Lawyers Journal

Considerations in creating, maintaining a paperless office

Running and maintaining a paperless law office may seem like a daunting task. However, there are many potential benefits of getting rid of the paper in your law practice, including increased workflow efficiency, environmental benefits and cost savings. Unconvinced? Is the thought of running into court without a banker's box of client documents giving you goose bumps?

I often speak with attorneys regarding my experiences in running a paperless office and I hear many of the same concerns or doubts repeated. "How could I possibly scan the volume of documents I receive on a daily or weekly basis?" "How will I ever find the document I need?" "What if I arrive for a hearing and I am missing something?" "What about security?" "Isn't my current system of manila folders and binders good enough?" "Why change now?"

Lawyers have been cramming client documents, correspondence and pleadings into expandable folders and binders since the dawn of humanity, and many lawyers may very well carry on this practice for the foreseeable future. But running a law practice in the traditional way has downsides as well (i.e., beyond the massive piles of paper that need to be brought in and out of various courtrooms, offices and elevators). Have you ever lost a file deep in the corner of your associate's office? Have you ever spent an hour riffling through a file looking for a pleading? What if there was a fire or flood in your office?

A well-planned and organized paperless office can alleviate all of these issues while adding little to no additional time to document workflow and providing all sorts of unexpected advantages.

HAVING THE RIGHT TECHNOLOGY SHOULD BE YOUR FIRST CONSIDERATION


Having the "right" technology is essential in setting up and maintaining a paperless office. In particular, a good desktop scanner will enable designated team members to convert mountains of correspondence, discovery, pleadings and other documents to an electronic format.

When choosing a scanner, consider how much scanning you are going to be doing. If you're in a document-heavy practice, you will need something with good horsepower that is capable of batch scanning larger numbers of pages at one time and with reasonable speed. Fujistu, Kodak and HP all manufacture top-of-the-line scanners. For the best bargains (i.e., products that do all/most of what you need, for a reasonable price), try Brother or Lexmark.

In choosing a scanner, it is also important to consider what software is included with the device. Look for a scanner that comes bundled with PDF conversion software. PDF conversion software offers the ability to convert in and out of various document formats. Having the ability to create PDF files is important.

Once you have converted a document into a PDF format, you have a file that will look the same across all platforms. The creation of a PDF document can also remove metadata from the prior form (i.e., information about the creation of the document that you might not want to share with others, including any edits that have been made, who created the original document, etc.).

PDF conversion systems can be used to create fillable forms. PDF conversion systems feature attorney-useful tools, as well, like Bates stamping, the ability to establish password protection for documents, and the ability to apply underlying encryption. (This is very important, especially in Massachusetts, where the new state data privacy regulations require encryption for specific sets of sensitive data being sent wirelessly or saved to portable electronic devices.)

STORAGE AND SECURITY ARE JUST AS IMPORTANT AS YOUR TECHNOLOGY

The storage and security of your newly formatted and digitized documents constitutes the second consideration in setting up your paperless office. Web-based storage or Cloud tools allow firms to access storage space, programs and data that reside on servers that are remotely located. Most practitioners already, though unwittingly, rely upon web-based or cloud storage for e-mail, contact and calendar management. Various providers also offer solutions that are targeted toward the storage and exchange of documents.

There are a number of advantages to storing your documents in the cloud. These include: reduced reliance on in-house IT support; the elimination of server costs (you do not need to spend as much on office computers if your data is being stored remotely); built-in backup management; reduced energy consumption; and the ability to access documents and information from multiple devices and locations.

There are also many benefits surrounding security and data control when you keep your data in the cloud. In particular, hardware is located in secure locations, with excellent environmental controls and mobile access (which means sensitive data need not be stored on local computers or laptops). Before sending sensitive data to the cloud, however, attorneys should examine license agreements thoroughly, and should be certain that the firm can access its data anytime and that offsite backups of data are regularly scheduled, or ongoing.

FOCUS ON YOUR WORK FLOW ONCE YOU HAVE FIGURED OUT TECHNOLOGY, STORAGE AND SECURITY

Work flow and protocol are the third consideration for establishing and maintaining a paperless law office. Once you start scanning documents regularly, the next logical step is to ask where they might go. Directory structure is the organization of files into a hierarchy of folders. An office or firm considering moving to a paperless office may consider using their existing filing system as a foundation. A solid directory structure will use clear naming conventions for folders and subfolders, descriptive titles in documents and pre-fixed dates for consistent organization.

For example, client folders may be organized by year. From there, at the remaining subfolders and subfiles, the following convention may be used:

Folders: 2010 01 01 Rusty Lambert
Files: 2010 01 14 Motion to Dismiss for Insufficiency of Process

This system defaults to chronological order, meaning that if you open a particular client folder, you will be greeted by a chronological recitation of the case history merely by naming your files in a certain way.

After settling on a system for naming conventions, draft and follow office protocols and procedures for document workflow. Decide who will be responsible for scanning, who will be responsible for filing, how various team members, attorneys, etc. will be notified that a particular piece of correspondence has been received and scanned and how the original paper documents will be either stored or disposed of. Some practices may choose to retain paper documents for the duration of a particular matter or the documents may be shredded.

Convinced? Skeptical, but just a little curious? Want to try, but not sure where to start? Start slow with one file and experiment.

One final challenge to all those entrenched traditionalists who actually made it through this article: Locate the last order in your most active client file, send the most recent batch of financial discovery for review to the new associate and review yesterday's mail, all from the cozy convenience of your home office.

Think you can complete those tasks in less time and more efficiently than your paperless colleagues? A paperless law office will allow for you to accomplish more work in less time and with more efficiency and more flexibility. But make sure to set aside enough time to learn how to use your new technology. Make sure to figure out a good system for keeping track of all your data before you jump in with both feet. But once you have everything up and running, there is no going back.

Cynthia E. MacCausland practices family law and is active in the Women's Bar Association (Public Relations Committee), Boston Bar Association (Family Law Section, LRS Standing Committee, Active Duty Military Committee) and Massachusetts Bar Association (Law Practice Management Section Council). She also serves on the Juvenile Bar Association board.

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