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The Paperless Office as a Risk Management Enterprise

September 2009
Sure, going paperless is good for the environment, but it also probably the only fool-proof disaster recovery plan.

No doubt the other articles in this issue of Law Practice Today will tout the benefits of the so-called paperless office. They will extol efficiencies, the organization, the improved quality of life, the ability to sync with your smart phone and the many other benefits. I’m sure I will agree with most all of that.

But one of the really important reasons for having a paperless law office, or as I prefer to term it, a digital law practice, is not about efficiency. It is about something lawyers hope to never actually deal with ­­ever.

One of the best reasons to go paperless is an old-fashioned hard-nosed business concept.

It is your self interest. CYA. Self-protection. Looking out for number one. Protecting your business and your livelihood.

And, if enlightened self-interest isn’t enough to persuade you, it’s also the best way to protect your clients from a disaster on those important matters that you are handling for them.

One of the best reasons to have a digital law practice is that you can back up your data and store it offsite so that you can recover your data and return to productivity in the event of a disaster.

In the old days, we backed up data because those new-fangled computers might crash and we could lose our work. Today backing up your data off-site is a benefit of a digital law practice. It means we no longer have to rely on the fact that so many critical items exist solely on pieces of paper. In the old days, we thought paper was the safe way to store information and, if it was really important, we could make a duplicate copy. Today we’ve seen what can happen to paper files and can recognize there’s a better way.

We insure against misfortune and disaster. We prepare disaster plans to help mitigate the consequences of a catastrophe.

So let’s think a moment about true recovery from a law office disaster. You find that your office has been destroyed in a fire or natural disaster. There are huge consequences to this. You’ll have to find a new location, buy new office furnishing, deal with your insurance company and complete a whole host of other unpleasant tasks. It would be an understatement to say it won’t be your best month for billing.

But what about doing the work that has to be done for the clients?

With a digital law practice, you buy new computers and restore your data to them from your backups. Depending on your setup, you may have to load some applications on the computers; but within a few hours, you will be up and running exactly like you were operating in the destroyed office! (Note: Have you made backup copies of your practice management software installation disks and other applications and stored them safely in another location, with instructions, serial numbers and unlocking codes?)

In a traditional non-digital law office, even where data was religiously backed up, when the data is restored, you will still have a mess. You may have all of the documents you created on your matters, but you likely won’t have documents from opposing counsel. You may have all of your e-mail from your Outlook PST file but you won’t have anything you wrote on a legal pad, tore off and bradded into the file. You won’t have documents and correspondence received from opposing counsel if you haven’t scanned them.

You will not be like the digital office lawyer, now operating just like before only in a different location. You will be involved in an on-going lengthy process of reconstructing, restoring and remembering what was lost.

What about the work that has already been done for clients? Suppose you have billed and been paid $5000 for a brief that is supposed to be filed in a few days? Now suppose all copies of that brief have gone up in smoke with the rest of the law office that burned? Most judges would probably grant you an extension of time to file. But who pays for the thousands of dollars worth of time to recreate the brief? Does the client have to pay again? Do you have to absorb the loss? Do you split it 50-50? The correct answer to that question is never having to answer that question because of your great backup procedures.

How busy are you right now? If you have a true disaster, you will be trying to do the needed work for your clients while also negotiating with your insurance agent, looking for a new location, digging through rubble or shoveling mud.

Of course, it could be worse. If you didn’t back up your data at all, you could be in serious trouble. You might have your paper pocket docket book in your hand, but you would not have any forms, any work in process, any saved treasure troves of legal research or numerous other important items. To put it charitably, your professional reputation, your career and your ability to earn a living would be at a crossroads. Your conversations with your insurance agent would be most urgent matters. At some point a friend might suggest that you should notify your professional liability carrier as well.

Different disasters would have different impacts on a lawyer’s practice. A burglary where the computers were stolen would raise many issues, but at least you would still have your paper files and calendar. Loss of a computer could mean you lose many digital documents, but unless you were a true solo with only one computer, a lot of your forms would be available on other office computers and you’d still have your paper files. Retyping information from paper copies to recreate forms would be expensive and time-consuming, but at least it would be possible. There are many variations on the disaster theme.

But in all of them, you would still wish you had a current back of your data stored off-site –and life would be much easier if you had already gone “paperless.”

Paperless or digital law office operations need not mean the absence of paper client files. You can have paper files and even take them to court with you. But your work can be done on the computer network and you can review every page in every file without getting up from your desk.

Hard drive crashes are more frequent than we would like to believe. Anyone has suffered from a real data loss due to a hard drive crash has learned that people are not as sympathetic to this as they once were. (“Counsel, again this week you want to talk to the court about that hard drive crash? How many months ago was that?”)

You may have been one of those lawyers who never thought you would ever want their mobile phone to be anything other than a phone. At this point you can already see the day that all professionals will have at least their calendar on their phone and most will have much, much more. No one enters all of that information into their phone via the keypad. They synchronize the phone with their digital office information. Many Louisiana lawyers said after Katrina that their mobile phones were practice-savers. That is because the phones served as an additional and immediately accessible backup of some of their important information, like their calendar and more phone numbers of others than they could remember.

Maybe the very best reason to have a digital law practice is that you can back up your data and store it offsite so that you can recover your data and return to productivity in the event of a disaster, small or large

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About the Author

Jim Calloway is the Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the blog Jim Calloway's Law Practice Tips and was the co-author of the book Winning Alternatives to the Billable Hour (2nd ed.) (2002 ABA.) He was chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2005. He is a member of the Council of the ABA's Law Practice Management Section and chair of its Practice Management Advisors Committee. He is co-chair of the 2007 GP/SOLO National Solo and Small Firm Conference. He has been named a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He writes Law Practice Tips column for the Oklahoma Bar Journal. The archives of that column are available online here.

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