Note: If you have ever spent more than a few minutes searching for a file, then you already know that having a systematic method for naming files is the most efficient way to boost your firm’s productivity. Putting a file naming system in place today will save your firm countless wasted hours for years to come. There are countless ways to do it; below is one of the most effective that we have come across.

Files are found by either searching or browsing. People (not companies) decide each and every time they look for a file which search method is better for them. Not surprisingly, then, that’s how people decide to name a file (by how they feel they will find it later). But this doesn’t always work out for the individual or for others in the company searching for the same file. That’s why naming conventions are important.

Conventions keep a law practice running smooth. Whether it’s how you label your emails, whose turn it is to buy the bagels or how you know if the dishwasher is clean or dirty, your office has a number of “little laws” that keep everyone on the same page.

In our opinion, one of the most important conventions in every law office is the best practice for naming files. The way files are named and organized can mean the difference between hours upon hours lost in file searches or increased productivity and efficiency. It can also mean saving many employees or partners from elevated blood pressure and the inevitable boiling frustration that comes with a fruitless search.

What’s in a file name?

Everything. The conventions by which you name your files is arguably the most crucial aspect of maintaining a good workflow. We’re here to break it down. You can find much of this information from Stanford’s own best practices for file naming. Lots of the info applies across industries, but it also pertains mostly to research. In the spirit of Mac life, we want to keep it straight and simple.

So, without further ado, here are your best practices for naming files within your organization.

General guidelines for naming files

A great file naming system is all about being consistent, descriptive and accurate. Consistency across the board means everyone names their files in the same way every time so that nothing slips through the cracks. A descriptive and accurate file name ensures that you know what the file contains without even having to open it.

Naming conventions

Begin by including the most important information first. This could be the client name, project or some other form of a unique identifier. Don’t be cryptic when naming a file. The big idea is that you want the file names to be as obvious and easy to understand as possible. 

Dating a file

Stamp your files names with a date signature that will help you organize your files chronologically. This time stamp will also help you tell immediately when the file you are searching for was created. Label your files in the standard international format of YYYYMMDD or YYMMDD. This format ensures that your files will always be in chronological order – just keep it consistent.

Keep it short, keep it simple

It’s recommended to try to keep your files succinct. The shorter your file name is, the quicker you will recognize it and be able to decipher whether it’s the file you need.

Avoid special characters, capital letters and spaces

A good file naming system shouldn’t use any special characters like !@#$&, etc. This can quickly get confusing. Special characters are bad because they make it hard for different computers (or apps) to get along. Your $5 word for this is interoperability, which you come across in your research. Mac, Dropbox, and Windows will hide files or change characters altogether in an attempt to solve this problem; sometimes they don’t sync at all.

Additionally, stick to lowercase letters. If you start to use capitals, you may not remember when they’re required and you can create flaws in the naming convention system.

Lastly, don’t use any space. You can either name the entire file an unseparated name or employ dashes ( – ) or underscores ( _ ).

If you have used capitals or spaces in the past, you don’t need to worry too much. Just skip them in future naming conventions. By default most search engines (whether internal to MacOS or using Google) ignore case and treat spaces and underscores the same. So, you can open Google Drive, type in ‘open CaSes’, and the filename of Open_cases will be returned.

File formats

The file format under which you save your documents will affect where and how you can open the files later on, as well as the ability of other people to access your data. For best results with file sharing, when possible, save under an open file format (as in a fil format you see regularly like .doc, PDF, JPEG, etc.), unencrypted (so anyone can open and view it), uncompressed and readable by most software providers on most platforms.

The system you’re creating is like an extremely efficient internal search engine. When you need a file, all you’ll have to do is know how to format your search and you’ll save countless hours from all those wasted searches.

Good luck creating your file naming system. Remember, we’re here to help with all your law office Mac needs.

Luke Kumanchik

Entrepreneur, programmer, backyard farmer & Dungeon Master Extraordinaire.