OneNote for Lawyers

OneNote is a powerful but incredibly simple to use note-taking and record-keeping application made by Microsoft. It is free, and is available for Windows, Windows Phone, Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, and the web using a web browser.

I have created a series of short videos to (hopefully) introduce you to the basic concepts, followed by some “top tips”.

The Training notebook that I am using in the clips can be viewed here.

The “dummy casebook” notebook that I demonstrate can be viewed here

You can download OneNote 2016 (my preferred version of OneNote) from here.

The Basic Concept of using OneNote

OneNote is incredibly simple to use.  You create notes by simply typing or copy/pasting, or by hand-writing with a stylus. You can even dictate using the in-built dictation tool!

Each note you take is date and time-stamped; a note may contain images, attachments, and more.

The flexibility and free-form nature of each note is part of what makes OneNote simple but powerful.

Every note that you create can contain written text, copied text, images, hyperlinks, embedded files, images, and diagrams.

You organise notes into notebooks and tabs (just like a physical notebook).

OneNote can’t replace practice / case management or document management software, but OneNote is a powerful tool that will complement these.

The different versions of OneNote

OneNote was originally released as a traditional desktop application and was called OneNote 2013, then OneNote 2016.

Later, Microsoft released a leaner version of OneNote (then called OneNote Universal), which was optimised for mobile devices and designed to look and work the same on any device.  The Universal version of OneNote did less than its full desktop counterpart, but has a cleaner, sharper look and feel to it.

Over the years, Microsoft has added more and more functionality to OneNote Universal, working to catch it up to the desktop edition.  It still isn’t there yet, so I use OneNote 2016 on a day-to-day basis.

Although Microsoft has announced that it will ultimately stop updating and supporting OneNote 2016, that is some way off. In fact, OneNote 2016 was previously excluded from Office 2019 installations (OneNote universal is installed as part of all Windows 10 installations) but as of March 2020, it is once again installed alongside the Word, PowerPoint, and Excel desktop apps. In any event, you can open the same notebook is Onenote 2016 or Onenote universal, so there is no risk from using OneNote 2016 for the time being.

My recommendation is that you use OneNote 2016 as your default notetaking tool.

If you do install OneNote 2016, you will likely see two OneNote shortcuts in your Windows 10 start menu.

Organising your OneNote notebooks, sections and pages

What makes OneNote better than simply having a folder full of word documents is its clean and intuitive organisation.

Notebooks

You can create one or more notebooks: for instance, I have a general notebook, a notebook for each of my cases and I created this notebook specifically for this training session.

Sections (tabs)

Within each notebook you create tabs to organise major subjects and categories. Each tab can contain a few (or many) individual pages.

There are all sorts of different use scenarios, for example, a tab for meeting notes, a tab for hearing notes, a tab for case law, a tab for prosecution material and a tab for defence material.

Pages

Pages are the individual notes. Each page may have just a few lines of text, or paragraphs full of text, images, drawing and more.

Sub-pages

If you need an additional level of organisation, you can make one or more pages a sub-page of another. Subpages help keep related pages grouped together, and creates a hierarchy within a single tab. A good example would be a Case Law section; you might want a page relating to each of the key issues in the matter and then subpages dealing with the individual cases.

Section Groups

The hierarchy of Notebooks > Tabs > Pages > Subpages is likely all you’ll need in the beginning.

That said, the more you use OneNote, the bigger your OneNote notebooks will become… and you may want another layer of organisation.

There is one other layer of organisation you can implement: you can create Section Groups within a notebook. These are essentially a tab that contains other tabs.

So, in my case notebooks I create two Sections Groups, one for Defence Material and the other for Prosecution Material. I then have separate tabs within those two sections.

Moving Sections and Pages

You can easily move or copy pages to different sections of the same notebook, or a completely different notebook. Just right click on the page and select Move / Copy. You can do the same with a whole section. Right-click on the section tab you want to move and select Move/Copy.

Searching your notebooks’ content

I know many, dare I say most, lawyers are still committed to old-school pen-and-paper notebooks. But there’s one thing you can’t do with them: search your notes. Keeping your notes in OneNote means that all of your notes are searchable.

