Staying Competitive for the Solo and Small Firm: The Paperless Law Office
Written by: Neil Pedersen
With some exceptions, it is the solo and small firm practitioner who is taking on corporate America in the fight for the rights of individuals and small business. The vast majority of personal injury, employee rights and insured rights attorneys in the State work in solo and small firm businesses. These small firms regularly take on large-firm attorneys representing well-heeled corporate giants like insurance companies, auto manufacturers, drug companies and the like. These David vs. Goliath battles compel the solo and small firm practitioner to find ways to compete – on both a financial and practical level – with the bigger money and substantial workforces of those larger concerns.
The need to compete becomes even more focused when the litigation involves the generation of considerable amounts of paper. Significant written discovery, large volumes of documents received and produced between the parties, along with documents procured from third parties, and long and varied law and motion paperwork, all lead to several file drawers -- and often several file cabinets -- of paper on each case. And fighting the well-financed corporate defendant tends to increase that paper as that defendant and its attorneys press the size advantage.
The effective management of paper therefore becomes an important part of surviving -- and winning -- the big vs. small encounter. With the development of good and cost-effective technology in the last several years, the solo and small firm practitioner has some very good tools to manage the paper wars, and financially and practically level the playing field. This article will address one of the primary tools now available to practitioners, and why it makes sense for most solo and small firm operators to spend the time and money needed to transition their office into a totally digital environment.
A totally digital office, sometimes called “the paperless law office,” simply means the electronic scanning and systematic storage of all documents that come in and go out of the law office, along with procurement of some additional technology to effectively use these digitized documents. In its purest form, no paper would be generated or maintained in a paperless office. However, that ideal is not yet practical for a law office. Nonetheless, a good system will significantly reduce the amount of paper generated, along with the financial and practical burdens associated therewith, while at the same time create efficiencies that will save time and money.
A totally digital office could consist of as little as a computer with an attached high-speed, paper-feed scanner. In its ideal form, the paperless law office should also include a network server, a reliable off-site backup mechanism for your data, a VPN (or Virtual Private Network) or similar functionality, an Adobe Acrobat© software package, a laptop computer, trial presentation software, and clearly defined office processes to assure full compliance with the paperless office protocols. I will start by talking about these processes and protocols.
Virtual File Cabinets and File Naming Protocols
The first step in creating the paperless law office is to create your virtual filing cabinets. This is nothing more than a system of folders you create on your computer or server. One suggested approach is to create two folders, one entitled “Active Clients,” and the other “Inactive Clients.” In the “Active Clients” folder, create a folder for each client you presently represent. In each of those folders, create a folder for each file folder you would normally have created in hard copy form. For instance, create folders for “Correspondence,” ”Pleadings,” “Discovery” and “Attorney Notes,” if those were the folders you would have created using paper files. If you like, you can create folders within those folders to hold documents. Your virtual filing cabinet should be organized in such a way to be sure you can find any document you are looking for, just like you would organize the paper files in your office. Once a case settles or leaves your office, move the client folder, and all its subfolders, into the “Inactive Clients” folder for storage, keeping your “Active Clients” folder smaller and manageable.
Once your virtual filing cabinet has been created, it is time to put files into the virtual cabinet. Placing scanned documents into your virtual filing cabinet requires a document-naming protocol to assure easy retrieval of documents needed. Most hard-paper filing protocols result in the most recent documents residing on the top of the file, and the older documents underneath them. On the computer, this is reversed. However, to find the most recent document in your virtual filing cabinet, you simply scroll to the bottom of your list of files, and the most recent should be there if you use the naming protocol suggested herein. 1
To assure a chronological organizing scheme on the computer, your naming protocol must cause the resident computer organizing schemes to work for you. Thus, to be sure documents show up in your virtual filing cabinet from oldest to latest, your file name must start with a date, and in a particular form. Computers organize files automatically, numerically from lowest to highest, and alphabetically from a to z. To use this organizing scheme, you need to start the file name for any of your virtual files with the date as follows: four digit year, followed by two digit month, followed by two digit day. You can place periods or “dots” between each if you like. As an example, a letter dated July 1, 2008 would have a file name that starts with 2008.07.01. If you start your file names dated as such, you will always end up with a chronological virtual filing cabinet.
How you choose to name your documents after the date portion is open to wide and varied discretion. You could create standardized abbreviations for most document types. You could identify the author (or propounding party) and addressee (or responding party). For instance, assume the example letter above was from George W. Bush to Congress. The file name could be 2008.07.01.ltr.GWB to Congress. An interrogatory response might be named 2008.07.01.RogResp.Smith to Jones. As long as the date falls first, it will be found chronologically in the list of files in the particular folder. If you place correspondence in a virtual correspondence folder, and discovery in a virtual discovery folder, you will have a virtual file cabinet just like the paper ones you maintain now.
Filling the Virtual File Cabinets
Scanning is the primary way you will fill your virtual file cabinets. High-speed scanning technology has become very affordable. Most copy machines now scan as well as copy. Very good stand-alone sheet-feed scanners can be purchased for less than $200. Whichever hardware approach you use, the scanning device must be able to communicate with a computer.
Each time you scan a document, you will be asked by the scanner software on your computer to name the document. It is at that time you will apply the naming protocols discussed earlier, placing the document in the appropriate client folder as you name it. It is that simple.
What you do with the hard paper document is then a matter of discretion. The ideal paperless environment would discard the document into a recycle bin, relying thereafter on the digital scan in the virtual file cabinet. However, lawyers generally have a hard time discarding a document. A suggestion is to simply store the documents in drop-in folders placing the most recent documents in the front, so that if necessary the document can be re-located. While this will result in some loss of one significant advantage of the paperless office (i.e., space savings and cost of supplies), there are far more advantages to the process to justify the digital office.
