How to Make Your Office (Almost) Paperless

  • June 05, 2008
  • Ann Macaulay

Trees of the world, rejoice! The paperless office is not merely the dream of a utopian future, it’s already a reality for many lawyers. Technological advances over the past several years have made it possible—and relatively easy—for lawyers to stop storing reams of paper and store their files electronically. And someday it will likely be the way all lawyers work, say several lawyers who have already said farewell to filing cabinets full of paper.

Proponents of the paperless office cite several reasons to make the switch, including convenience for lawyers, efficiency for clients and potentially huge savings for law firms once they don’t have the cost of storing and maintaining paper records.

“Going paperless is the future of the workplace,” says Toronto family lawyer Carole Curtis. “It will never be zero paper, but it can be and should be a lot less paper,” says Curtis, whose three-lawyer firm began the switch from using paper files in 2000. “We started scanning everything into the hard drive and ditching the paper. When a letter comes in from a lawyer on the other side of the case, we scan it in, it’s stored in the computer electronically and the paper is recycled. We do not store the paper, we do not put it in the client’s file. We don’t print out e-mails. The real file is electronic.”

When she speaks at conferences about having a paperless office, Curtis says most lawyers are really engaged by the idea, and “some are even excited.” Still, she’s surprised that the idea has been slow to catch on in the legal world: “Lawyers’ resistance to relegating paper to an inferior status is very interesting.”

She says that although many lawyers like the idea of scanning documents into the hard drive, they’re reticent about actually getting rid of the paper. “They’re quite horrified at the prospect that the real file would not exist on paper.” One worry many people have is that the method now available for reading current documents could become obsolete in the not-too-distant future, while paper has been a proven method of storing information for centuries. “These are concerns I have, too,” says Curtis, “but it’s not stopping me from doing this. It means I’ll have to migrate the data to a different format.”

Lawyers may want to keep some things on paper, such as court documents or financial information. While decisions will have to be made about that—it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing solution.

Curtis adds that one of the biggest advantages is that her secretaries don’t spend their time filing and handling paper. “We pay our secretaries too much money for them to be paper sorters and filers. It has been wonderful for my staff not to be responsible for the paper,” she says. “And nobody in the past six years has ever had to say ‘where’s the Jones file?’ because everybody knows where it is—it’s in the computer.”

Change the Mindset

Naysayers point out that the demise of the paperless office has been predicted for decades and that, instead of disappearing, paper use has in fact been increasing. It’s easier than ever for computer users to simply hit the print button and accumulate a vast array of paper documents. Some cite the importance of actually being able to touch the paper and hold on to a file. As some have commented, “The truly paperless office will be accepted by lawyers as soon as they accept the truly paperless toilet.”

The biggest hurdle to changing to a paperless office “isn’t a technological one, it’s a conceptual one,” says John Salloum, a lawyer in Heenan Blaikie LLP’s national marketing and advertising law group. Information is no longer kept in a physical file folder, it’s located in a folder in a directory on the hard drive. No one can actually pick up the file and touch the paper—and some lawyers find that a difficult concept to deal with. That mindset is the first thing that needs to be examined.

“You have to change the way you think about client files,” says Salloum. Decide where the file will live—is it stored in one electronic location or in several? For example, e-mails can be saved in folders with other correspondence and documents instead of in Outlook.

Salloum keeps folders in Outlook that are organized on a client and matter basis. “Inside the client folder there will be each matter that I’ve been working on. And all of my correspondence from the client is filed in there at some point. And I also have a directory in Windows that’s the same idea: there’s a client name and each matter under there, it’s just organized there. So if I’m looking for something from the client, I just know I have to check two places.”

What You’ll Need

There are a few tools that help to make a paperless office work:

  • a scanner;
  • a program such as Adobe Acrobat to make PDF documents,
  • a desktop search engine to manage your documents;
  • a backup system.

Buy a good scanner and scan each document as soon as it comes into the firm. There is a wide range of scanners available, from small portable ones to high-speed digital copiers that can even take the place of the firm’s photocopy machine. Get one with a document feeder so no one in the office has to stand around and scan one piece of paper at a time.

