No doubt you’ve heard about those lawyers who scan everything that crosses their desks, efficiently coding and filing each receipt or treatise like a lean, mean legal document management machine. It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Truth is, you love the idea of becoming a paperless, even semi-paperless firm, but have no idea what to do once you scan that first piece of paper. Where do you put it? How do you find it later? And how do you get your partners to go along? Well, you’re in good company. So when we heard about Steve Irons’ “Scanbition” seminars, we asked him for a few tips to help lawyers make the move to firm-wide scanning. “Scanbition,” if you’re wondering, describes a firm’s ambition to move from a culture of “casual scanning” to a “scanning with a plan.”
Firm-wide scanning—or moving paper into a digital filing system—has some obvious benefits. Less paper for one. But there are also efficient access, security, space savings and records retention pluses. Too often, though, scanning is a haphazard activity in a law firm, and that can dramatically reduce the benefits. What you want instead is to establish firm-wide best practices that thoughtfully implement standardized methods and goals for scanning the firm’s paper. That way you’ll get consistent results.
Once you begin working with more than, say, five lawyers in a firm, it’s time to figure out some best practice methods for record keeping, collaboration and case management. The more you codify methodologies, the more you enhance productivity and process integrity. Okay, that sounds a bit … lofty. More bluntly, you can’t have one partner stuffing her paper files in her desk drawer, another dutifully using the file room and yet another scanning everything that crosses his desk. Otherwise you’ll all spend more time looking for things than you spend practicing law.
Managing paper files is a crucial part of the practice of law, and scanning should play a key part in the process. In a small firm, scanning typically starts as a scan-to-email function, so the scanned document can be sent either to one’s own email inbox, or to somebody else’s. Sooner or later, a technology-inclined attorney will start scanning all the documents in a case, to facilitate collaboration, or to efficiently work with the files outside the office. These are the seeds of a move to a firm-wide scanning requirement.
Steps to a Firm-wide System
It’s best to assess all the practical scanning needs of the firm, document them, determine the firm’s best practices for scanning, then implement them in a holistic project. It’s not that hard, but it’s not as easy as saying, “We have scanning turned on at our copier.” Here are three tips to consider as you move to firm-wide scanning, or “scanning with a plan.”
1. Think About Your Document Management System. Document management systems can run the gamut in sophistication, but in a nutshell, this refers to the comprehensive, unified system the firm uses to pull together and manage emails, Word files, PDFs and scanned images. All of these items should be individually filed, named and related to the appropriate case or client matter. Many small firms use their existing email foldering system for this purpose. Although this approach is durable and often easy, it lacks the collaboration and records management capabilities of true document management software. Scanning is just one component of a document management system. Still, a scan-to-email (scan to your own inbox) strategy often works well with an entry-level document management approach, because email attachments (scanned images) are easy to drag and drop to their matching folder. Whether your system is enterprise grade or just cobbled together, the goal is the same: To integrate scanning into your document management system as seamlessly as possible.
2. Add OCR and Searchable PDF. Before you invest in new equipment or software for document management purposes, pay attention to the image file output produced by the scanner. Is there a way to OCR all your scans? It’s surprising how many firms don’t OCR and create searchable PDFs (called PDF plus Text) as their standard format. Text searching is a huge benefit for finding documents, or for finding specific text phrases within documents. Because OCR conversion doesn’t “come with” most copiers or basic scanners, simple (non-searchable) PDF outputs become the default file format. But adding OCR and searchable PDF conversion is a must. And upcoming requirements by the court system for PDF/A file type submissions will be another reason to upgrade your scanning with OCR.
3. Don’t “Pave the Cow Path.” If you have a firm-wide method of maintaining paper files, don’t simply scan all your paper instead of filing it. First look for process and integrity improvements to the paper system. Digital images give you many advantages for storage and retrieval, but scanning and profiling is new and different work. Among other things, your system will need to answer these questions:
- How and when should you scan and profile?
- How do you make sure all incoming paper gets scanned uniformly?
- Where in the lifecycle of the case or matter will scanning provide the optimal benefit?
- Who does it? (Scanning and profiling don’t have to be done by the same people.)
- Can you reduce or eliminate the current file room after implementing new procedures?
In addition, you need to decide what quality control and integrity checks are necessary after scanning before you can shred paper instead of shipping it to long-term storage.
Keep these tips in mind and you’ll be well on your way to creating a smooth firm-wide scanning system.
Steve Irons is the President of DocSolid, which provides document scanning solutions for the legal market. He also started and ran Image Choice (now enChoice), then founded and served as CEO at ImageTag, Inc.—and all three ventures continue to thrive. Steve is an entrepreneur, an innovator, a holder of six U.S. patents and a fascinated student of the intersection of paper and people. He spends his spare time (whatever that is) with his partner Nadya and their two teenage whirlwinds.
Illustration © Stockbyte.