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Filing Systems -
Alternative Methods

  Ten Questions to Ask Before You Consider Investing In Case Management Software
Office Filing Systems
Alternative Methods
 Method of Classification
  Level of Centralization
  Equipment and Supplies:
     Optical Imaging vs. Paper

Record Retention Policy
Designing a System
Equipment Sources
Costs to Budget
Purchase & Install

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 and supplies.

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 order.

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 work product.

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 city.
the cost of owning and maintaining a standard five-drawer filing cabinet is hovering at about $900.
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 another.

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.