Lawyer on DT, each client as a Database?


I’m about 2 weeks in to DT with the intent of using as case management.

I have a dropbox folder of about 50 Gs. It contains child folders, alphabetized from A-Z, with client folders inside.

Thus far, i’ve been selecting current clients as I work on them, and import their folder as separate databases.

Is this how you guys do it?

Reading around on here, it seems some might suggest to import the 50 G parent folder as a database, and parse out from there. From what i read, this might depend in part on how i might want to perform “search”, but I’m not sure if i’m interpreting this correctly.



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Because DEVONthink can search “all databases” (all those open of course), not sure what you may be thinking of when you mention performing search.

You can always change how you do things. I guess I’d start with the assumption that clients are mostly independent of each other and thus would start with putting each client into their own database.

If from your perspective clients are not independent and you’ll want consolidated views of documents (with Smart Rules?) then I guess you’d want to put them into a single (or fewer) databases with a Group for each.

I think one database per client feels the best to me. It’s how I do my clients (but not a law practice). As I said, can always drag and drop and change things.

Not a crucial decision, actually, because of that flexibility to change.

thanks for the reply.

the large parent folder i have is already organized within dropbox, per client then matter.

moving the entire folder into DT wouldn’t be drastic from a “where’s my stuff” perspective.

i AM curious about how to save NEW documents, [eg, a pleading drafted in Pages, then saved, and exported to PDF]. i’m having trouble reliably locating those. i’ll read further on it. i’m reading and learning it as i use it.

Kinda all depends on your end goal and the problems you are trying to fix.

Do you want to get off Dropbox and have everything local inside DEVONthink? If you have collaborators who need access to these files, then Dropbox is a good place for that.

I don’t know if you already done this or not, but as your Dropbox files are resident on your Mac, you can index (not import) them into a DEVONthink database. Then at minimum, the contents of those files would be searchable with DEVONthink features. Read about indexing in the DEVONthink Manual to understand how this works.

Re the Pages stuff … I’d probably keep the source files in the Dropbox folder as you probably do now and access them via Finder or Pages. The PDFs can also go into Dropbox as you probably do now.

Anything in an indexed folder(s) in DEVONthink will show up the changes (updating per how described in the DEVONthink manual).

Personally speaking, I would not index or index a 50GB folder into a single DEVONthink database at this point.
I would create a per-client database for a small handful of active clients - importing or indexing after you’ve read the Help > Documentation > In & Out > Importing & Indexing section :wink: - and get a feel for if it functions for you.

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thank you. i’m actively testing how source files react to indexing and importing as I go along. [while reading documentation]. I’ve been so busy since I started this that I just “worked” and used it however I could make things work, and did ok. I’m past some deadlines now, and have more time to focus on it, properly.

I had no disasters or anything close to it. in fact, after just a bit of exposure it was easy to zip along.

for example. I just completed an appellate brief. a combination of word processor product exported to pdf, and existing pdf’s from scans. completing the project requires tons of pdf slicing and dicing. in the end there are orphan pdf’s EVERYWHERE. about all one can do is tag them and let them hang on their own until you can come back and clean up.

at least that’s how I got through this last brief.

I DID run into a printing issue with a few pdf’s that I manipulated in DT. I don’t know enough of what and why to seek input here, though.

That’s good to hear! :slight_smile:

Given the hack and slash methods you employed (and no offense, as who hasn’t done that at some point or another!), I am even more convinced a per-client database would be optimal. Bearing in mind, that’s also part of how I view data organization, not gospel.

Per client (with matters in Groups Below) is what I think also. You could probably think of some clever Smart Groups to extract key information from the documents and your colleagues who don’t use DEVONthink will be aware of!

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I am going to go against the grain here and say one active database - then groups per case (and tags per client), or groups per client and subgroups per case. If things get too large, then move older cases to one or more archival databases.

I am not a lawyer but my needs for DT3 are similar as I serve as an expert consultant to review medicolegal cases

The reason I say to use one main database is that it is a lot easier to set up smart rules and smart groups that way which refer to all of your legal work and not to any other non-legal databases

Also when it comes to syncing data to other Macs or backing up your data or setting up permissions for access to databases via DT3 server, it can be impractical to do those things once you get into the hundreds or even thousands of databases.


this is what i’ve been doing. thx much

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Hi @sidvicious

I agree - definitely one database per matter. I started with a single database indexed to Dropbox and within a day it was too big, sync took too long etc. Archiving completed matters became fiddly - if you start a new database when you open a matter, you can just archive it when it concludes.

For what it is worth, after a few years of keeping everything in Dropbox and indexing I went “all in” and now keep all my documents in DT (helps avoid orphans).

Re your query:

i AM curious about how to save NEW documents, [eg, a pleading drafted in Pages, then saved, and exported to PDF].

