From Paper Flow to No Flow
by Garry Appel
Our firm has been "paperless" for more than two years. Along the way, we have created a paperless office software system, presented numerous seminars and consulted with many law firms. This article is a bird’s-eye view of several of the most significant issues you’ll face as you move away from paper.
"Paperless" is a misnomer. It means that we have no paper client files. Instead, all documents are kept electronically in the industry standard Adobe Acrobat (pdf) format, and those documents are arranged electronically so they can be conveniently retrieved. Paper is scanned and converted to pdfs. Electronic files (like e-mails, electronic legal research and the like) are converted to pdfs. Everything is stored in the Digital File Room. We still have printers and copiers. We still produce paper letters and pleadings and print out electronic documents to review.
Becoming paperless does not require a huge expenditure for hardware or software. All you really need is a scanner, computer and Adobe Acrobat. The scanner converts paper to electronic files. Acrobat converts electronic files of any format to pdfs. The computer allows you to store and retrieve the files.
Ironically, the first step in creating paperless files is to organize paper flow. Paper enters and leaves your office in many ways, usually resulting in some degree of chaos: paper on your desk, your assistant’s desk, in the file room, at home and in your car. Tame the paper flow and simplify your life. Think of the scanner as the gateway. All paper coming into or going out of the office must first flow through the scanner. The paper is then deposited in a daily folder. At the end of each day, the daily folder is placed in a box. When the box is full of daily folders it’s moved offsite. The boxes are numbered and we track the location of each scanned document. If a piece of paper needs to be retrieved, we know exactly where it is. Without a simple, understandable and enforceable system to organize paper flow, a paperless office is doomed to fail.
After taming paper flow, you need a system to organize all your electronic documents. We like the model you’re already familiar with: Files arranged by client and matter, with subfolders for correspondence, notes, memos, legal research, pleadings and documents. But do it electronically instead of physically. Try to limit the number of top level folders within a matter. More than six or seven folders leads to filing confusion and disorganization. Instead, liberally create sub-subfolders. For example, every new research project deserves its own subfolder within "legal research." The "documents" folder should also be liberally subdivided. In a real estate transaction, you might create sub-subfolders for title documents, closing documents, closing document drafts and so on. In a litigated matter, you might have sub-subfolders for documents from client, documents produced (further subdivided into documents produced by us and documents produced to us), witness interviews, deposition transcripts and so on.
Don’t scrimp on a scanner. It’s going to be your new best friend. Forget about picking something out at Best Buy. You want a document scanner with an automatic document feeder. Five or 10 pages per minute is too slow and will drive you crazy. At least 15 pages a minute is a bare minimum for small offices. Larger firms will use more robust scanners in the 50-100 page-per-minute range. Count on spending a minimum of $800 for solo practitioners. For a 15 lawyer office, you’re in the $10,000 range. But, the scanner will pay for itself 10 times over each year by reducing staff time. Your staff spends half their time creating and maintaining paper files and looking for lost paper. Think of the scanner as a substitute for that staff time and you’ll see it’s a great bargain. For more comprehensive information about scanners, see our article at www.digitalofficesystems.com/Scanner.htm.
Most people moving to paperless files use software to organize, search and manage the digital files. Examples include programs like PaperPort, WorldDocs and Summation. After examining all of the available options, however, we developed our software system. We can now scan, file, search, retrieve, capture e-mails with attachments and Bates stamp, all with one simple to use application. This has radically reduced the need for support staff, slashed office overhead costs and substantially increased efficiency.
As the courts and government agencies lead the move to paperless systems, law firms are increasingly forced to do the same thing. If you recognize it as an opportunity to improve your practice and reduce expenses, the transition might actually be enjoyable. More articles and information can be found at www.digitalofficesystems.com/Support.htm.
Garry R. Appel is a shareholder of Appel & Lucas, P.C. in Denver, Colorado, and one of the founders of Digital Office Systems, LLC. More articles and information can be found at: www.digitalofficesystems.com/Support.htm. See also the Technology and Law practice article in the Dec. issue of the TCL.