As an attorney operating a busy solo estates practice, making the decision to go paperless seemed like a huge leap of faith. We were concerned about the cost as well as figuring out the whole process while avoiding major disruption to our workflow. However, the results have definitely been worth it. In fact, we wish we had done it sooner. We would like to share our personal experience in going paperless and encourage our readers to give it a try. In this article, we provide a basic step-by-step guide to going paperless based on what we have learned.
After attending a seminar where a fellow attorney spoke with great enthusiasm about the benefits of going paperless, we realized that, with proper planning, this was an attainable goal. We also realized that the advantages would be worth the investment of time and money. For us, the planning stage required three months, implementation in terms of client matters occurred over a period of a year, and the final stage of converting all firm administration and bookkeeping lasted another six months.
The first step was introducing the concept to staff and brainstorming the development of an ‘Action Plan’ to guide the process. In our view, the buy-in of staff is critical to the success of going paperless. At weekly meetings, we reviewed the Action Plan, existing document processes, and equipment. We developed a written document-naming and backup protocol. We determined what equipment could be upgraded and what additional equipment would be needed. We researched the Internet for ideas and equipment reviews and spoke to other attorneys who had gone paperless.
Going paperless has meant going with much “less” paper, but paper has not been eliminated. We continue to open a physical file folder for each new matter. When any document is received whether by mail, fax, or email, it is immediately converted to PDF (we call this process ‘electronic archiving’). A physical copy, once scanned, is stamped to indicate that scanning has been done. While a matter is active, scanned papers are kept in the physical file folder. A few documents are kept in their original paper form such as signed wills, powers of attorney, and court orders, but these are scanned as well.
The key areas to be addressed are: scanning, document-naming and storing, and backups.
The standard type of file for electronic documents is PDF or Portable Document Format. Every document that comes into the office should be turned into a PDF upon arrival. In our office, most scanning is done by our administrative assistant who saves the PDF using the document-naming system that we have developed.
To encourage prompt scanning in a consistent manner, develop a written procedure which outlines:
- when a document is to be scanned or printed to PDF,
- by whom,
- what it is to be named, and
- what is to be done with the original document.
Until you have determined the most efficient practice for your office, this procedure (as well as others addressed below) should be reviewed and revised regularly (we did it weekly). Initially, we did not scan closed matters and did not convert existing matters to paperless. Instead, we decided that all new matters would be paperless from a specific date forward. Other approaches might be to select an area of law or a small committed group (the 'early adopters' at your firm) and convert that area or group to paperless as a pilot project.
Document-Naming and Storing
Once scanned (or converted to PDF), all electronic documents should be named in a consistent, standardized manner. Developing a naming process which allows documents to be easily identified ensures uniformity and makes finding the right document much easier. Describing our document-naming system would require more space than allowed for here but a couple of ideas can be shared:
- If you want all documents in the folder sorted chronologically (as we did), begin the name of each electronic document with a numeric date, e.g., 2009 05 31.
- As some software is unable to handle long names, keep the entire path and file name (all folders and subfolders are counted as part of the 'name') to a maximum of 128 characters.
- Create a set of predefined folders and subfolders for each type of matter (we refer to ours as ‘folder templates’) commonly handled by your firm. If each folder template name begins with a ‘$’ symbol, all templates will be displayed at the top of the index. The template saves time and makes it easy to have consistent folder and subfolder names.
Reliable, frequent backups are always important but much more so in the paperless office. A paperless office should have multiple layers of backups including incremental and full backups, and on-site and off-site backups.
Our main backup system employs four portable hard drives which are rotated out of the office weekly. Each contains a full backup created on Fridays as well as daily incremental backups created throughout the week. At all times, there are three hard drives off-site.
We also backup from one computer to another over the network and have a full 'drive image' backup of each computer (created when the computer was new but immediately after all software was installed) that allows us to replace a computer or its hard drive in minimal time.
Our backup systems allow us to recover quickly from a major catastrophe or recover a single file that has been inadvertently deleted.
Software and Hardware
An essential piece of software in our paperless office is Adobe® Acrobat® Professional (not Acrobat Reader®) as it enables electronic documents to be manipulated with ease. Some of the tasks and features available include:
- copy, remove, crop, rotate pages within a document,
- mark up or sign documents,
- apply Bates numbering,
- secure redaction,
- software integration with numerous other applications, e.g., integration with Microsoft® Outlook allows email messages and all attachments to be converted to PDF and saved as one file, and
- security measures to protect files and what can be done to them.
We know of one scanner manufacturer, Fujitsu, that has bundled Adobe Acrobat software with its scanner making it an attractive, cost-effective purchase for an office about to go paperless.
Also consider installing desktop search software, such as Copernic, which can help locate misfiled electronic documents. By creating an index of your computer network, such applications can find an electronic document if you know a unique phrase or word that it contains.
For backup software, the two key products we use are Acronis® to create drive images and Copysynch to create data backups from one computer to another.
The main hardware component in a paperless office is the scanner. Consider both speed (pages per minute) and size of sheet feeder. We placed a high-speed, more expensive scanner in a central location and provided all staff with a desktop scanner for convenience and ease of scanning a few pages.
To mimic the way we work with paper spread across the desktop, it is important for everyone to have a second monitor (or even a third!). With two monitors, several documents can be viewed and manipulated at once. Everyone at our office, including our home-based staff, have two monitors.
For us, the advantages of going paperless have been tremendous, some of which we had not anticipated.
- We use much less paper – good for the environment and the budget.
- Locating documents is quick and easy due to our consistent document-naming and storage system.
- Productivity and efficiency has increased.
- Costs for storage, filing, and staffing have decreased.
- All documents are available online from anywhere.
In the winter of 2008, one of the co-authors (who is also the only attorney at our firm) flew to Buenos Aires for a month-long adventure exploring Argentina and Chile. With a Tablet computer, VPN (virtual private network) software, and a high speed Internet connection, she had secure access to all client information stored on our office computers. She was able to review, mark-up, and sign documents with ease. Before going paperless, it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be away for an entire month and continue operating a solo practice.
Going paperless has also allowed us to retain a valuable staff member (the other co-author) by offering the option of working from home following maternity leave. Environmentally-conscientious clients have also appreciated our efforts.
Thoughtful and proper planning is required to achieve a successful paperless office. We know it can be done and we encourage other attorneys to give it a try. Go ahead and take the leap – you will not be disappointed