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Step Right Up to the Paperless Law Office

By John Gilbert

Forever, it seems, the “paperless law office” has been the Holy Grail for technology-focused law firms. They understand that storing paper onsite is expensive — after all, the firm pays as much per square foot to store paper as it does to house a partner — and paper remains at risk to flood, fire or similar disasters. Paper stored offsite is also expensive to store and retrieve. Added to that, there can be significant penalties for removing and destroying old files. Either way, information contained on paper is harder to organize, search for and search through.

Still, while many firms may start each year promising to reduce paper, the idea of actually doing it is so overwhelming that these quixotic initiatives rarely reach the top of the to-do list. And while paperless initiatives languish, the amount of paper in most firms grows.

Why Is Paperless So Daunting?

A big reason is that firms already have so much paper it seems impossible to digitize and organize it all. So it sits there until a firm has the budget, resources and will to do something about it. Rather than continue to fight this battle (or, more accurately, to not fight it), I have been recommending a “second-generation” strategy. It combines the idea of going paperless “from now forward” — without letting all the paper the firm already has get in the way — with “bulk” and “walk-up” scanning.  The keys are to acknowledge different levels of expertise, sophistication and willingness to buy in among those who will scan every day, and, most important, to create a uniform scanning program — regardless of hardware brand or model. Here are key components of the second-generation strategy.

Decide not to send more documents to storage. Pick a start date. From that date on, when new documents need to be stored, scan and store them electronically, ideally in a document management system. With this approach, you immediately “stop the bleeding” by capping the amount of paper the firm stores at current levels. (Obviously, documents that must be stored in hard copy for regulators or per the firm’s retention policy are exempt.)

Stop the back-and-forth. Each year, firms typically retrieve 10 to 15 percent of their documents from offsite storage, as older documents need to be reviewed or altered. This back-and-forth is extremely expensive and inefficient. Instead of returning documents when they are retrieved, scan them and then destroy the hard copies. This way, you never send documents back to storage. The result can be a 10 to 15 percent annual reduction in the amount of paper you store.

Incorporate scanning into the working day. You want to scan and organize every piece of paper that the firm handles. This allows a paperless initiative (perhaps better deemed a “less paper” initiative) to happen during the regular course of business, instead of being a giant project that sits at the bottom of the firm’s wish list. This approach does require a lot of scanning — and a lot of organization. That’s why following a uniform scanning program is crucial.

Plan for both bulk and walk-up scanning. Most firms have a single “one-size-fits-all” scanning strategy. But to be effective, a firm needs to be able to handle both “bulk” and “walk-up” scanning. Bulk scanning involves big piles of paper ready for scanning, such as boxes of paper as they are retrieved from offsite. Typically, this work is best done in the “back office,” with a lower hourly cost. Walk-up scanning happens in the front office and usually relates to active work product. Legal professionals and assistants simply walk up to the local multifunctional device and start scanning. Note that while walk-up makes sense in limited quantities, most firms want higher-compensated staff to spend as little time as possible standing in front of a machine. Combining walk-up and bulk scanning moves you from an overly simple first-generation idea to a full-fledged second-generation paperless strategy.

Expand your destination options. Scanned documents should be sent automatically and directly to a specific destination in your document management system. However, you may want the ability to scan directly to email, or a network folder, or to fax directly to any number of recipients. Standardize your workflows so documents can be scanned and automatically routed to their final destination. Ideally, all users should have the same interface and experience, with multiple options for destination and format.

A uniform scanning strategy can be simple enough to use, enable you to immediately stop the increase in paper and, over time, reduce the amount of paper you are keeping. A paperless strategy can unlock real value as well: People can more easily access documents and collaborate more effectively. More information leads to fewer decisions based on instinct, and more based on data. This improves outcomes for clients as well as productivity throughout the firm.

John Gilbert is Senior Vice President at nQueue Billback. He has more than 20 years’ experience selling to and supporting law firms throughout the United States. He was formerly Vice President at PerfectAccess Speer, where he helped to pioneer the methodology used to customize Microsoft Word for the legal environment, including the removal of metadata in documents. John has been published in Law Technology News, Peer to Peer, Legal Management and National Law Journal.

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Categories: Daily Dispatch, Legal Technology, Managing a Law Firm
Originally published September 26, 2013
Last updated June 17, 2018
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