Using Devonthink for lawyers

Lawyers in their various incarnations (attorneys, barristers, advocates) have very different workflows and needs to many of the other disciplines who use Devonthink. Now and again there has been a post in this forum focussing on how lawyers use Devonthink, most notably by John Maassen, but it is a topic which deserves more attention. I hope in this thread to make an occasional series of posts on Devonthink for lawyers.

For lawyers who use Macs, Devonthink is particularly interesting. While Windows has a number of interesting software packages, especially for trial lawyers, the custom Mac solutions for lawyers who want to be paperless tend to be very expensive and inflexible.

The difficulty for lawyers, busy as they are with their day jobs, is that the freeform nature of Devonthink makes it difficult to see its value without a great deal of trial and error and some guidance. Over the course of the last three years I have found that Devonthink has a power and flexibility for managing trial litigation that few other pieces of software can match. Formally time consuming tasks become trivial and the interesting work of finding the diamonds in the dross much more rewarding. I hope that some of the workflows and insights I will share show what Devonthink is capable of and how useful it can be for lawyers.

Being a trial lawyer myself, these posts will have a bias in that direction, but I hope others, whose practice may have a different emphasis, will add their own commentary to the thread as it progresses. Most of these posts will focus on those who practice solo or with a small number of other lawyers and assistants, simply because Devonthink is better suited to that, and corporate firms are likely straitjacketed into a non-Mac solution anyway.

Over the course of these posts I will look at some of the following topics :-

  • Litigation workflows
  • Structuring a database for litigation
  • Preparing documents for use in Devonthink
  • Bates numbering
  • Document review
  • Approaches to research and document annotation
  • Chronologies and summaries
  • Dealing with email
  • Collaborating with non-Devonthink users
  • Exporting for witnesses, discovery and trial

None of what I post about is intended to be canonical but is merely one way to approach a workflow. Your workflow and therefore your solution is likely to be different. This is especially so in a world where every legal jurisdiction has it owns standards and requirements. Hopefully though lawyers who read these posts will find enough in common to devise a workflow for themselves from these posts.



It appears that most of the topics are applicable also to us management consultants, too. So I’ll be looking forward to seeing and commenting on what you produce, @F

I also eagerly await your point of view on the matter. There’s often much to be gained from cross-disciplinary discussions.

As a historian, I’ve come across several of those needs in my own workflow. In fact, I’ve used a modified Bates numbering system for a while now as well. I’ll be interested to see what you have to say!

Thank you Frederiko for kicking this off. It will be interesting and I promise to chime in when I bring a different or new perspective however you have a deeper knowledge of scripting than me so you are better able to create bespoke solutions so I look forward to learning a lot.


I am very excited about this thread and look forward to the posts. Could you include a topic on exporting information from DT? I have used DTPO for litigation and find that it is miles above other traditional document review platforms. I ran into problems, however, when I had to create privilege logs, or produce sets of documents. I found a workflow that worked well enough but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Looking forward to these posts, thanks Frederiko.

As a trial lawyer in Germany I am looking forward to your experiences, and will try to contribute to your ideas as good as I can.

I am working with my mac and devonthink in civil and criminal cases at court.
The search results are excellent, the speed is too.

What I am still struggling with is, to find out a more general concept of case- and file-orientated storage and structure.

Is this DOA?

I’m definitely interested in learning more about how you use it…

Looking forward to seeing this, but also wondering if it is DOA. I’ve had DTPO for awhile but am only now using it more and thinking of (finally) trying it for legal research, client/matter documents, etc. I’d love to hear from others about their experiences and usage.

Mine is perhaps a less usual pattern because we use the Windows ecosystem at work. The following describes the organization of DT databases on a MacBook.

I have a database called Cases where I have one folder for each open case. The main folder for Jones is more or less a junk drawer, where anything that I have found or written that relates to the Jones case will be stored and can later be moved, edited etc. DT is particularly useful for things found online, for several reasons:

A web page can be stored as a bookmark.
Selections from that web page can be stored as clippings.
Links on that web page can be captured so that I have a trail to follow later as needed.
The following is a key tool: any number of items can be selected and then moved to a new folder using the Group Items button. This keeps related items together as needed.

The Cases database includes a Reference folder where the common bookmarks are found, including Google, DuckDuckGo, and the Google Scholar page that is limited to my state’s judicial cases. Thus, if there is a need to search something, the results can be saved (using “capture link”) and moved to the folder for the case in question. If the search does not relate to a particular case, the results can be collected in a folder and given a title, and optionally can be moved to a special Transfer database that is located in Dropbox. From there is can be later moved to the primary Legal Resources database on a desktop Mac.

I have special individual databases used for document management. Let’s say that, for the Jones case, I have ten PDF files of medical records from various medical providers. Those are processed specially in advance - page numbers added via the Bates Stamp function under Acrobat, OCRed using OCRKit, and then split up into separate pages (as PDFs) - so that I end up with ten new subfolders under Jones, each of which contains a collection of one-page PDFs.

The folders containing these documents are archived on an external hard drive. I create a new DevonThink database located in a folder one step up from the Jones folder, and I name it Jones. Jones.dtbase2 is then populated by indexing (not importing) the documents contained in the ten folders under Jones for each of the PDFs.

