When lawyers and law firm staff are asked about their biggest frustrations as it relates to productivity and job efficiency, managing volumes of paper is often at the top. Paper files have become problematic in today’s technologically driven law firms. People often spend hours of unproductive time filing away and then, later, looking for paper. Paper files can only be in one place at a time; there is no sharing or collaborating on a paper file; you cannot search a paper file, you can only flip paper, one page at a time.
Filing is also one of the most dreaded tasks in a law firm – and it often gets put off. So, even if you have found the file, there is a good chance the paper you need isn’t there. And then finally…what do we do with all those files once we are done with them? Space is not cheap – at your own office or at a storage facility.
The amount of office space that is used by filing cabinets and bankers boxes can be overwhelming. This author has personally witnessed office facilities where paper takes up more than 25-30% of the physical facility. In addition, many firms have offsite storage locations adding to the paper jungle beyond the office facility. And, should you need that paper again, there are retrieval costs. In reality, there will likely never be a firm that does not store their active files at least partly in paper. But you should dramatically reduce the volume of paper.
Beyond just the idea that law firms may singlehandedly deplete the earth’s forests, there are other environmental concerns related to printing and keeping paper including oxygen production (by trees), water pollution, air pollution, burning fossil fuels (all from the manufacture and delivery of paper), as well as the impact that reducing foliage has on the animal kingdom as a whole.
Then, what is the best route to the paperless office? While the concept of an office with zero paper is not a reality for most firms, having much less paper, manipulating documents in PDF format, and relying on the digital document is worth your effort. Below are ten practical steps you can take to get your firm moving in the direction of the paperless office.
- Create a foundation - Make sure there is a foundation in place to build the paperless office platform. It is not realistic to set out to accomplish this goal if you have computers and servers that are older than 3-4 years. This is going to be a big, revolutionary project, that will take your firm to a whole new level of efficiency. It is not necessary to have state of the art, brand new, best you can buy equipment, but at the same time, you simply cannot rely on outdated technology either.
- How will your firm scan? – Which scanner hardware to purchase is a productivity and total cost of ownership question. Many firms have tried going down this road with ONLY a large, beastly, central copier/scanner/printer. Almost always, this is not the right solution by itself. From productivity standpoint, having a desktop scanner is a better option to adhering to a less paper protocol than users getting up from their chair and head over to the big copier/scanner/printer in the central work room. The latter may help with the less paper protocol, but the result can be wasted productivity time. Also, if you buy or lease the scanning/copying/faxing/printing/stapling beast from your local copy ‘rep,’ productivity will come to a standstill if and when that machine breaks down or stops functioning. The annual cost of that machine, its malfunctions and your lease payment, coupled with the loss of productivity will be greater than simply purchasing small desktop units for your staff to use. Lastly, those who will scan regularly should use efficient desktop scanners, and the office networked copier/scanner/printer should be used for large scanning jobs.
- Evaluate how your firm’s documents are stored - If you store word processing documents (and PDF’s, etc.) in “computer” folders that are first organized user instead of by client/matter, moving toward a central client/matter folder structure that is NOT organized first by user is often a good FIRST step. This is even more critical if your firm chooses to achieve the paperless goal without a Document Management Solution (see item 4 below). Everyone must be able to go to one client/matter folder and see all documents and PDF’s for that specific client/matter – no matter who created the document. Having multiple folders for the same client matter stored beneath “user” oriented folders is inefficient, ineffective and impossible to properly manage.
- Document Management Software - Storage protocols are worthless if you can’t find what you are looking for. You may invest in desktop searching software (for every desktop) to help quickly find documents, or you can go with the truly optimal solution: Document Management Software (DMS). In short, You can search through 150,000 documents that contain the phrase “motion to compel” AND the word “easement” created or modified in the last twelve months in mere seconds.
- Create written procedures (and don’t store them on paper!) – Once you have decided to head down this road, quite possibly the most important thing you can do is create written procedures establishing a protocol on digitizing your law firm. Include in these procedures who, what, where, when and how digital data will be stored, and how to dispose of scanned paper. Store the procedures in the DMS solution for easy access by anyone in the office.
- Snail Mail Protocol – How nice would it be to review your ‘snail-mail’ on your computer screen. Once your data is stored electronically and the scanning begins, this becomes a reality. Include in your written procedures how mail should be handled. Sometimes there is one central person who opens and processes all the mail, and it would make sense for that person to scan it into the system. It would likely be wise to make sure that person has a fast desktop scanner to handle the volume of incoming mail. Include this protocol in the written procedures.
- Onward and Upward – What about the boxes we have now? For the time being, just forget about them. You may decide at a later date to process the old files, but as you are getting started, it is critical that the task does not become overwhelming. If users have to scan current AS WELL AS old boxed documents, adapting to the new paperless protocol can become overwhelming. Simply let the boxes work themselves out over time! Perhaps hire a summer clerk to deal with digitizing old paper. Take heart in the fact that you are not adding to the clutter of boxes anymore. Frankly, the time involved in scanning in one banker’s box – removing paper clips and staples, unfastening paper, dealing with paper jams because of paper that has been handled hundreds of times – is significant, and your office staff has daily work to do. So, start with today, and start scanning and shredding incoming paper and determine how to manage the old files later.
- Active Files – It is usually a good idea to scan the contents of your active paper files, unless they are ready to be closed. This will allow you to keep the “this point forward” mentality and not overwhelm your staff. As your users work with a file, have them (and allow them) the time to get the file scanned (or employ that summer intern).
- Train your users – Most of us have an aversion to change. Moving from holding paper in your hands to viewing and manipulating documents on the screen is a hard adjustment (consider dual monitors). The best investment you can make for your staff is to ensure they have adequate training. Let them ask lots of questions and have an expert answer them. Make sure everyone understands the training goals, and then make sure they understand the process.
- Just start swimming - Once properly planned, it’s time to jump in…the “water” is fine! Pick a date – maybe the beginning of the month – and once you have all of the above in place, just start. Be willing to adjust the “system” you have created based on user feedback and the specific workflow in your firm. Not every firm operates the same way.
In closing, the motivators for going paperless are clear: productivity gains, costs savings, space saving, the need to share information, the protocol for saving and retrieving and a reduced environmental impact. If you consider all of these factors – that users will spend much less time looking for files, that you will not have to store so much paper, that you have made collaboration and sharing documents much simpler, and that you are doing something to reduce environmental impact – the move to a “less paper” law firm environment is a no-brainer!