I don’t know if this helps, but this is my file (“group”) structure:

I don’t know Apple Script and can’t do the clever automation others can, so I keep the folders in a Finder directory and dump them in DT when starting up a new matter database.

Things I found particularly useful as I got more into DT (Kissell’s Take Control and Dini’s Taking Smart Notes… cover them well) are:

  • colour-coded labels for documents (eg helpful/ adverse/ challenge)
  • colour-coded highlighting within documents (see Dini)
  • smart groups (eg to show all relevant documents)
  • smart rules for re-naming files, ocr’ing etc
  • customised metadata (eg document type, from (author), to) to help sort and rename documents
  • wikilinks (of course) for case notes
  • Keyboard Maestro (see Dini again)

Good luck & hope you enjoy DT. It’s a great case management tool.


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@stephenjw - i deleted my reply by accident in an attempt to add a pic.

first, thanks very much for the reply and the pic. very helpful!

here’s a pic of a fairly new case that is in active litigation. i’m yellow and orange; party opposite in red. court in blue. green identifies Main files. ZCaseFile in green is the active operative pleadings on file and in order.

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Just curious to know why you would not index a 50GB folder into a single DEVONthink database.

Hi @sidvicious - looks like a good structure. S

Can you clarify to help you make this decision:

  • How large is a typical matter?

  • How many matters do you typically have open at once?

  • Do you need to access documents only on one Mac, or do you have both home/office computers or otherwise multiple Macs?

  • Do you plan to access documents as well on iPhone and/or iPad?

  • Do you need access to closed matters at times - if so, how many total active and closed matters do you have?

  • Are you the only one who will be uploading and accessing the documents - or do you have team/staff members who either help you to upload data or help you review cases or both?


*matter size.

i’m uncertain how to quantify it.

*how many open at once.

so far, no more than two or three open at once.

  • multiple computer or device access.

presently i don’t need full access on a shared basis. I will still have dropbox if needed. utlimately i will go DT though, and sync to the sky. right now and even with dropbox, i’ll load a trial/hearing folder and pull up in my trial ipad.

  • access on ipad or iphone

see above. i’ll integrate the ipad eventually.

*accessing closed matters.

yes; i’ll need access.

  • number of users/uploaders.

it’s just me.

Why will you always have Dropbox if needed?

If that is because you plan to index Dropbox into Devonthink rather than import files into Devonthink, then that is a separate and more complex discussion to have.

If your plan is to keep all documents filed both in Dropbox and in Devonthink, I doubt that will be practical on any meaningful scale. In fact, if you ever are in a situation where you are required to produce your entire file, a duplicate system like that can be perilous if questions arise as to which is your “real” file if certain documents or versions of documents are in one file but not the other.

If you need access to closed matters and also plan to eventually sync to iPhone/iPad , then that can quickly grow to be impractical to set up and manage syncing on many different databases.

Overall it sounds to me as if this works now with individual databases because you are in the early phase of the project. If you continue with individual databases per client, then you are using a system which does not scale well and can easily outgrow the needs of even a solo practitioner. On the other hand, if you set it up from the start as one active database and potentially one or more archival databases, then that system should scale well to any conceivable size for a solo practitioner or even a small group of practitioners.


i appreciate the comments. i think my best answer is, honestly:

i know finder & dropbox, and i know foxtrot [search app].

and i don’t know dt yet. for example; i need to know DT, from finder. at least i THINK i need to.

so you’re saying, ideally, incorporate my parent folder and refine it among clients from there?

You don’t need to use the finder at all to search documents if you use DT.

Foxtrot Pro and Houdaspot can still find your documents inside Devonthink.

Maybe you want to do one case in parallel with your existing system until you go “live” with DT as a production database. But I cannot imagine maintaining duplicate systems in Dropbox and DT on an ongoing basis. What happens when you move/rename/add/delete items? You will quickly get the two out of sync and thus will not know which is the “real” client file.

Your existing set of folders can easily be a template that gets automatically created every time you create a new matter or a new client (whatever you decide as your top level folder).

So the structure you showed in your picture only needs to be created once; after you create it once and put the top level parent folder in the DT templates folder with the extension .dtTemplate, it will be available to you under “Data/New From Template” whenever you start a new top level matter/client file. And yes, you can easily refine that set of folders for specific clients as needed.

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I’m a lawyer, but not presently litigating very much. I have ~5 primary databases: Firm General, Firm Client, Personal, Gaming, and Zettelkasten. Two of them are clearly not work-related with the Zettelkasten database combining work and personal reference/thinking information. The Firm General database is for all non-client documents: Admin, Business Development, Professional Development, Expenses, etc. Firm Client holds indexed client folders from my firm’s Google Shared Drive, which each client getting a Group. I do not index the entire “Active Clients” Google Shared Drive because that would be horrendously unnecessary and cause problems, possibly for others.

My “Firm Client” database:

I use one MacBook Pro and an iPad Pro with these databases. Everything usually works just fine!