Imagine being able to quickly search and find exactly what you’re looking for.

And don’t forget that notes in OneNote can be multimedia: text, images, links and more. Which means you can not only search for and find the note you’re looking for, but the image, website or embedded file you stored with it.

Beyond searching for specific text, you can also add tags to particular notes, and search for notes containing a specific tag. “Tags” are another reason why I think every lawyer should use OneNote!

Bookmarking and tagging information in your notes

OneNote allows you to add tags to any line of text in a note or a page. A Tag is an icon that holds a specific significance, topic or callout. For example, you can add an Important tag for a note that includes important information or a Question tag for a note that prompts a further question. You can also create your own tags. I have created ones for “X-in-Chief”, “Cross-X” and “Re-X” to mark the beginning of key parts of evidence in my hearing notes (see the Dummy Casebook).

Tags serve as visual call-outs. It’s a straightforward way to code and categorise information within a page. You can also search tags and find notes with specific tags throughout your notebook.

Ditch your counsels’ notebook

You can use OneNote from any Windows or Mac computer to take and organize notes. The Universal version works on desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. The ability to use a stylus gives lawyers everything they need to replace the old pen and legal pad with a modern counterpart. Notes can be hand-written with the stylus, typed with a keyboard – or both

Dictate and record in OneNote

OneNote can also double as your dictation tool. It also allows you to create or insert different types of media into a page including images, video, and audio.  With the Record Audio feature, you can record notes and save them to OneNote–alongside other notes and information relevant to that topic.

Synchronise your OneNote notebooks across all your devices

OneNote will synchronize between all of your devices, including computers, tablets, and smart phones. This means your notebooks go where you go.

It also means that you can be at the office following an almost-live note of a hearing or meeting that your colleague is taking in a notebook that you have shared.

Jim’s OneNote top tips

Top Tip 1 :: Use OneNote 2016’s auto correct functionality

Like most Microsfot office products, with OneNote 2016, you can use auto-correct. That means when you are taking a note you can use keyboard shortcuts to insert frequently used words or phrases (for example a defendant’s name)

File > Options > Proofing > AutoCorrect Options

Top Tip 2 :: Use OneNote to mark-up documents

Inserting a printout and setting it as a background image is a great way of allowing documents to be easily marked up and written on.

Insert > Printout (or drag and drop)

Right-click and “Select Image as Background”

You can combine handwritten annotations, typed annotations and tags so that it is easy to find and group information together later.

Top Tip 3 :: Share your notebook with the team

Share your case notebooks with members of the case team. In OneNote 2016, select File > Share.

Top Tip 4 :: Export to PDF

OneNote 2016 allows you to export a page, group of pages, a section, or a whole notebook! Just choose File > Export and select the format you want.

Top Tip 5 :: Send Emails to Onenote

If you are using Outlook is you can easily send the content of emails (including attachments) to a notebook for future reference. You might want to do this, for example, if a client sends you instructions that you want to refer to later, of the prosecution provides a substantive response to a query that you want easily to hand.

The subject line of each imported message becomes the title of that item’s associated page in OneNote, and the date and time stamp of the original item is retained. This makes it easy to search for it again later.

After sending messages from Outlook to OneNote, you can freely move their pages around in your notebook, and you can copy or move any of these pages between different sections and to any of your other notebooks.

Top Tip 6 :: Re-arranging the layout in OneNote 2016

In OneNote 2016 you can easily change the layout so, for example, the page tabs appear on the left. Just go to: File > Options > Display

Top Tip 7 & 8 :: Get OneTastic and OneNote Batch

OneTastic costs $15 a year but it greatly extends the functionality of OneNote 2016. You can automatically sort pages and notebooks, create tables of contents and do just about anything! Click here and see what macros are available!

OneNote Batch costs $28 but allows you to do all sorts of bulk work (like importing) in one go. It can be a little glitchy but it is worth it! Click here to see more details.

Note both of these products are only available for OneNote 2016.

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