An often forgotten but vitally important component in planning or upgrading a document management system (DMS) is creating, implementing and maintaining a consistent and useful set of naming conventions. Too often, great emphasis is placed on a matter-centric workspace design and document types, but users are left without guidelines to enhance their ability to file and retrieve documents. Poorly named documents become just as hard to use in a DMS as they are in a paper file system.

The Problem:

Imagine looking for a document that is similar one you are preparing to file. To uncover all possible locations of the document you need when searching the DMS for a Motion for Summary Judgment re Point One, you might use some or all of the following terms:

  • Motion for Summary Judgment
  • Motion
  • MSJ
  • Point One
  • Point 1
  • Pt. 1
  • Summary Judgment
  • Motion for Summary Judgment Point One
  • MSJ Point One
  • Summary Judgment Point One

Frustrating — and this is a simple search!

While document types in a DMS provide broad descriptions of where files should be placed, that information is often inadequate in helping the user describe the actual documents. That is what a document naming convention or policy will provide — a framework for the proper saving of documents.

Naming Conventions – users rebel against the concept of guidelines as to how to name their documents. However, the documents are not really theirs — they belong to the firm — and having mutually agreed-upon, firm-wide naming conventions for documents enables all users to find documents more quickly. Additionally, it helps users understand what is in the document by simply looking at the title in context with the document type.

How should your firm start developing a document naming convention or policy? Let’s start with what you should not do.

What is not needed in a document naming convention:

When creating a naming convention for users, some information will be required by the firm, but some information is automatically provided by the matter-centric DMS in context of the document types. So, what information is not needed in the title of a document when using a DMS?

Do not include the:

  • Case name or matter name;
  • Date created and edited — this is captured by the DMS;
  • Author — this is captured by the DMS;
  • Name of last person who edits a document; and
  • Document Type — this is shown to the user in the workspace design.

Now that you know what not to include, let’s begin naming your documents.

Document Naming Convention Guidelines:

A good document naming convention should influence the user filing the document to provide more information in a consistent manner. A firm-wide naming convention would let the user know how to and what information is required by the firm in every type of document. A solid set of naming conventions also gives the user guidelines for naming documents without using an excess number of characters in the title.

The firm will usually need to make some decisions the about how to name a document:

  • Does the firm allow abbreviations in the title or description of a document (e.g., MSJ instead of Motion for Summary Judgment)?
  • If the firm does allow abbreviations, the firm needs to decide if they then become mandatory.

It should be noted that mandating abbreviations leads to more consistent use, but only if an approved set is published by the firm. Examples include: MOT, MIL, JIS, RFP, ROGS).

  • If the firm does not allow abbreviations, then mandatory compliance again will lead to consistency.
  • A Document Name should be rich with information but not overly long.

Just because you have 250 characters does not mean they will all display on the screen. Match the name length with the display length allowed on the screen so as you accurately describe the document. Usually 100 characters or less is best.

  • If the firm allows, make use of special characters, but be consistent. For example, if the naming convention says use & for and, make sure everyone uses &.
  • Upper- and lower-case names are much easier to read than UPPERCASE alone. Lowercase is also easier to read than UPPERCASE

What information does a firm usually need in the title of a document?

Descriptive information about the intent of the document. For example:

  • If it is a pleading or a motion — the main point of the pleading;
  • A letter — usually the name of the person to whom it is addressed and the main point of the letter;
  • A memo — again, the main point;
  • Research — why was the research done or the result;
  • Appellate motion — the reason for the appeal;
  • MIL — what is the intent;
  • Photo Evidence — what is the objective of having saving the photo plus the name of the actual object in the photo. IMG4010.JPG is inadequate.

Essentially, the author of the document needs to convey the content of the document in a space slightly larger than a tweet. The name should be succinct but convey the reason why the document was created.

The benefits of establishing a solid document naming convention will not be apparent in the first month after adoption. However, once the good habit of using firm-wide naming conventions has taken hold, documents will be saved more quickly and be retrieved from the firm’s Document Management System with less user anxiety.