Seven Tips for Creating a Useful File Naming Protocol and Structure

File Naming Protocols

Whether you’re planning on moving to a paperless office or just need a consistent way to store and retrieve your digital files, you’ll need a set of file naming conventions and protocols. Ivy B. Grey, a panelist on our recent Paperless Law Office Primer webinar, referred to the excellent White Paper she authored: Naming Conventions: The Fast, Free, First Step Towards a Paperless Office. The seven tips below appear in Appendix A. Check out the publication. It’s chock full of useful, actionable information.

1. Keep file names short, but meaningful.

  • Avoid long file names; longer names do not work well with all types of software.
  • Use abbreviations to limit file name length, but do not prioritize brevity over clarity. Abbreviations should help create concise file names that are easy to read and understand.
  • Exclude words that lengthen a file name but don’t improve meaning, such as “the”, and “a”.
  • Long file names mean long file paths. They’re also hard to remember and recognize.

2. Use capitalization or underscores as an element delimiter.

  • Capitalize the first letter of each word in a file name. This is called “CamelCase.” It is an efficient way to differentiate words but it can be harder to read. If the file name contains a capitalized acronym, it should appear in capitals and the first letter of the following word should also be capitalized.
  • Consider using the underscore (_) as element delimiter. The underscore is a standard approach and many find it easy to read. A hyphen (-) is a common alternative, though harder to see.
  • Use caution when including spaces in file names because some software, search tools, and internet files will not recognize file names with spaces. We recommend against using spaces.
  • Avoid special characters: ~ ! @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) ` ; < > ? , [ ] { } ‘ “

3. Lead with a date for your file name. Use year, month, and day order

  • State the date “back to front” using YYYYMMDD or YYMMDD. Be sure to include two digits for the month and day in every file name every time. Consistently use a two- or four-digit year.
  • Using the date as the first element of your file name keeps your files in chronological order and allows for chronological sorting. Stating the year first allows for sorting by year.
  • This method also means that the chronological order of the records is maintained when the file names are listed in the file directory. It also makes it easy to find and retrieve the latest dated record.

4. Plan for multiple versions and implement version control.

  • When there are multiple versions of a document, the version number should appear in the file name so that the most recent version can be easily identified and retrieved.
  • Place the version indicator as the last element in the file name.
  • An element for version control should start with “V” followed by at least two digits. The leading zero is required to ensure that search results are properly sorted.
  • Consider distinguishing between minor revisions by adding a dash after the version to indicate a revision number (V2-01). This method facilitates proper sorting, whereas using words in the file name such Final, Draft or Review in the filename can affect the order.
  • Consider including a sub-folder for drafts so that it is easy to find the final document.

5. Order the elements in a file name in the most helpful and logical way to retrieve the document.

  • This decision should be driven by how you use, search for, and retrieve your files in everyday business. The elements of the file name should follow the same sequence that you would normally search for a targeted file.
  • Elements of a file name should be ordered from general to specific detail of importance whenever possible.
  • Most lawyers name files with the date first. We recommend this practice.

6. Use leading zeroes in numbers in file names—two or three digits is appropriate.

  • To maintain the proper numeric order when file names include numbers, use leading zeroes for single digit numbers (0-9).
  • This makes sure files sort in sequential order. For example, use “001, 002 …010, 011 … 100, 101, etc.” instead of “1, 2, 10, 11 … 100, 101, etc.”

7. Expect filing mistakes and errors; plan to minimize the impact.

  • Include the client’s name in the file name. If the file winds up out of place, you will be able to tell what it is and re-file it appropriately. It will also facilitate finding it through a search of your system.
  • For businesses, use the shortest version of their name or business initials, unless a standard three-to-five digit acronym exists (such as a Stock Ticker Symbol) for that specific entity.
  • For individuals, state the family/last name first, followed by the first initial of the first name. The family name is the standard reference for record retrieval. Stating the family name first facilitates sorting in alphabetical order.

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