Scanned documents can be saved as an image in Tiff or portable document format (PDF) files. Purchase Adobe Acrobat software to create or edit PDF documents.

Once it’s scanned, use optical character recognition (OCR) software to translate the text, making documents searchable. “Once it’s been OCRed, file it where Google Desktop can index it,” says Salloum. “That’s pretty much the system.”

Salloum says his administrative assistant balked when he first started what he calls his “scan and shred” system, asking him “You want me to shred the originals?” He concedes that some lawyers may have reason to save original documents, ones with signatures on them, for example, but he has no need to keep original files in his practice.

Searching for Files on your Desktop

Find the desktop search engine that works best for you. Not everyone advocates using a search engine, but it can make it a lot easier to search through files and e-mails. Salloum extols the virtues of Google Desktop, which acts as his personal document management system and is free to download and use. It searches all e-mail folders, calendar entries, network directories as well as file folders in the Windows directory and even shared directories between practitioners, all at the same time. “So if I’ve never worked on one particular file, or an issue that I haven’t seen, I can type in a phrase and I’ll often find documents that they’ve written in the past and it will help me to get to the point a little more quickly,” says Salloum.

Simon Chester, a colleague of Salloum’s at Heenan Blaikie, uses Copernic as his desktop search engine. It’s a free product that’s produced by a Montreal firm. “I have Copernic Desktop running all the time on my computer, helping me index everything, including my web history,” says Chester. “So if I was on a website three days ago and I can’t remember what it was, that will come up as well.”

Chester says the efficiency in being able to find things quickly is what really appeals to him about the current technology—and he’s not alone. Lawyers of all ages are showing an interest in using these tools. He recently spoke to a group of rural solo and small firm practitioners with an average age of 60. “I was blown away by how open they were to the technology.”

That’s not surprising, given how much Chester says he’s found his practice has gotten better by using digital file management technology. He cites “improved client service, having everything on a matter completely at your disposal, completely organized. It improves turnaround, improves consistency. The fact that you know that you’ve got the tool that will find the precedent rather than saying, ‘Oh, yeah. I think it was in one of those four command boxes…over there…on one of these three files. I don’t remember quite where it is, but I’m going to spend the time to go and look for it.’”

Although there’s a lot of paranoia about leaving paper documents behind for good, business in general is becoming more comfortable with using digital formats. And, as Chester points out, “the laws have been amended so that any digital document is regarded as functionally equivalent to a paper one. So there’s really no reason—from a legal perspective—why paper is better than digitized documents.”

Learn from a Master

Adobe Acrobat is the “key to pulling it all together,” says David Masters, a Montrose, Colorado lawyer and the author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Adobe Acrobat. He says that PDF is the format of choice for digitally storing and working with documents. The U.S. Federal Court and all the stage court filing systems he’s aware of use electronic case filing systems set up in PDF.

After going paperless in his own office and doing all his court filings electronically using PDF files, Masters realized a few years ago that this was something every lawyer was eventually going to have to learn to do. “If you’re going to be an effective lawyer in this century, you’re going to have to be able to work with PDF files.” He cautions lawyers, however, not to try and get by with the free Adobe Reader program. “You just can’t do enough with it. You have to spend money” and upgrade to Adobe Acrobat.

Most lawyers argue that they want to be able to mimic to some extent the way they work with paper documents, such as marking up documents. With Acrobat, a lawyer can take a stack of papers and “put Post-It notes on it and highlight things,” says Masters. Users can annotate documents, add bookmarks and underline sections. “You take pages in, you put pages out, you rotate pages. All of those basic things that are similar to how we deal with paper in files, you can do very, very easily with Acrobat, with PDF files. That’s really all most lawyers need to do.”

With Adobe Acrobat 8, Adobe has responded to the legal market and added some features that lawyers need, such as Bates numbering and redaction.

Back Up Your System … Often

One big concern lawyers have when thinking about going paperless is “what if my computer crashes?” says Masters. “My response is, what if your office burned down right now, or was flooded, or destroyed by earthquake, tornado, hurricane…where are the backup copies of your paper files? Once you go digital, you can back up, replicate and distribute multiple copies of your client files in diverse locations. It’s much safer than having paper records.”

