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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Words That Do Not Mix: Paperless Law Office

I keep reading about all these strange entities called paperless law offices. I try to imagine a place where you don't go digging through endless D's to find the John Doe file (or numbers, if that's how your firm's filing system works), but it is difficult.

Perhaps the first reason I have a hard time envisioning a paperless office is that my own office is very paper-full. We print everything, from the e-filed orders to drafts of motions for review. We make copies of everything that leaves the office. When I am researching case laws, I print out the cases to highlight the pertinent parts. We print emails from clients to place in their files for quick future reference.

Now, I understand that everything we choose to print could actually be saved to file, and we could scan all of our paper documents into the system. But that is impractical for a law firm with one lawyer and one paralegal and, at any given time, fewer than 100 active client matters. I would spend much of my day scanning documents. Some days would be completely shot.

But let's imagine that we had a third person who's job was only to scan documents and store them. While we're at it, let's imagine that my office also has enough electronic storage for the endless amount of data being shoved into the system. It would still be impractical for my firm to go paperless.

First, I must print out research material for the sake of my poor eyes. It is unhealthy to stare at a computer screen for hours of reading. I also have to highlight the relevant parts. Second, since we keep copies of everything that leaves the office, we keep copies of all signed letters. It seems impractical to print a letter, sign it, then rescan it into the system before sending it off. At least, in our office it is.

And if time and effort cannot be saved, then going paperless to save paper seems silly, too. In my office, we would still hit the print button. But without a file in which to save the newly printed paper, we would shred it when we were done. In our office, that is a lot of wasted paper. In a medium to large firm, I'm imagining a ton of wasted paper a month as lawyers and staff print hardcopies to read or pass around or for various other reasons then dispose of them only to reprint the next time they need to have a hard copy.

I could have it all wrong. Perhaps being paperless is great. It's probably the next best thing, for firms that have the staff, the time, and the money to do so. One look at the dwindling space in our small office will convince anyone that files take up precious space. I am sure large non-paperless firms have entire warehouses devoted to file keeping. At my firm, our closed files take up one small conference room and half a storage closet. And those constitute only four years worth of a new firm's cases. If we don't move into a bigger place or find safe storage for our closed files, we will drown in paper within five more years. So I completely understand the benefits of going paperless. I just doubt it is as without paper as it sounds.


  1. Great analysis of the paper issue! Since it will be impossible to have NO paper in the office, perhaps our goal should be paper-less. That seems to be more attainable.

  2. Nicely written, but is it meant to be satiric? Lest there be any doubt in anyone's mind, let me say as a true solo with no staff, it takes me much less time to use my desktop scanner and automatic document feeder (or Kinkos for bigger jobs) than to hunt through paper files. And I can access everything from anywhere. And Adobe Acrobat lets me search & mark up anything. I would never go back.

  3. you do have it all wrong

  4. Pick a point and go forward. Don't spend too much time scanning every file in the office into the system. As for the letter issue, scan signatures into a tiff or other graphic file that you can drop into any Word or WordPerfect document.

  5. It's really a training issue. PDFs and digital documents have been around for a while now. But law firms have been slow to adopt.

    Because you don't know how to work with digital files, you fall back on the only method you do know, physical paper.

    You will need to LEARN how to stop printing/producing your own paper by using other tools. How to scan stuff you get from others. (It's not that bad, really.) and then how to work with the resulting PDF digital documents the same way you do with paper. Did you know that you can highlight that research digitally? That you can create a signature stamp to sign letters so that they look like a traditional document, but you never print them out? Most folks don't and don't think they have the time to learn.

    It has been the smaller law firms that have done it first. Folks like David Masters and Donna Neff. Because they can make decisions and implement them that afternoon, and then tweak the process as necessary.

    It's not going to go away, you need to start the process of aquiring the skill set now.

  6. Moving to a paperless work environment means finding a new way to think about and organize the data you're manipulating. The tools to do this have been around for about 10 years and they've improved exponentially in ease of use. But most importantly - if you want to move forward in your career as a paralegal, you MUST learn how to deal with a non-paper environment. Our jobs are increasingly data management and litigation technology-driven. (I write as a 20-year paralegal, now in litigation support in a mid-size firm - but I spent 10 years working for solos.)

  7. I kindly disagree, there are published studies that show the cost benefit analysis of paper vs. electronic readiness. Going paperless or working with less paper has proven to reduce costs, reduce time and improve efficiency but you have to encourage change along with a new way to think.

  8. We have a combined approach at this point, partially due to some of the older staff being set in their ways, where everything is scanned but it is also placed in paper files. Running the paper through the scanner prior to the next work flow step does not seem to take too much extra time and has greatly improved our ability to work from multiple locations, including home. Our goal is to have everything digital for convenience and backup but it still is helpful at times to be able to spread out a file on the desk to review more than one or two monitors will efficiently allow.

  9. Thanks all for your comments on this matter. As for my tiny office, we've looked at costs vs. benefits, and from our perspective, it would not work for us. It requires more storage than we have and more time than we have available.

    I have to disagree with the idea that scanning documents or converting them to PDF is a skill set, too. It's easily learned and very simple.

