Wilson: Digital, analog note-taking tactics: Finding your fit

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Back to school always reminds me to get back to basics. Looking through the checklist for your children’s school supplies might remind you of leftovers from past years. The same is true with your technology tools. Too often, we overlook the tools that are right in front of us. Instead, we search for the tool that will do things bigger, better and faster. This year, take an inventory of the tools that you already have or can leverage more, and potentially buy something new to take advantage of the “shiny new object” motivation to take notes that matter.

There are a plethora of note-taking apps and methods available in today’s world. What is it that you need to do when taking notes? Is there anything better than a pen and paper? Do you think better with a pen and paper, or maybe an Apple Pencil and electronic notebook? Do you think by typing? Remember, what got you where you are, could be enough to get you where you’re going. Instead of looking for the latest AI-driven tool, leverage your own artificial intelligence.

The question is, is there a balance to achieve or a tension to manage when it comes to digital versus analog notes? On the analog side of the scale, most lawyers are comfortable with legal pads and pens. There are some tried-and-true methods for note-taking on a legal pad. The next step is to scan the legal pad after you are done taking notes. It is important to have a good file-naming system so you can easily find your notes later. It is also important to write legibly so you or your team can read what you wrote later. Scans aren’t always as clear as the original. Date and number the pages. Also, try to keep the notes separated by client matter or topic so you don’t end up with a half page of notes belonging in two separate files.

On the digital side of the scale, use a note-taking application, like Notes or Notability on the iPad, with an Apple Pencil. This has the advantage of never running out of pages and captures the information digitally initially, without the need to scan the file later. Exporting your notes as a PDF is typically simple.

Either way you take notes, they should be kept as electronic versions for reference, reviewing and retention purposes.

What do you take notes on?

Like many in the legal profession, I like to take notes — and not just in hearings or depositions, but for capturing ideas. The best method for this is whatever works for you. It may be using a sticky note or the back of an envelope. Whatever method you use, figure out a good process for reviewing and turning that note into something actionable.

For example, you can use your phone’s camera to take a picture of the note and potentially turn that into a PDF. The Notes app on your iPhone will allow you to “scan” a photo into a Note. There are dedicated “scanner” apps for your mobile device, as well. The photo has helpful metadata (e.g., time and location) that can help prompt your memory for why you took the photo and when.

What’s the deal with personal knowledge management?

PKMs are one of the newest trends in note-taking, especially on the digital side of the scale. Because computers are good at linking things together, these PKM apps allow you to create links between your notes/thoughts/ideas, allowing you to discover connections. Obsidian is a popular tool in the PKM space. Obsidian is software that takes plain text note files and adds a way to leverage that text in unique ways.

What’s great about these types of tools is that you can create connections between your ideas just by taking notes like you normally do. It takes a little work to understand how the tool works, but it is simple to use. One example is to make a family tree note, with links to a separate note for each individual in the family. You can change the view of the family tree note to see all the connections to the individual notes. Helpful in an estate planning context.

Notes as templates with prompts

Making your own note-taking templates is helpful, as well. Using a consistent template can help improve efficiency and effectiveness in your note-taking. Consider using a text expansion app like TextExpander to quickly set up a new note-taking session for a deposition. You can have it automatically fill in the date, ask you for the name of the deponent, ask for the name and contact information for the court reporter, and the like. You can also put in optional pre-drafted questions, depending on the type of case.•


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

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