The Paperless Prosecutor

How OneNote Killed the Legal Pad

Law and technology share a lot in common. Both fields are constantly evolving, whether it’s that new edition of the iPhone and yet another Proposition passed by the electorate, or an appellate decision that changes the way we approach certain tried and true investigative practices and a software update that revolutionizes and often frustrates those who grew accustomed to the old edition. Like case law, tech companies build upon past versions to improve, and sometimes completely ruin a product line. Yet, when we talk about technology in the legal field, and especially the adoption of new technology the common ground often turns to sharp skepticism and a preference for age old tools that in this author’s opinion, are struggling to keep up with the data demands of the modern trial lawyer.

As prosecutors, and readers of this publication you share an enthusiasm for technology and its many impacts on society and the practice of law. When you consider using technology to aid in your practice of law it is important to consider the limitations that technology has. Nothing shared here will do the work for you, nothing will generate attorney work product on its own. What I mean by that is, technology is the intersection of hardware, software and the personal and professional habits and practices that will enable that technology to best assist you in reaching your goals.

Working in one of the many courthouses in our state is a time demanding prospect, if your day is anything like mine a good portion is spent in court handling appearances. My own journey from a paper, or analog, practice towards a digital, less paper, practice has seen its share of bumps and turns. I began with the simple goal of trying to introduce just a bit more efficiency into my day. This focus led me to several key applications that I use every single day in my practice. The applications I have tried are far too numerous to mention with the space allotted here, instead I will provide some great resources for those that want to try out different applications to find the best fit for your hardware, and software preferences. I will, however, detail the primary tool I have found, that can do nearly everything needed to help push the envelope and bring me almost all the way into a digital practice where I can truly be a paperless prosecutor.

Microsoft OneNote – The last legal pad you will ever need.

You may have heard of OneNote in law school or college. It’s been a part of Microsoft Office for over a decade making its debut as part of Office 2003. In recent months it has become a major force in Microsoft development, especially in the education field; but what is OneNote?

OneNote is a cross-platform note taking application which is organized as a set of Notebooks, Section Groups, Sections and Pages. You can create notebooks and organize them with an interface that looks like a tabbed notebook just like that book case full of three ring trial binders in your office.

OneNote works much like the three ring binder 2.0. Instead of printing out or copying the trial documents you simply print them into the notebook you created. Anything that you can print, can be printed to OneNote and will appear as it would if you had just sent it to the all-in-one copier down the hall. It will also accept nearly all digital media types and Microsoft Office files.

From there, you can add your own notes, in typed format or with a digital pen and your own handwriting, just as you would with your legal pad. Microsoft is the leading technology platform for digital ink and supports it as a first class digital data citizen – meaning you can run a key word search in OneNote and it will recognize your handwriting, and even convert it to typed text if you prefer. Since numerous studies and discussions have shown that the tactile act of writing notes down helps with retention better than typing them out, the ability to merge the clarity and search-ability of typed text with the flexibility and convenience of hand written notes finally allows for the legal pad to be left in the desk drawer.

The fast paced environment of a trial courtroom leaves little room to be fumbling with a piece of software that makes you stop and think like a computer before you can access the data you need. OneNote allows you to prepare the digital notebook in such a way that you still think of it as a tabbed notebook, just on a screen instead of in a three ring binder.

The usefulness doesn’t end with just being a note taking application. OneNote is as versatile as a piece of paper, meaning it can literally do anything you can do with a piece of paper except fold it up into an airplane and throw it across the room.

Saving the Best for Last

OneNote also is capable of syncing the same data that you create on the full desktop version with all the mobile applications and even with your colleagues – meaning anything you put into OneNote can be available on your tablet, or even on your phone and you can collaborate in near real time with other users. This means that OneNote also becomes the digital briefcase full of all the research, notes, case files that probably sit in a binder on your desk while you are in court or at home and really need them!

OneNote is more than Just a Digital Notebook

Prosecutor’s Brief Case

Since OneNote is capable of fully supporting digital ink you never have to worry about losing your handwritten notes. OneNote is the perfect replacement for the legal pad, each “Page” in OneNote can be configured to scroll horizontally and vertically allowing you to create notes and diagrams that cannot be done on a legal pad. Everything from sticky notes, brainstorming and courtroom observation of your colleagues can be kept and searched in your brief case notebook. Here are some additional ideas;

Business Card Rolodex

OneNote is a great place to store all those business cards you get from defense attorneys. With the companion app Office Lens, or any other PDF scanner app for your phone you can quickly snapshot the business card and then insert it into your rolodex page. This will of course be fully searchable because OneNote even searches inserted documents and pictures for recognizable text.

Personal Research Wiki

Research and note taking is the bread and butter of OneNote, it was originally designed for students after all. You can create fully searchable, and linked research notebooks that can help if writing articles, motions, or appellate review of cases. This research can then be shared with your colleagues who can expand upon the research potentially creating an organized, indexed research wiki custom built to your needs.

MCLE Records – Training Notebooks

Have you ever had a question come up in court about some obscure statute and you know you just had a training on that exact topic but the handout is sitting on your desk. With OneNote you can keep all the training materials in one place, and have it with you when it might actually matter! It can also prove to be a handy place to keep scanned copies of your MCLE certificates.

