Take note: 2 apps for better note taking

April 6, 2016

WilsonMove over legal pad and pen, the digital note taking revolution is here. There is an increased focus on finding a more tactile and precise way to to interact with mobile devices. While stylus technology is getting better, an additional benefit is that the note taking applications have gotten really good for capturing text, pictures and other bits of information.

This article will focus on two device-agnostic services: Evernote and Microsoft’s OneNote and some suggestions for deciding which is right for you.


Evernote (evernote.com) is a popular way to “remember everything.” Need to save something from a Web page? No problem. Need to add files to your Evernote database? Easy. Want Evernote to perform handwriting recognition on your latest back of the napkin outline? Take a photo, upload it to Evernote.

All this is available — for a price. Evernote, like many software as a service programs, is supported through tiered subscription plans, with more services offered the more you pay.

Evernote organizes “notes” into “notebooks.” You can also apply “tags” to notes. These notebooks can be accessed through the desktop software, mobile apps or a Web interface. Create a legal notebook containing a note with a PDF copy of a recent case. Put a text note with an outline of your argument or deposition questions. Capture an audio file and load it into that notebook to review later.

The benefit and challenge of Evernote is that it is flexible. Spend some time figuring out how you will organize your account before getting started. Create “stacks” of notebooks relating to a particular area of life. A “firm” stack could contain various notebooks relating to the law firm (e.g., legal reference material, research for an upcoming article, marketing ideas, etc.). Notes relating to the firm would go in that notebook for reference.

Evernote works great on mobile devices. Can’t remember your license plate number? Take a picture and put it in Evernote. Tag it with “license plate” and search for that tag. Evernote will also show you anything else you tagged with license plate.

Is Evernote right for you? If you tend to be a pack rat with digital information, Evernote is a good solution. The ability to search within files, notes, and even handwriting on napkins, can allow your brain to relax and focus on more important things.

Microsoft OneNote

Microsoft OneNote (onenote.com) has matured into a great tool. OneNote is the digital equivalent to a three-ring binder with divider tabs. Within the tabs, you can create various pages. These pages can be made of text, pictures, audio, digital files, drawings — pretty much anything you might encounter in the digital age.

OneNote is “all your notes on all your devices.” In the legal context, you can start a notebook for a case. Create divider tabs for each part of the case (pleadings, correspondence, discovery, etc.). Within those tabs, you create pages containing information relating to that tab. Want to draft some thoughts on a summary judgment motion? Start a summary judgment page under the pleadings tab. Type some arguments into an outline on the page. Copy and paste portions of legal research into the page, drag and drop to structure your thoughts. When you are ready to draft the brief, copy and paste into Microsoft Word.

OneNote is tightly integrated with Microsoft Office. If you draft a list of things to do in a case, you can assign them a to-do tag and OneNote will create a task in Outlook. Mark the task complete in Outlook and it syncs back to OneNote. Over time, you can see the list of things you completed in the case and keep track of what is coming up next (assuming you conduct regular reviews).

Who should use OneNote? If you are looking to get started with digital note taking, OneNote is where you should start. It’s free to start and if you are an Office 365 subscriber, you can sync your notebooks across all devices as part of your subscription plan. The integration with Microsoft Office gives OneNote the nod over Evernote.


Whatever service you use, make sure you understand the risks of syncing data through a cloud provider. Each app has its own security options and different capabilities with encryption. Make sure you are comfortable with that type of information you store and transmit through these services. The benefit of these types of services is that you will have one place to store information for when it is needed. These services can help keep you organized and focused on the task(s) at hand.•

Seth R. Wilson is an attorney with Adler Tesnar & Whalin in Noblesville. In addition to practicing law, he helps manage the day-to-day technology operations of the firm. Seth writes about legal technology at sethrwilson.com and is a frequent speaker on the subject. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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