Your desk need not look like a paper warehouse. The photo accompanying this article shows my desk. If you look closely, you will see the tools needed to greatly reduce the flow of paper through your office. Reduced paper flow=greater efficiency and profitability.
Going paperless, or at least being less dependent on paper, is mostly about email and document management. That means finding a way to organize and manage email and documents that come to you in digital format while avoiding converting anything from digital to paper. It also means converting paper that comes into your office to digital format and managing that digital content.
This month's feature article will focus on the tools you need to achieve the paperless reality.
Less paper arrives in law offices today than in years past. But not everything that comes you will be in digital format. You still need to convert paper to digital, which usually means scanning it to searchable PDF format (more on searchable PDFs later). There are two major ways to scan - centralized and distributed. If you have more than a few employees, you may want to use both. If you are a very small firm, distributed scanning alone may work.
Centralized scanning is done using a large multi-function copier/printer/scanner connected to your local area network (LAN). Many firms with more than a few employees have one of these devices. They typically have large capacity paper feeds and operate at high speed. You scan paper to PDF with this type of machine when you receive a 500-page discovery response.
Distributed scanning is done with a small, affordable desktop scanner such as the Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500. At around $420, you can have one on everyone's desk to scan smaller jobs such as incoming mail or documents received from clients during an in-office conference. Solo and very small firm lawyers may be able to get by with just distributed scanning.
Most large network scanners, and some desktop scanners (depending on the bundled software and settings chosen), will scan paper to PDF image format. A PDF image is just a photograph of the paper document. It is not very useful. You need a PDF that has been run through optical character resolution (OCR) to make it full-text searchable. In the past, law offices nearly always used Adobe Acrobat or, preferably, Acrobat Pro, to convert PDF images to searchable PDFs. But Adobe changed the way it sells Acrobat. The new subscription model makes Acrobat expensive. Better values may be Nuance Power PDF Advanced, Foxit Phantom Business, or pdfDocs, all at about one-third the price of Acrobat Pro.
Document Management Software
Once your PDFs are searchable, you need a way to manage documents and email that comes into your office or that you generate yourself. Without document management software, or at least your own self-created document organization structure, you would never be able to find anything you saved. The leading law firm document management systems are from Worldox, NetDocuments, and iManage. Other companies also make products in this category. With a good document management program, you turn over all of the saving, searching, and storage functions to the software. In turn, it organizes all of your documents and email for easy search and retrieval when needed. Be sure to subscribe to the add-on with all of them that will OCR image-only PDFs. Trumpet Software's Symphony OCR and DocCorp's Content Crawler are two excellent OCR add-ons.
Sync, Storage and Backup
The days of solo and small law firms having a server in a back closet where all digital data and documents are stored are gone. For most law firms, it is safer, cheaper, and more secure to use cloud-based storage and backup. At a very basic level, you can use Microsoft's OneDrive, which comes as part of the Office 365 subscription you should already have. It will allow you to keep documents both on your computer and in the cloud, with constant synchronization between the two. That means no matter what computer you use to sign into your Microsoft account, you always have access to all of your documents in their most current versions. Other leading cloud-based file synchronization and storage services are Dropbox, Box, and SpiderOak.
File sync and storage is not the same as file backup. You need both. Backing up locally to a USB or network drive using Windows File History or Mac OS Time Machine is the first half of what you need for backup if you are a small firm. You also want a cloud-based continuous backup system. Some of the better-known cloud backup services for small businesses are Carbonite, IDrive, SpiderOak One, Backblaze, and SOS. Several of these also include software for local backup if you decide not to use File History or Time Machine. Whichever option you select, be sure they are automatic backups. You do not want to rely on a human to remember to perform the backup.
Laptop or Desktop?
For lawyers or staff who regularly need to work away from the office, a laptop computer is a better choice than a desktop computer. The price premium paid for a laptop is worth it for the gained mobility and flexibility. When in the office, a laptop computer can operate just like a desktop, with a full keyboard, mouse, and dual monitors, by using a simple docking station. On the road, the laptop is your window into all of the documents, data, and software you need to run your practice and serve clients from anywhere with an internet connection.
Whether you choose a laptop or a desktop, having (at least) dual monitors is essential for paperless productivity. Because you will not be reading printed paper documents sitting on your desk, you need additional screen "real estate" to provide space to view the documents you need to read, create, and edit. You can see from the photo on my desk that my dual monitors are stacked vertically instead of the more typical horizontal configuration. This reduces lateral eye, head, and neck movement that could cause fatigue.
As useful as laptops are, reading a document on a traditional clamshell style laptop is not as natural and reading a document on a tablet. The tablet better mimics the document's original paper format. The best tablet choice for most lawyers, especially litigators, is the Apple iPad Pro. There are many litigation and other legal-specific apps available on iOS, the operating system used on the iPad and iPad Pro not available for either Android or Windows, the other two operating systems you will find on tablets.
Until recently, you needed the upscale iPad Pro to use Apple's excellent "Pencil" active stylus, which is handy for taking handwritten notes during meetings or at trial. It is also great for having clients sign PDF documents on-screen. The latest 2018 model of the cheaper standard iPad is now Apple Pencil compatible, but you may want to opt for the iPad Pro anyway due to its better screen and faster processor.