Tech Audit

Finding It -- Difficult


Dennis Kennedy

Dennis Kennedy. Photo by Mark Katzman

Lawyers know information overload all too well. The “to-be-read stack” of articles, advance sheets and other ma­terials is rap­idly turning into an even more overwhelming “electronic stack” of e-mails, Web pages and blog posts.

There is almost no end to the ways lawyers keep information they think will be useful later: storage of copied or ripped-out articles in file folders or three-ring binders, elaborate filing systems, outlines, word processing documents, databases and even “wikis” (collaborative Web sites). Some are more successful than others, but most methods tend to break down over time.

What’s worse for most lawyers I know is that the valuable information they have already found, collected and stored can’t be located when they want it. In large firms, lawyers have tried high-end knowledge management systems with elaborate taxonomies and tagging systems. We have learned a few things from these knowledge management efforts that can help us at the level that matters: the information we want at our own fingertips on our own computers.

TRICKY TASK

First, it’s very difficult to get people to fundamentally change their information gathering and collecting habits. Second, elaborate taxonomies and category systems just don’t seem to work well.

In part, this reflects U.K.-based knowledge management expert David Snowden’s third law: We don’t know what category information really belongs in until we know how we want to use it and the context in which we want to use it.

What happens if we treat those two problems as opportunities? I have, and I’m closer to having an effective system of knowledge management than ever before.

I keep my personal information col­lection in a variety of forms and places: Word documents, PowerPoint slides, PDFs, e-mails and e-mail news­letters. I also routinely save blog posts and online articles as PDFs (remember, a PDF is the electronic equivalent of a printout).

I’m also a living illustration of Snowden’s third law: I’ve tried and failed at almost any type of categorization system you can think of. Now I tend to throw anything that might be useful to me later into a folder I call “research.”

It struck me that what I had was quite similar to my private version of the Internet—information stored in all sorts of formats and no workable central index or set of categories.

What does work on the Net—for free? Search engines. What if we had a Google for our own hard drives?

That’s now possible because of the development of powerful, fast, full-featured and, in most cases, free tools such as Google Desk­top Search, X1, Copernic Desk­top Search, Windows Vista’s Instant Search, and Spotlight (for Macs).

I am choosing Copernic Desktop Search 2 as my example, but the other search engines work in similar ways.

Copernic indexes the folders you select and lets you run full-text searches of all of your files in those folders. The initial indexing can take an hour or more, but after that, searches are lightning fast. You can search on words or terms, much like you do on Google. You can search all files or specific types of files (e-mail, favorites and bookmarks, music) or document types (Word, PowerPoint, PDF). You can search by size, date ranges and folders, and sort your results in a number of useful ways.

My approach to technology, which you will see in future columns, is to find technology that works the way lawyers work, solves practical problems, and is easy to learn but not disruptive to the way people use their computers. It doesn’t get any better than using free search tools and a single research folder to collect infor­mation that you might want later.


Dennis Kennedy is a computer lawyer and legal technology consultant based in St. Louis. His highly regarded Web site, DennisKennedy.com, is also the home of his blog. Contact him by e-mail at dmk@denniskennedy.com.


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