    Understand that all law firms are different. We are not fancy. We are a small town, country people firm. Our computers are not brand new, and I just moved up to an all-in-one printer, scanner, etc, which takes about a minute per scanned doc. My days are already full of real work. Spending fifteen minutes per new file would wreck productivity. Then printing documents for copies to fax, mail, etc, only to shred them later...

    But unless you have an industrial scanner, a lot of storage, hands with time to scan and shred all the incoming and outgoing paper, the ability to avoid ever having to print anything out, a client base that is computer savvy, and a court system that allows 100% efiling, it seems quite the burden, and quite impossible, to go completely "paperless." IMHO

  10. If your scanner is taking a minute per doc, something is really wrong. A lot of times the default settings for some of these devices it too high, and therefore too slow. You want to be scanning at 300 DPI (dots per inch), and usually in Black and White. Use the color setting only when necessary.

    THE best deal in the market is the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500. It comes bundled with Adobe Acrobat 9 Standard (retails for $299) which you can load on two machines. A quick google search shows it for sale at CTI for $437.00 with free shipping. (Disclaimer: I have NO financial interest in either Adobe, Fujitsu or CTI.)

    I have one and it can scan 20 pages at 300 DPI, B&W, front and back simulaneously. So, that would be 20 times faster than your multifunction. It also has a handy new feature to detect double feeds.

    Here's the deal, if you have run the document through your copier a single time, then you could have scanned it in the same amount of time, and you would never need to run it through the copier again (you could just print the PDF). So, every time you find yourself running that document through the copier for the 2nd, 3rd or 4th time, you are working harder than you have to.

    Sorry to seem like I'm targeting you about this, but your posts about your current workflow just seem painful to me! I'd love to help you!

    Also, the goal isn't completely paperless, it's paperLESS.

    That's a straw man that lots of folks like to bring up. No, your office will never be completely devoid of a shred of paper. But it can have a lot less paper in it. My goal is a LOW paper workflow.

    Hope this helps.

  11. Now I'n going to look like a blog stalker or something, but I just noticed the objection to the idea of a skillset. You are right, and I would agree that scanning and producing PDFs are not a skillset.

    But I'm not talking about the PRODUCTION of a PDF as a skillset. I'm talking about knowing how to USE and WORK with the PDFs as a skillset.

    Too many firms think that becoming paperLESS just means scanning and printing to PDF and screeeeeeech, stop right there.

    But that's not enough, you need to take it to the next level. Now that you have the PDF, what can you DO with it? Do you know how to highlight? How to add Comments? How to add Bookmarks? How to add hyperlinks? How to combine multiple PDFs in to one larger one? How to rearrange the pages? How to add or remove pages? How to run OCR on the document and reuse/repurpose the text? How to "type" on the scan to fill in blanks? How to create a fillable form? How to redact confidential data? etc., etc. Now all of that, I'd call a skillset. :-)

  12. Hi Melissa

    I think you have captured the way most paralegals feel about changing to a paper-less environment. So I like your post, it is the truth and refreshing to see.

    The idea is a huge mindset change, and I would imagine the idea is to start scanning the momemt the file is opened in your office management system.

    As much as it is a mindset change, it has to have a cut-off, where paper-more is stopped, and paper-less is started. Trying to get what you have into a system will be a huge time killer, and doing it before you know the new process properly, will be full of problems. So maybe at a later stage.

    There are so many negative aspects to going paper-less that mount up rather quickly:
    Application to store and retrieve
    Hardware to accommodate the systems
    Productivity loss while learning
    Very, very good backup systems

    So although I agree there must be a saving, the ROI is rather longer than one would have wanted.

    I think the start would be easier if you started by implementing a scanner at each workstation - nothing fancy, but just to make it easy to access. The make sure you have plenty of hard drive space on the network somewhere and start saving images in PDF into folders for each client or matter, whichever way your firm files matters.

    A change to the way you work, more than a change in systems - whether it is better or not, I think it is, it just takes precious time from people who generally don't have any spare.


  13. We are a solo firm. We have found going paperless to be very efficient and productive. We would never go back.

    I agree with Nancy and can work with PDFs in all the ways she suggests and also; batch OCR, redact, bates, and present at trial from Acrobat.

    Scanning to PDF is the least of it; just buy a ScanSnap. We use all Macs which utilize PDFs and search capabilities well. The free included Spotlight search capability makes locating any document easy-in seconds. I couldn't open a file drawer any faster, let alone shuffle through pages of paper. We can quickly answer questions on the phone as all information is so accessible.

    As Nancy points out, working with the PDFs and knowing Acrobat is where the real strengths and benefits are. The workflow is different and important to determine at the outset, but having instant access to all client files is so much easier than file cabinets full of paper files.

    I spent considerable time determining the best practices and workflow, but the benefits of paperless far outweigh the efforts. It does not add time to our day, but saves us considerable time.

    The last piece of the pie is outfitting the attorney with a laptop which will access all the files. No more bankers boxes. Most insurance companies have gone paperless so working with them is quite easy. Many attorneys will accept a CD with PDFs vs paper documents as well. It is just a matter of asking. Worst case we can print with a portable printer smaller than one file or share on a USB drive.

    I project within 5 years most law firms will be paperless-with solos and small firms leading the way. Corporate America and many government entities have been for some time. The medical community is transitioning there as well. It is the way of the future.