(Indexing rather than importing allows the files to be used, added to, edited, modified, outside DT as needed. The indexes later update automatically - usually.)

The columns on the DT display are edited. I remove URL (useless in this context) but I make sure that Spotlight Comment is enabled.

Now I am ready to review these documents. The Spotlight Comment is where I can place brief descriptions (a name, a date, a diagnosis) and any page of particular importance can be annotated using the Annotation tool (under Data - New from Template). An entry of interest could be selected and saved using Capture - Rich Text. If I wish, I can highlight a particular entry of interest by opening the PDF under DT and using the Highlight tool. (Other annotations would require use of an external PDF tool like Preview or PDFPen Pro. DT does include the standard OS X “open with” context menu choice to do this quickly.)

I have found that the external media where the files are kept and where the databases are stored has to be used. Copying the entirety of the containing folder to another Mac and trying to use them there will not work, unfortunately. The Index function, it appears, uses absolute rather than relative references.

This is an old post, I know, but you look to be active still on the forums.

In reading your workflow here, I’m wondering about your “junk drawer” case folder in your “Cases” database vs your casename.db database for the specific case.

Are both of these indexing the same location and your casename.db database is where you do all of your editing and sorting of the materials, or are you maintaining to separate locations for files and documents related to the specific case?

I do litigation in the labour law sphere, and I currently have one DB with all my cases which I’ve been doing all my work out of. As you can imagine, with 100 cases of varying scope and level of current activity, using that one database is unruly. I’m trying to get a better workflow but struggling.

I’ve thought about either double indexing one case folder out of the finder in two databases (one general cases database; and one specific database for each specific case once it becomes “active” in prep for litigation).

Another option I’ve also considered is leaving only a link to a new Case database for each case in the “Cases” general database once it becomes actively worked on, and then removing all materials over from the case folder to the new case database for organizing and working with.

Can’t quite figure this out so I’d be interested to hear more about how you manage both a general “Cases” database and databases for each specific case you are actively working on.


This goes back a while. I moved to a different law firm in 2017 and partially retired in mid-2020.

But the use of Devon is still roughly the same. I have only one DB, called Cases, with a separate group for each case. I don’t try to keep all files for the case in Devon or indexed in Devon, though I could. For document collections (an insurance claim file, medical records, etc.) I have moved away from keeping the documents in that Cases file to keeping them in either a dedicated Devon db or, my current preference, in a Scrivener file. I prefer to avoid seeing any Devon DB grow to hundreds of megabytes or even to gigabytes in size.

1 Like

Hi Frederiko,

Did you ever get round to detailing your workflows for DT for use in litigation? Cannot immediately locate where these articles are.

I’d be very interested to discuss all of these topics, in particular litigation chronologies.

Best wishes

+1. I’m a criminal litigator and would love to read/talk about how other counsel use DT3.

Hi @MDMaynard

I’d be very interested to discuss all of these topics, in particular litigation chronologies.

Having benefited greatly from others’ posts on this forum over the past couple of years, I thought I would share how DT has changed my approach to working up litigation chronologies, FWIW.

I’ve been searching for the perfect workflow for litigation chronologies for years. I’ve gone through creating a single master document and manually inserting entries in date order (tedious), to spreadsheets (also tedious), to databases (unnecessarily complicated), to markdown tables with links, and have (at least for the past couple of years, inspired by Zettelkasten and the ease of creating mini-notes using DT’s sorter which can later be added to/ merged as needed) settled on individual markdown notes per event.

I like the individual note per event approach in DT while working up the chronology because it’s easy to create a quick note on the fly as I review the brief, link the event note back to the original document, and add further bullet points or links later as I work through the documents. Adding links to each witnesses’ evidence about a key event is useful. I sort in date order, use colours to highlight (label) key events, sort events into chronologies for different purposes (eg one for liability, another for quantum, depending on the issues thrown up by the case) and use Tools: Merge Items to create a final working chronology for the hearing.

It looks something like this (not a real case):

I would be interested to hear what approaches and tips other litigators have.


DT is my database but i haven’t maxed it yet with anything spectacular other than storing, arranging and accessing files. about the only esoteric thing i’ve done is use the DT app on my ipad in hearings and such.

however, my lack of use has nothing to do with DT. i just don’t have the combination of time, energy, or desire when i do have time.

I’m looking to establish a group of DT users that work in and around the Law. I’m an engineer and expert witness which is why I don’t want to limit this to just lawyers, but anyone involved with the law.

I’m currently participating with a weekly Tinderbox group that meets via Zoom and it’s been a really helpful and interesting experience. I’m hoping to do the same thing with a DevonThink group. I’d be glad to be the organizer and I already have a Zoom business account. My email is listed below, please drop me a line if you are interested in joining such a group.

BTW, this is not a commercial group and no pitching or selling will be allowed. The sole intent is for the exchange of DT knowledge as it applied to the practice of the law.

Look forward to hearing from all that are interested.

Larry Dunville
(Feel free to call if you want to talk about this. I’m located in the western US and reside in the Mountain time zone.)