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Finding information on your computer.

Most law firm computer systems have grown like wildfire and are stuffed with potentially reusable documents. Wills and trusts, corporate minutes, real estate contracts, employment agreements, and a smattering of other documents are all stored on computer hard-disk drives or perhaps on floppy disks, often without labels.

Before the era of the computer, when a new client had a problem, attorneys had to recall the name of a similar matter and then search for the old file folder to find documents needed for the new client.

It's still relatively easy to find paper files. However, since law offices automated rapidly, often with little planning, finding files on the computer can be daunting, time-consuming, and in some cases, next to impossible.

Here are some "get-organized" suggestions for how to find all the information on your computer system.

1. Put all files on the hard-disk drive of your computer immediately. Otherwise, you will never be able to find what you need.

2. Buy a larger hard-disk drive than the one you have now if you need more storage space; capacious drives are dirt cheap now.

3. Make sure floppy disks are labeled dearly to show what is on the disks. Caution: Do not write directly on the disks with ball-point pen or place the disks near any magnets (which may be concealed in telephones or radios). These practices may erase or damage the information on the disk.

4. Organize the subdirectories "folders" in Macintosh lingo) on your hard-disk drive. You might create a subdirectory for each client and, perhaps, subdirectories for standard forms and agreements.

5. Make sure you back up your hard disk onto floppy disks or magnetic tapes at least weekly-daily is better. Have a knowedgeable person work with you to ensure that the information has translated completely.

6. Type the complete "path" or name of the file at the beginning or end of each document. The path should include the drive name, the directory and subdirectory names, and the document name. For example a petition for dissolution of marriage filed for client Jones might be labeled: "C:\Jonesjon\divorce\petdis03.94"

Retrieving Information

After taking these preliminary steps, you should have access to years' worth of information that is stored on your hard-disk drive. But if you can't remember a former client's name, you may not be able to find the file. What then?

There are a number of "full-text search-and-retrieval" software packages on the market. These programs can quickly search the whole hard-disk drive for key words or phrases, list the files containing those words, and give immediate access to those files.(1)

One of my favorite full-text search programs is Personal Files\fast from West Publishing.(2) It is ideal for accessing information both on a hard disk and on a network. You can run this DOS-based program on any IBM personal computer or clone with at least an 80286 Intel chip. It will also run with "Windows."

The program is very simple to operate. When I purchased it, I only consulted the manual to find the loading instructions. Then I used the Bernstein Test for Software Excellence--"Can I get the software to operate and start working without reading the manual?" I indexed files and ran several searches successfully without ant further reading. However, as always, I later studied the manual for tips, tricks, and hints.

Installing the software is a breeze. Just follow the instructions in the manual; with one simple command the software will load in minutes. To start the program, call up the directory containing the software, type "dps," and hit ENTER. The program will provide a menu of options.

Suppose you want to index the contents of the hard-disk drive. Select the "Create/Update" option, hit ENTER, and follow the menu instructions. The program will index all files in the selected directory (in this case, the hard-disk drive. The index consists of a list of all words in your documents.

Searching Files

There are two ways to search with Personal Files\FAST. You may search as you do in WESTLAW by using key words and hypertext links that allow you to jump from one document to another. There is also a system that uses menus to construct and run searches. The menu system is ideal for the occasional user.

The query menus take you step by step through formatting and executing a search request. Your search might be simple; for example, you might just be looking for documents that include the phrase "intersection collision." Or the search may be complex, using menus and "connector" expressions such as

* AND which also contain,

* Or which contain,

* BUT do NOT contain,

* within a PARAGRAPH of,

* FOLLOWED anywhere BY, or

* IN the field labeled.

The computer will generate a fist of all files that meet the search criteria. You can view each document that contains a "Wt" (one of the terms you're searching for), or jump from hit to hit in all the documents. You can print the document or parts of it, copy parts to a file on your computer, or save the text for later insertion into another file.

One neat feature of the program is "dynamic document activation" capability which allows you to jump from viewing a document in Personal Files\ FAST to viewing it in its original word-processing program. You can view, edit, or print the document using the word processor, then return to Personal Files\ FAST.

Annotation is another feature of the program. You can attach any number of annotations, including notes and graphic images, to a document. Each text note can be up to four lines long. In the spot where an annotation has been attached, the computer screen shows a symbol indicating that there is a link in the document. Links to graphics are created simply by entering the name of the image file.

You can also do a "date-range" search to retrieve documents created during a certain time period. The program uses the MS-DOS date assigned to each file that shows when it was last worked on.

With the hypertext feature you can highlight words or phrases while viewing a document and locate other documents containing those words. You need not code or mark key words. Any time a word appears in more than one place, the program can automatically link them.

You can also build your own custom synonym lists. Then, for example, in a search for the word "automobile," the computer will also automatically search for "car" and "vehicle."

In addition to organizing your hard-disk drive by making information easy to retrieve, there are many other uses for full-text search-and-retrieval software. Attorneys may search through deposition and trial transcripts copied from the court reporter to their hard drives or research already stored on their computer systems. They can also download materials from online services.

West Publishing Company's growing family of legal forms, codes, and rules products uses ISYS text-retrieval software from Odyssey Development Company.(3) An ISYS database can hold up to 1 million files and up to 2 billion words. The product can also index, search, and browse ZIP files (files compressed by the program PKZip to save space in your computer's memory) without first decompressing the files. Searches are accomplished almost instantly. ISYS will index text in ASCII format as well as text produced using most versions of Word-Perfect, Microsoft Word, Multimate, Spreadsheets, Word for Windows, Wordstar, and Xywrite. West will also license you to use the ISYS engine as Personal Files\Fast to search in your own informational databases.(4)

To ensure that you can find information on your computer, organization of your hard-disk drive is essential. Using indexing and full-text search-and-retrieval software is an economical and easy-to-implement way to find all the gold in the computer gold mine.


(1) Folio Views is a product available from Mead Data Central, (800) 356-6548. (2) Personal Files\FAST costs $249 for the single user version(one simultaneous user on a network is acceptable) and $499 for a 5-User Network Permit Disk allowing five additional simultaneous users. For information, call West Publishing at (800) 255-2549. (3) ISYS, from Odyssey Development, Inc., (303) 394-0091. (4) Personal Files\FAST may be used with other products in accordance with the subscriber agreements for those products. For instance, the WESTLAW subscriber agreement allows customers to "temporarily store insubstantial portions of data to a storage device under Subscriber's exclusive control" to display internally or quote in work product. Therefore, a customer may use Personal Files\FAST to temporarily store a few cases to use in a specific research product. The product may not be used to create a permanent database of cases taken from WESTLAW This is presently prohibited by the subscriber agreement.

Paul Bernstein, a Chicago lawyer, is a law-office automation consultant. The opinions expressed in this coluumn are the author's and do not reflect on endorsement of any produuct by TRIAL or ATLA.
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Association for Justice
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Bernstein, Paul
Date:May 1, 1994
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