The Paperless Office – Are We There Yet?
By Debbie Foster, InTouch Legal
Document scanning, management and retention for today’s modern law firm
When the staff of a law firm is asked about their biggest frustrations as it relates to roductivity and efficiency in doing their job, the most common answer we hear is elated to managing files. Most often, they are talking about paper files finding them, eing frustrated because the most recent items have not yet been filed, and then ealing with them when a case is over. Paper files have become problematic in today’s echnologically driven law firms. People often spend hours of unproductive, non-billable ime looking for files. Paper files can only be in one place at a time; no sharing and ollaboration on a paper file; you cannot search a paper file, you can only flip paper, ne 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 it is not p to date. And then finally…what do we do with all those files once we are done with hem? Space is not cheap.
To resolve these issues, many firms are considering the route of the paperless office. While the concept of an office with no paper is not a reality for most firms, having much less paper and relying more on an electronic copy than a paper copy is a reality we can all strive to achieve. Wikipedia says this about the paperless office: “The paperless office is now considered to be a philosophy to work with minimal paper and convert all forms of documentation to a digital form. The ideal is driven by a number of motivators including productivity gains, costs savings, space saving, the need to share information and reduced environmental impact.” Here are 10 practical steps you can take to get your firm moving in the direction of the paperless office.
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 that are all 3-4 years old. This is going to be a big project and a 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of the art, brand new, best you can buy equipment (although there is nothing wrong with that!), but you cannot rely on outdated technology with computers that are just “getting by” either.
Decide on how your firm will 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 copier/scanner/printer. Almost always, this is not the right solution. From productivity standpoint, having a desktop scanner if you are going to be scanning regularly throughout the day is a better option than having the user get up from their chair and head over to the big copier/scanner/printer in the central work room. Also, if you buy the gigantic scanning/copying/faxing/printing/stapling monster machine 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, if one user’s scanner stops working, that person could, for short period of time, scan documents at another user’s desk until the scanner can be repaired. In the perfect world, those who will scan regularly will use their desktop scanners, and the office networked copier/scanner/printer will be used for scanning purposes when there is a large job to process, or when someone who does not regularly scan needs to scan. One should also take into consideration as to whether the hardware used for scanning will produce an image only pdf or a searchable pdf. It is always best to have a searchable pdf function as this will allow you to be able to find documents not just based on their name, but on their content as well.
Evaluate how your firm’s documents are stored. If you have always stored your documents in a structure that you think is not productive, now is the time for change. For example, if you store documents by user first instead of by client/matter, this is a good time to make the change. This step is even more critical if your firm chooses to achieve the paperless goal without a Document Management Solution (more on that next). You will want to be able to go to the client/matter folder and see all documents for that specific client/matter no matter who created the document. For example, under the Documents directory you will find the client folder called “Smith.” Beneath that folder, you will find a sub-folder called “Smith vs. Jones” and everything that you have created internally as well as everything that has been scanned into the system in that sub-folder (maybe even in other additional sub-folders) will be able to be found and retrieved easily.
Consider searching software or Document Management Software. All of the above is only good if we can find what we are looking for! You can invest a small amount of money into a desktop searching tool to help you find your documents, or you can go with the preferred solution a full blown Document Management Software Solution (DMS). In short, a DMS will allow your firm to utilize a system that forces users to comply. The DMS will allow you to profile documents you save into the system, and find those documents by client, matter, document type, date, as well as by any word (or words, or phrases, etc.) within the document. All of the text within a document is indexed. For example, you would be able to search through 50,000 documents that contain the phrase “motion to compel” AND the word “easement” created or modified in the last twelve months. A search like that would take seconds in a DMS.
Create written procedures. 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 whom is responsible for scanning what, how the data will be stored once it is in an electronic format, and what to do with the paper once the scanning is complete.
Establish a protocol for dealing with incoming mail electronically. How nice would it be to review your mail from anywhere? 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 in the written procedures how that person should name and store incoming mail to make the review of the mail easy for the other users.
Do not focus on back scanning. For the time being, forget about all the boxes that are in storage and in file rooms at your office. 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 the users have to scan current documents coming into the office as well as old documents, the process can become rather daunting. Worst case scenario, provided your firm has a policy for how long you keep paper files, the boxes will work themselves out over time!
Decide if you will scan all active files. It is usually a good idea to scan the contents of your active paper files, unless they are about to wrap up. This will allow you to keep the “this point forward” mentality. Relying on some paper and some electronic files could be a nightmare. As your users work with a file, have them (and allow them) the time to get the file scanned. Depending on the volume of files and the size of your paper files, you may want to hire some temporary help to get the active files scanned.
Train your users. This cannot be stressed enough. People generally hate change. Moving from holding paper in your hands to viewing paper on the screen is a hard adjustment. One thing you may consider to make it a bit easier on the staff is getting everyone 2 monitors. The cost of monitors has gone down so much; it is really inexpensive to add a second monitor. The productivity gains from being able to have a document up on one screen and your email on another, or a document on one screen and your Internet research on the other screen is unmatchable considering the cost of implementing this solution. Make sure everyone understands the training goals, and then make sure they understand the process.
Pick a date, and go with it. Just do it! Pick a date maybe the beginning of the month and once you have all of the above in place, start scanning EVERYTHING and get used to the digital file. 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.
In closing, the motivators for going paperless are clear: productivity gains, costs savings, space saving, the need to share information 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! For more information on how we can help your firm go paperless, contact InTouch Legal at (727) 544-5400.
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