Devonthink PO for lawyers

Now that I have almost finished putting my law library into DTPro Office, I thought it might be of interest to lawyers to read about my approach and experience of DTPO.

First, some background. I’m in the UK (England) and a self-employed professional adviser in the commercial property market, mainly the retail sector. I established my practise in 1975 and have been involved in the commercial property market since 1967. The type of work I specialise in (rent review and business tenancy advice) occupies a grey area between that of surveyor and lawyer, but I am not a lawyer. In England (UK), anyone can call themselves a lawyer, it’s a generic word, but the Law Society is not keen on non-lawyers doing so: I respect that. My clients know I’m not a lawyer so whenever I’m asked for a legal opinion I make it clear I’m not a lawyer and not qualified to provide legal advice. Because I specialise, I am frequently consulted by solicitors (qualified lawyers) on drafting and approving documents.

Some years ago, I decided to computerise my paper and book law library. A mammoth undertaking: approximately 5000 law reports with new cases almost weekly, and almost every day a comment, article, snippet of information to add: all in all a couple of bookcases of books and papers overflowing into box files. My paper system was workable but getting out of hand, Perhaps I never used/found the correct search word or phrase but when I was searching for dedicated law software that I could use. I never found anything to satisfy my requirements. I decided to go it alone. Having scanned all the paperwork to pdf, (I have a high-speed duplex scanner) and using Filemaker database software (which I use in conjunction with pdfs for my property records, another 200,000 records and another story!), I designed a database in flat file form (if that’s the right word, i.e., non-relational (which I don’t understand how to create anyway). For fixed information, flat is just as good.

The snag with my Filemaker database is that even though the fields I’d created for the information can be changed, and I’d entered keywords in each record, search is limited to content entered and the only way to link a pdf to each record is one-by-one. I hovered between entering all information in Filemaker and using F as my first port of call combined with the pdfs in folders in Finder (I use Path Finder) or pdf in folders only and sort on name for ease of reference; and use Spotlight and/or Houdah Spot to find anything elusive.

I’ve been using DTPO for message-taking (using the sorter) and for text capture for some time and I’d experimented with DTPO for my law library long before I realised it was my way forward. The experiment failed its test because having imported all the pdfs I couldn’t find what I was looking for, whereas with Filemaker I found it instantly. So I deleted the DTPO database and went back to using Filemaker despite the limitations. It was only later that I realised that it couldn’t possibly be DTPO that was at fault, but how I was going about structuring it to my needs.

in DTPO, I created a new database which I named Law. I imported all pdfs. New pdfs I save to a Finder folder (not DT) where I ocr them (using Acrobat Pro XI) before importing them into Law. Then I cut and paste the pdf into my Finder Law pdf folder for safe-keeping. For all text capture from other source, I use rtf in DTPO and only print from DTPO to pdf if I want to keep the item in the Finder pdf folder.

I rarely use the Law inbox. For text capture, I use the global inbox where I process the info before drag and drop into Law where I put the item into a Group. The principal group I have named Topic and in it I have sub-groups and smart folders. I don’t use sub-groups to hold the items/records, so much as visual descriptions of a particular subject, for example: Agency, Dispute Resolution, Expert Witness. Because group folders are coloured blue, they break the visual monotony of the purple colour of Smart Folders.

I have two types of Smart Folder. One for all items where the filename begins with, for example Arbitration. The second for all items where the the content contains a word or phrase. For the ‘filename begins with’, I usually put the name of the smart folder in block capitals so that it looks like a sub-group.

It’s for case-law that DTPO excels as far as I am concerned. The next group I have named Case. Into Case, I import all pdfs of cases, I prefix each entry Case - and tag C. Using smart folders, I have created a smart folder for each case, with search term a couple of words from the case name. All smart folders sort into abc order and I also have a smart folder for each letter of the alphabet using ‘Filename begins with’: e.g., Case - A, Case - B, Case - Ca, Case - Co, Case - Cor, etc. Splitting a letter into two or more letters is good for accelerating searching. Sometimes I know the name of a case I’m looking for but if not then I don’t want to wade through a long list when I can isolate a selection. I also have a sub-group folder prefixed 0 so that it appears at the top of all the smart folders which I use as an index, it contains duplicates of the smart folder ‘Filename begins with’ but in short form, e.g. A, B, C, D, etc.

The smart folder case names are case names and year only. For the rtf entry, it’s case name, year, and suffix court and source. The source is important: I might have the case in full or a summary.

A historian user of DT has written about dates. For my work pdfs I prefix all with yyyy–mm-dd because precise date order is important but for my Law database, I sort articles prefixed to first word(s) and enter the year next. for example, Expert Witness - 2017 - Confidentiality, who cares? That way I can see at a glance the year of the article and relevance. For cases, the name of the case is the key, the name will include the date in parentheses, e.g., Fred v David [2016]. If I need to isolate all cases in 2016 then I could create a smart folder using search term “Filename contains”.

The combination of the Topic and Case groups is brilliant. Because the search term incorporates the case name, any articles, comment, notes in Topic or Case groups smart folders will automatically include the cases referred to. To be able to access all mentions of/references to a particular case and equally importantly the subject matter of the case is just what I’ve been looking for. For example, if I’m looking for information about ‘rights of way’, I want to be able to find everything in the database all in one place.

I find the annotation feature in DTPO convoluted; I’d much prefer something like Highlight that is included in Papers 3 (P3 I’ve experimented with but not for me). Instead, whenever I find a word or phrase that I think might come in useful I create a smart folder with that word/phrase as the search term and put the s/m into another group which I call Phrases. I could combine Topic and Phrase but again I find it’s quicker to separate them because all the entries will find one another. An advantage of smart folders is that they automatically sort to abc.

Don’t let the publishers hear about this but something I’ve done is scan a subscription text book to pdf which makes for ease of searching. Much faster to click ‘find’ and search than wade through the index at the back of a book, particularly when publisher’s index term might differ from mine. With subscription books, updates require new pages to be inserted and old ones destroyed every few months which is a fiddle. What I’ve done is copy and paste the text into DTPO and using an almost identical paragraph numbering system combined with sub-groups, tags, I can now find all content in the whole database for cross-reference ‘instantly’ and updates can be done similarly. The copy/paste is a good learning discipline too, doubling as a refresher course for continuing professional development.

When searching for information that I didn’t know the database had, I use the search window. A combination of flags, tags, etc and creating a new smart folder with the search term in Phrases or Topic saves time in future.

Completing the project will take I estimate another couple of months. It has already paid its way: in two matters recently, I found the information I was looking for within seconds and was able to defeat my opponents’ contentions. In another matter, I found a law report concerning the arbitration of a rent of a property next door to the one I was dealing with: I was able to cite the facts of the case as identical to the property I’m dealing with.

Thank you for taking the time to set out your approach in such detail. Very interesting read, and some food for thought. And can I just echo your thoughts on the massive benefit to be had in having everything in one place, with DTPOs search functionality.

When I imported my entire research library, it took a few weeks before the penny dropped: Before using DTPO, I had an organised library. After the import, and taking the time to learn how to use DTPO, I had an accessible library — a not insignificant difference!