The Digital Paper Calendar

Many of us use a day minder or similar handwritten calendar. OneNote, can accomplish the same thing. With a calendar template, of which there are many to choose from, you can create a full year calendar tab and update it as you go along. It will be fully searchable and you can convert your handwriting to text if you like! Advanced features of the desktop version can integrate with Microsoft Outlook calendar and task functions for an even more robust calendar experience.

Voice Memos

On the three major smartphone platforms OneNote can take a digital voice memo, taking your voice recording and transcribing it to text in a default page. The voice memo is a powerful organizational and to-do list tool that is built into this application.

Presentation Aid

OneNote as a digital legal pad is nearly limitless in size. In this capacity it can also replace your whiteboard for large project planning and mind mapping. This type of visual organization can be very useful to give you a bird’s eye view of your case plan and all the moving parts.

Document Call-Out

Many times in trial
we need to prepare demonstratives that might need to have portions of a document enlarged. OneNote has powerful tools that can quickly create these document call-outs for you to either use digitally or convert to PDF for printing out for a witness to use on the stand.

Maps, Diagrams, and Timelines

Using the scrolling capability of OneNote you can create large diagrams or map demonmstratives and exhibits for printing or digital presentation in court. You can also create timelines. OneNote is is especially useful for prosecutors with limited resources in that its strechable format allows determined prosecutors to create impressive trial aids for even the most routine misdemeanor case.

Audio/Video and OneNote

With the full version of OneNote you can accomplish some impressive time saving. We often have to review audio and video in our cases. Most of the time, we resolve to sit down in front of our PC with that ubiquitous legal pad and hit play, scribbling notes and time stamps when we see or hear something of importance. With OneNote, you can still do it that analog way by just using OneNote as your digital legal pad, but you can take it a step further.

You can insert nearly any type of digital media into a OneNote page. This includes most video and audio file types. Once the audio/video file has been inserted on a page it acts as a playable file, just as if it were on your desktop.

By playing the digital media file within OneNote it starts a synced note taking session that will now mark the time you started writing or typing a note. Later, when you go back and review each time you started a new typed or handwritten note there will be a small “play” icon that will take you to a few seconds before you started that note in your digital media file. This is an incredible thing to see in action, and will save you enormous amounts of time when you go back to that case weeks later for further review!

The Case Notebook

When I first started using OneNote I still thought of my digital case notebooks as “trial notebooks”. What I mean is that in many cases we operate out of a standard case folder, and as we confirm a trial we copy the contents and hole punch them and create a trial notebook. OneNote allows for the creation of a working notebook for each case much earlier in the process. I’ve taken to calling them case notebooks because I do all my work product, planning, all my evidence preparation and demonstrative creation directly in OneNote.

All of the paper forms for our support staff are baked into my standard case notebook template so I can quickly fill them out digitally and email them directly from OneNote to speed the process of trial preparation. I can even do all of this while sitting in court on any given day awaiting defense attorneys on unrelated cases.

A OneNote case notebook is also a great solution for a budget prosecutor. Aside from the fact that OneNote itself is probably available already through your office’s Microsoft Office site license, it is also available for free on the Microsoft OneNote website OneNote also accomplishes a solid form of OCR. For example, you can scan a PDF of a transcript into OneNote and it will be fully searchable without the need for powerful and expensive OCR softweare such as Adobe Pro.

Everything above applies to the case notebook, it is a very powerful tool, but I will leave OneNote with one final highlight. Consider this scenario. You just sat down after your closing argument and defense is about to begin. We all reach for the legal pad and begin taking notes. As they near the end, we quickly highlight, or circle, or annotate with a star or asterisk the key points we will be adding to our rebuttal, the problem, is that they are all on different pages of our legal pad and in the wrong order.

If you adopt OneNote, this all too familiar scenario has new life breathed into it. Now you can clip and cut your note and move it or copy it to a new page and put it in the order you want for rebuttal, giving you the ability to have a concise, organized response to defense’s scattered summation. Never forget that rebuttal argument again using OneNote.

Final Thoughts on Hardware and Security

OneNote is a very powerful application, and it is at its most powerful on the full desktop client on a Windows device with a digital pen. The best-in-class example is of course a Surface Pro device, I highly recommend the latest model the Surface Pro 3. However, there are budget alternatives that still give you the full digital pen experience with the full throttle features of the desktop client.

Samsung Galaxy Note devices also provide a top of the line digital ink experience. These mobile devices are only held back by the mobile OneNote Android client, which isn’t as full featured as the desktop. The good news is you can of course use both! Anything created on the desktop client is “consumable” on the mobile client – and any digital ink added in the mobile client will sync up to the desktop.

This brings me to the final thought about security. The new digital world opens up great opportunities for efficiency, but also opens potential pitfalls if you don’t take the necessary precautions. OneNote can be as secure as you want it to be, but there is a tradeoff for the security.

The best in class security, while still enjoying all the benefits of OneNote is to use an Office 365 license through your office and store the notebooks on the CJIS compliant Microsoft OneDrive for Business. If your office doesn’t support that license yet, you can set OneNote to store the notebooks on a secured on premises server such as SharePoint. Finally, if you must rely on total security you can of course store the notebooks locally on your encrypted hard drive – but you will not have multiple user, or multiple device access.

Of all the hardware and software solutions I have tried over the last few years, OneNote and a digital ink equipped Windows device have brought me closer than ever to achieving my ultimate goal of becoming a paperless prosecutor.


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