No "best" filing system exists. Each program has unique
needs and constraints that determine the most effective system. The basic
system elements remain essentially the same. They include:
1. method of classification, 2. level of centralization, and 3. equipment
Method of Classification
There are numerous ways to classify records. The most common are:
Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each. For example, filing by
county would help determine your caseload's geographic distribution. On
the other hand, retrieving a case file when the client's address is
unknown would be difficult. Geographic filing might therefore necessitate
a cross-filing card system.
1. Case Files. Case files are normally filed alphabetically or
numerically. However, any classification method is appropriate as long as
it allows efficient organization, identification, and retrieval of files.
a. Alphabetical Classification.
Advantages: no cross-indexing to find an open client file; all cases
involving a given client are filed together; the system is easily
understood by staff members with less risk of error.
Disadvantages: difficulty in easily assessing a case's age without further
investigation or coding procedures; document misfiling in client files
because more than one type of case file for a given client appears at the
same location in the drawer; errors caused by changes in client's name or
misspelling of the name on the original file or subsequent documents.
b. Numerical Classification.
Advantages: case age is easily determinable, cases are easily transferred
from open to closed files -- normally kept in numerical order; names may
change, numbers stay the same.
Disadvantages: misplacing files -- human error is more likely with
numerical filing, once a file is misfiled numerically, the possibilities
of location are endless. Another issue is whether client files should be
organized by "problem," i.e., whether only one legal problem should be
dealt with in each client file. The alternative method involves
maintaining all records relating to a client in a single file. This method
allows a comprehensive review of the client's legal problems.
Disadvantages: multiple-problem files may not be closed until every
problem is resolved making data collection difficult and resulting in
large and disorganized files; if the file for each problem is not pulled
and reviewed with each case action, important information that could bear
on the client's case may be ignored.
A possible compromise is to organize case files by problem, while
maintaining a Master Client Index that lists each file number on a single
alphabetically filed index card. The Master Client Index card can then be
checked each time a case is pulled. Legal Services Corporation funded
programs must make sure that their filing system for related cases
conforms with LSC's definition of a case.
2. Administrative or General Files. These records are normally filed by
subject and sub-filed alphabetically.
3. Financial Files. Accounting records are usually kept in chronological
4. Brief and Pleadings Files. These are usually organized by substantive
area of law; however, it is necessary to identify documents by date and
update all documents periodically.
5. Forms. These are usually filed alphabetically by name.
6. Coding Files. Color-coding can be applied to any existing filing system
without changing the classification system. Alternative approaches include
the use of colored folders, labels, tabs, or numbers and letters. By
combining several color-coding methods, files can be organized in several
ways simultaneously. For example, colored file folders might identify a
case by legal substantive area. At the same time, colored labels could
identify the attorney responsible for the case. If files are arranged
chronologically, this method of filing provides:
• a count of new cases opened in a given period of time
• a count of cases opened by each attorney
• a breakdown of cases by legal substantive area
• reducing the chance of misfiling and a increased retrieval ease
Level of Centralization
Effective program caseload management and control requires filing all open
files in one central location. Lack of space or office layout may make
central filing impossible or extremely inconvenient. In this event, locate
files in central clerical areas serving several attorneys and paralegals.
Whatever method is adopted, avoid having open client files stored in
individual offices. If centrally filing is not possible, try to place
files with legal assistants or secretaries responsible for an advocate's
Equipment and Supplies ─
Optical Imaging vs. Paper
The paper amount that must be stored in law offices is increasing by at
least 20% per year. Green, Irving, "Optical Imaging: Paper Meets the 21st
Century" in Lynton, J. Law Office Management (Lawyer's Cooperative 2d Ed.
1996), p. 334. Given the increasing costs of paper filing, installing an
optical imaging system can save time and money.
|| a simple misfile will cost your program in excess of $120
|| the cost per filing inch for annual maintenance is almost $11 -- even
more if located in a major
|| the cost of owning and maintaining a standard five-drawer filing cabinet
is hovering at about
|| a single 5 1/4 CD-ROM can hold up to 25,000 business letters ─ the
equivalent of three four-drawer file cabinets.
|| a single 12-inch CD-ROM can hold more than 30 file drawers ─ the
equivalent of some 200,000
cubic inches of drawer space.
The equipment used to store paper files has a significant impact on your
system's operation and cost.
1. Standard Vertical Files are available with two to five drawers, in
varying depths, and with two widths for letter and legal size paper. If 75
percent of their material to be filed is legal size, the wider files
should be purchased. Four-drawer files are the most common because they
provide maximum space within easy reach.
2. Storage Files are very inexpensive fiberboard or steel-reinforced
boxes, with or without shelving support, which are used for the storage of
infrequently used files, such as inactive files.
3. Open Shelf Files are simple library shelving equipped with dividers on
which file folders are shelved like, books. Open shelf files occupy
approximately 50% less floor space than drawer files having the same
capacity, an excellent choice for high-volume storage. Cost per filing
inch is 50% less than for drawer files.
Open shelf files allow very efficient retrieval, particularly when used in
combination with a color-coding system. However, files are exposed to
potential fire and water damage and should be kept in a fireproof room.
4. Rotary and Tub Files. Rotary files have horizontal tiers that spin for
easy access and have a good capacity-to-floor-space ratio. Tub files have
hanging file folders that are suspended from top edges of a stand. Many
have casters enabling file movement from one part of the office to
5. Lateral Files are more flexible than standard vertical files and have
ease of file access and attractive appearance.
6. Movable Files. Movable filing equipment can easily double the amount of
filing space available in a room. Utilizing a track and roller system, the
file can be moved to produce an aisle when files must be retrieved.
7. Supplies. Filing supplies such as folders, suspension hardware, and
index tabs are required for use with filing equipment. The requirements
and costs of the total system should be considered before any purchasing
decision is made.