Inserting file names and paths into documents is a common practice in many law offices, but does it reveal confidential client information?
First Things First: What is a File Pathname?
A file pathname shows the name given to a document and its unique location on your computer or network. A typical example would be: C:\\Users\User Name\Location\Document Name.type (docx, xlsx, pptx). In a law firm, file pathnames might include the client name, client number, matter name, or matter number: C:\\Users\Susan User\Client Smith J 03\Smith Matter 10\Petitioner’s RFP.docx.
As these examples illustrate, “file pathname” is actually a convergence of the file name and the path. In Word, select the Insert tab, choose Quick Parts, then select Field. In the Fields List, scroll down to “FileName,” and under Field Options on the right, select the box “Add path to Filename.”
Most users insert file pathnames at the end of a document or in the footer. In some cases this step is automated via a template or macro.
How Could a File Pathname Reveal Confidential Client Information?
Remember: file pathnames represent your scheme for naming and storing documents. If you include them on every outgoing document, you may be revealing confidential or private information. It depends on your document naming convention.
In the example above, “Smith Matter 10” is part of the file pathname. If I include this information on a document sent to an opponent, have I just telegraphed that Smith has 10 pending files? Or one open file and nine closed files? Does this open a line of inquiry for my opponent at Smith’s deposition? Am I being paranoid? Maybe, maybe not. And perhaps most recipients wouldn’t look closely enough to even notice.
The file pathname also shows which user in the office created the document and precisely where the document is stored. With data breaches nearly a daily occurrence, is this the electronic equivalent of drawing a map to your hidden wall safe and leaving it in your house for a would-be burglar?
I am not suggesting that inserting a file pathname is the number one scourge of today’s law office, placing business and client information at risk. I do question why we would even take the chance…
Why Go There?
I have never used file pathnames in documents. They bother me. I know many users feel they can’t live without them: simply refer to the document and it will reveal where it can be found. I can only equate it to the strong feelings people have when debating the virtues of Mayo. vs. Miracle Whip (Mayo, hands down) or the Non-serial comma vs. the Oxford comma (Oxford comma now and forever).
If you’re paper-based, I suppose this makes some sense. If I pull Smith’s paper file and want to find the Petitioner’s RFP (Request for Production) on my computer, it may be helpful to reference the file pathname: C:\\Users\Susan User\Client Smith J 03\Smith Matter 10\Petitioner’s RFP.docx. I then know where to look on the C: drive.
Personally, I’ve never seen anyone use this technique. But it could be done.
If your office is paperless, you would never attempt this. After all, if you knew the name of the document and exactly where it was stored, you wouldn’t be looking for it, right?
If you are paper-based and regularly rely on the file pathname as a means to locate documents on your computer, I’d like to hear from you. My instinct tells me that inserting file pathnames is one of those things “we’ve always done,” which is why users keep on doing it. (Versus, the file pathname is routinely used to look up the digital version of a document.)
Best Practices: Avoid File Pathnames
Some offices try to balance the concern of protecting client confidentiality by asking users to remove file pathnames in situations where the information may be too revealing. I find this approach too bothersome: (1) Deleting the file pathname (or not) is a judgment call by the individual user; (2) Individual users are human and make mistakes – especially when rushing to meet a deadline; (3) Automated systems promote forgetfulness: if the file pathname is inserted via a macro/template the user must “remember” to manually delete it in sensitive situations.
Best practices dictate a single, consistent approach: use file pathnames or don’t use file pathnames. My recommendation: it’s a no-brainer to leave the file pathname out. No one has to make a judgment call, no one has to remember to insert it or remove it, no one has to learn how to override the settings of an automated template. And no information is revealed about your client, his or her matters, the document creator, or the deep recesses of your network where the document resides.
Better Ways to Help Users Find Documents
Since the rationale for inserting file pathnames is to help users find documents, consider adopting practices that address the underlying problem:
- Keep digital files organized by creating a framework of subfolders for each practice area. Users who need to open a new client matter on the network can simply copy the folder/subfolder prototype, ensuring that client matters are set up consistently. For more information, see this oldie but goodie by yours truly: Setting Up an Effective Filing System. (Available on the PLF website: select Practice Management > Forms > File Management.)
- Adopt standards for naming documents.
- Implement Document Management Software (DMS). DMS stores, manages, and tracks every file you create down to great detail – far more than is stored in a mere file pathname. One of the best features of DMS is “forced compliance,” which sounds Draconian, but simply means that users can’t defeat the system. Each time a file is created, modified, or deleted the user is “forced” to enter required information. This results in a detail-rich profile for every document, which can easily include the client name, client number, matter name, matter number, matter type, practice group, responsible attorney, keywords, or anything else you want to track (or use as a search criteria).
- If all else fails, or you don’t have DMS, try Windows search or Spotlight on your Mac. If you can’t abide by Windows search, try Copernic.
A Quick Word about Metadata
Whether you insert a file pathname or not, the same information is contained in your document’s metadata. There’s some food for thought! So don’t forget about metadata removal.
“File Save As PDF” or “File, Publish to PDF” does not remove metadata, it simply converts it. Use “File, PRINT to PDF,” “File, Save Without Metadata” (WordPerfect), “File, Check for Issues > Inspect” (Word), or “Remove Hidden Information or Sanitize Document” (Acrobat). For more information on printing to PDF, see How to Strip Metadata in Two Easy Steps.
[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]