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What you need to know to run a paperless office

originally published in The Lawyers Weekly

“I have been practising on my own since 2002 and slowly filling up a wall of shelving with bankers’ boxes of files,” said Colorado Springs, CO-based attorney Tomasz Stasiuk. “When it came time to start another wall of boxes, that started me thinking of going digital.”

Running a digital office sounds more logical than the more common and oft-derided “paperless” sort. Deeds, certificates, invoices, not to mention ubiquitous printouts of documents of every kind, including e-mails that end with the plaintive words: “Consider the environment. Do you really need to print this e-mail?” flood many law offices.

Yet old habits die hard. Showing lawyers and staff flashy new tools and asking them to adapt their working styles can be like leading a horse to water. “Support staff may initially see it as another thing to do,” said Julie Kiernan, Business manager and paralegal for Kiernan Personal Injury Attorneys PA of Buffalo, Minnesota. “I think people have to work with it to see the benefits.”

But the byte bandwagon is gaining steam, driven by lawyers seeking to do more with less paper. And the benefits can show up as quickly as properly indexed electronic documents appear on monitors. “Everything we generate is already on the database and it’s very easy to find,” said Kiernan

Documents can even travel over the Internet and land in a laptop. Both capabilities translate into quicker, more efficient client service.

Certain lawyers reduce the burden of paper on others as well. “In my line of work, I receive medical records and I submit medical records to Social Security,” said Stasiuk. “Often there were multiple copies. Whenever a copy had to go out, another paper copy had to be made.”

“Now, when I receive medical records on paper, they get scanned in, the paper is destroyed and the digital copy is all I keep. I submit records to Social Security digitally.”

Some lawyers ask clients to join the act as well, by accepting records on CDs or DVDs instead of dead trees.

Stasiuk reviews documents with visitors on computer monitors instead of printouts. “They’re impressed by the speed, the efficiency, the ‘wow factor’ of my technical set-up,” he said.

Such habits also communicate environmental responsibility, as paper, toner and electricity usage plummet. Stasiuk reckons he prints one-tenth as much paper as he did before committing to digital files.

Lawyers who travel the “less paper” route outfit themselves for the journey. Here’s a short list of what to pack for the trip:

1. Adobe Acrobat: Cheaper options abound, but many lawyers swear by Acrobat to create searchable, indexable, secure documents.

2. Scanner: Every paper’s first step to digitization should run quickly, handle double-sided originals and colour.

3. Search and index tools: Content management systems already have them. There are also adequate non-legal-specific applications. Free options include Windows Vista Search, Spotlight in the Mac OS and Google Desktop.

4. Monitors: It’s more tiresome to read documents on screen compared to paper. Higher-quality monitors reduce the strain. Stasiuk runs a 24″ monitor as well as the 17″ screen on his notebook, while Kiernan’s firm outfits each employee with one large screen.

5. Storage: Data storage options continue to fall in price. Get extra hard drives and use them for backup. Keep a USB memory key handy for transporting files.

There may be drawbacks to digital, but neither Kiernan nor Stasiuk would go back. “I don’t see how digital could not be more efficient,” said Kiernan. •

Ten tips to digital documents

Want to reduce the amount of paper your practice handles? Consider the following pointers:

1. Stasiuk attended several continuing legal education events to learn how to reduce paper in his practice. “Once I started hearing the same things repeated,” he said, “I figured I knew enough to start.”

2. Scan paper as soon as it arrives. “It seems like an incredible waste of time to archive files at the end,” said Kiernan. “I might as well scan, convert scans to text and tag files at the beginning and have access to those files while we’re actively working on them.”

3. Convert every digitized text record. Kiernan recommends that people tag documents and adhere to consistent naming conventions, but text documents readable with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software might not require tagging.

4. Don’t underestimate the need for training. Simply putting Adobe Acrobat, a document scanner and other e-tools in people’s hands doesn’t guarantee successful adoption of the tools.

5. Let your process evolve over time. “When you start to use a new system, you figure out the details as well as you can and tweak it later if need be,” said Kiernan

6. Today’s case management systems let you build strong ties between matters and relevant digital documents.

7. Use available technology to automate mundane tasks. When Lexmark Canada’s Manager of Global Services Matthew Barnicoat explained the audaciously named Lexmark Legal Partner, a multifunction device designed for the legal market, he listed items users can design into a workflow. Prior to a scan, the machine can request the client number, matter number, keywords to use when tagging the document, and other information. Once the Legal Partner has created a digital document, the device can automatically efile the document (even breaking it into five-megabyte chunks); Bates number it to label and identify it; convert it to text using OCR software; e-mail it to a client or counsel; place copies in digital archives and content management systems; and assign costs to a billing application, depending on information that the operator entered prior to scanning. “It’s about freeing lawyers from mundane tasks and working more billable hours,” Barnicoat said.

8. Create a backup plan for your documents. Backups should include at least one offsite copy lest disaster strike your office.

9. Use tools that turn incoming faxes into PDFs attached to e-mail, and assemble outgoing faxes and send them like e-mail.

10. Encourage correspondents – clients, opposing counsel, government agencies – to ditch the fax in favour of e-mail. “Initially, you scan all your incoming documents,” said Kiernan. “Ultimately, you want to reduce the amount of paper that comes in and receive most of it digitally.”

To view a PDF of this article, click paperless_office.