The best way to back up files is to do it as many ways as you can, says Masters. “Tape, portable hard drives, synchronization, periodic CD/DVD copies. Copy the data to something and take it out of the office. Do it frequently and test regularly your ability to retrieve files from the backup media.”

“Back up is the sine qua non of going paperless,” says Curtis. Her office’s files are backed up every single day, which is not a difficult job. “Our computers are programmed to start backing up at midnight. It takes about five hours. And every morning, my secretary or my bookkeeper take the tape and they put it in their purse and they take it offsite every day. The most we would lose is one day. Quarterly, I take a tape home and keep it at home for two years so I also have a second backup. But all it means is somebody putting a tape the size of a cassette into their handbag or their briefcase and taking it home with them every single day. That’s not even an issue. Backup…is absolutely part of the program. But it is a really low-maintenance task.”

Hire Some Help

If you’re not tech-savvy, hire someone to help you get started. Curtis employs an outside tech support person who works mostly with other small law firms and businesses. “That’s what lawyers have to do,” she says. “It’s shocking how many lawyers tell me that their 14-year-old son or daughter is doing all their computer support for them. That’s ridiculous.” They may have the computer skills, but they don’t have the business sense that’s needed.

Curtis uses GoToMyPC, which provides secure remote access from any other Internet-connected computer through a secure, private connection. It allows users to dial in to their computers from anywhere in the world. Curtis notes that even her support person can access the firm’s computers and do repairs remotely. And having the ability to work remotely on client files when you’re travelling for business is a big plus.

“The fact that I can access my entire computer from a hotel room is fantastic,” says Curtis, who adds that she doesn’t need to take a thumb drive or a disk with her, or for that matter even a computer, since “most hotels now have business centers where you have access to computers.”

You’re Already Partway There

It’s easier than you might think to switch to a paperless office. Most law firms already do their billing electronically and there are quite a few that do their docketing that way, whether they use Outlook or a practice management application such as Amicus or AbacusLaw. “So there are two huge parts of the law practice that are already paperless,” says Masters, “and people don’t even think about it.”

Take a close look at how you practice. Do you have files that go on for years? Do you work in teams? How do you work with your assistant? What are your clients’ expectations? Do you use a fax machine often or are documents mostly sent by e-mail? All of these things will help determine how much work you need to do in order to reorganize your office and switch to a paperless system.

Virtually no one uses a typewriter anymore—the vast majority of firms generate documents electronically using computers and word processing applications, so the document preparation side of the law practice is also paperless. “The only thing that’s left is the maintenance of client files,” says Masters, who estimates that 90 per cent of law firms still maintain their client files in paper format. He wonders why. “When three-quarters of their law practice is already paperless, this one last segment, they won’t go there.”

Masters tells lawyers to sit down and look at how they currently organize their paper client files and simply replicate that process in the digital world. His advice is to start small and work your way into it. “Don’t wait. Do it now,” he says. “There will come a tipping point when enough firms, courts and corporate clients have switched that others will be forced to come along or be left behind. Once you reach your own tipping point you’ll rush to finish the job and wonder why you waited so long.”

Start with the next new matter that comes into the office and handle it digitally, or take an existing file and convert it, then work with it for a while. Develop a system that you feel comfortable with, and figure out a simple way to name and save files.

“This isn’t rocket science,” says Masters. Of course there will be bumps to iron out. “It took us a few years to come up with some good file-naming conventions and folder organizations and things like that. But once you get what you want, then take that structure and start applying it to all new matters. And then start working your way back through your existing matters, and convert them as you have time. And at some point—I can assure you that as people do this—after they have two or three active files that they have gone paperless with, then they’ll be in a real rush to convert everything! It’s just so much easier.”

Masters is a small-town general practitioner who doesn’t have Fortune 500 companies as clients, but he believes that large corporations that hire big law firms will eventually insist that their outside legal counsel deal with them electronically. He estimates that his use of technology has made him more efficient “by a factor of 10 at least.”

He urges lawyers to seriously consider making the switch as soon as possible. There’s an oft-quoted phrase that techie lawyers have been saying for a long time, adds Masters: “Computers aren’t going to replace lawyers. But lawyers with computers are going to replace lawyers who don’t use computers.”