file naming policy. It's not optional - so that's your first tip.
Consistent standards should help a user determine:
- What naming elements are to be used and their order
- When and what abbreviations or acronyms should be used
- What constitutes a new version
Creating and enforcing a standardized document naming scheme can support the following objectives:
- Simplify access to and retrieval of electronic documents
- Sorting of documents in logical sequence (by date ascending or descending, by version number)
- Help searchers to definitely identify the document/s they are looking for
- Enable the user to recognize the subject and content of a document from a list
- Track and control versions of documents
Document Name Fundamentals
The key to naming a document is to NOT name if for yourself. Most users assume that everyone else thinks, save and searches the same way they do. Ha. So, I might know that “Agreement – Marsh final FINAL 3-5-2011” is an affiliation agreement executed on the 3rd day of May 2011. But will another person think it’s a construction agreement we are overseeing for the Marsh Corporations new wing that was finalized on Marsh 5th, 2011?
A user should be able to identify the substance of a document without even opening it. Its name should consistent of:
- Practical, descriptive terms. Even though most DMS's assign a document type it's ok to include terms such as "Affiliation Agreement" or "Employment Agreement" – not just "Agreement" and also, the names of the parties involved most certainly help
- Notes that might be important to the searcher if a file is part of a document set: Scan, Executed, Finalized (not "final FINAL" - really?, Filed, Redline (if you insist on saving Redlines)
- Use standardized capitalization
- Capitalize proper names for buildings, areas, facilities, and processes ("Building 12", not "building 12" - makes a difference when you read it, right?)
- Have consistent conventions for typical phrases. For example, “between LawTech Partners and Marsh Corporation” can be shortened to "LTP / Marsh Corp".
A proper document name will NOT:
- Be “wordy” and is short of useless terms (the, by, of)
- Include a date unless that date is not a system date. For example, a DMS like these (Worldox, OpenText, Legal Files) will track and store dates that identify creation, edited, e-mailed on, printed on dates – it does not typically have a field for “Executed on” or “Expires on” or “Filed on” (but you can normally add it). Therefore, those dates CAN be included in the document name if they are important and not otherwise clear.
- Include unfamiliar or uncommon abbreviations, acronyms or misspelled words
How does your Firm handle document naming issues? Please chime in with your thoughts and ideas and if your Firm has some guidelines that you have found useful please share them with us in a comment below.