An important part of the paperless office scheme is to be sure that every case document that comes into or goes out of the office gets into the virtual filing cabinet – the same as if you were filing the documents in metal or wood file cabinets. If you cannot trust that all case documents are in your virtual filing cabinet, several of the significant advantages of the system are lost. Thus an office procedure must be created to assure that office staff (or the solo attorney) regularly scans and labels the documents.
Transitioning to the Paperless Office
Transitioning your office into a paperless environment can be a challenge. The time involved in going back into all of your present cases and scanning all documents into your virtual file cabinet is daunting, and will disincentivize even the most avid “techie” from making the move. Because of this dynamic, it is suggested to make the transition in stages. The approach that worked for my firm was to pick a date on which we would start the paperless office. Since that date, every document that came in and went out of the firm was scanned and placed in our virtual file cabinets. The result is that all new cases taken since that date are completely digital. All older cases are part paper and part digital. Now, years later, almost all cases in the office are totally digital. If any of the pre-conversion cases get close to trial, we decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether to go back and scan some or all of the unscanned file.
This staged approach is not the ideal, and means that some of the advantages of the paperless approach are minimized. However, the alternative – to go back and scan up to 30 file drawers of documents – made a complete immediate transition impossible.
Protecting Your Virtual File Cabinets
Because you are now going to store all of the important documents in your matters on your computer, you must protect that data. Computer hard drives crash far more than law offices burn down. Because the risk of loss of digital documents is far greater than the risk of loss of hard paper documents, you need to address that risk. The answer is off-site maintenance of back-up data.
There are several ways to maintain back-up data for a computer, and this article will not attempt to address all of them. Common methods include tape back-up systems, redundant swappable hard drives, and internet-based back-up storage services. None of these systems are extremely expensive. Any of them will achieve the goal. A failure to use some way to back-up your virtual file cabinet to avoid loss of data to a corrupted hard drive, a flood in the computer room, or some other catastrophic event damaging your data, will leave your paperless office in dire straits.
Other Hardware and Software to Maximize the Paperless Office Advantages
While not required, the true power of the paperless office is manifested when combined with Adobe Acrobat© or similar software, a Virtual Private Network or similar technology, and one of several good trial presentation software packages. The Adobe Acrobat© software is a very powerful tool when used with digitally scanned documents. Gone are the days of hand Bate-stamping of documents. The software will take scanned documents and apply any identifying information you wish. Once documents are converted into “pdf” format, more recent versions of the Adobe Acrobat© software can even scan the documents for key words. Although the recent versions of the software can cost several hundred dollars, it adds tremendous efficiencies to the paperless office.
Another optional, yet highly valuable aspect of the paperless environment is a Virtual Private Network, or similar functionality. A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a combination of hardware and software that allows you to securely access your computer or network from any remote location where you can get internet access. With this technology you or your other attorneys can work from home and have access to your office’s virtual filing cabinet. With a laptop, you have access to your entire file cabinet from a remote hotel room. With a wireless modem in your laptop, you can use any document in your file cabinet in trial, in deposition, in a client meeting, on a train, or at a local coffee shop. Once you have full virtual file cabinets on your computer, remote access to your office computer takes on a far greater power.
A final optional yet powerful component of the paperless office is a laptop loaded with one of several very good trial presentation software packages. While you need not be paperless to use these powerful software packages, being paperless makes preparation for trial with these packages far more easy. These software packages interface with digital documents. If your documents are digitized, you have already completed one of the time-draining pre-trial steps long before trial. Furthermore, having the documents already scanned gives you options to use them in conjunction with the software for non-trial events, like mediations and settlement conferences.
The Paperless Office is the Future and Too Advantageous to Ignore
Some courts are already requiring paperless filing. The Federal Courts have taken the laboring oar. Effective January 1, 2008, all attorneys practicing before the Central District of California (Los Angeles and Orange County) are required to complete digital filing training, and digital filing in that court is now mandatory. Other California Federal Courts have a similar requirement. It is not long before state courts follow. Several California agencies have provided for digital filing of documents as well. Play ostrich if you will, but times are changing, and it will be impossible to ignore the digital age in the near future. However, apart from being forced to file electronically, the advantages of a digital environment as discussed in this article compel change from the traditional hard-paper office.
- Among the advantages, including some already identified, are the following:
- Portability of the entire virtual file allows access to client files from trial, deposition, meetings, and the library. It allows for virtual home office work, and even work while on business trips and vacation, without the need to haul around banker’s boxes full of paper files.
- If you set up a procedure in the office and get the approval of your client, copying the client with documents that come in and go out of the office is made much faster and cheaper if you send digital copies by email, rather by hard-copy snail mail. Not only does the client get the document the day it is sent, but your office staff will not need to generate envelopes, and place postage on those sometimes large stacks of documents.
- With the approval of opposing counsel, the production of documents in digital form on a compact disk is far less expensive and far less time-consuming than doing so in hard-paper form. Several boxes of documents can now be transmitted to counsel on a single CD. The paper costs and postage or delivery expenses are significantly reduced as a CD costs mere pennies compared to hundreds of dollars of copy, paper and delivery costs. Combine the Bate-stamp time savings and this approach becomes more optimal.
- At the end of a case, closed files can become a financial and practical nightmare. Instead of storage rooms filled with closed files, a paperless office can store all closed files in a small box of CD’s that can be duplicated and stored on and off site to assure long-term maintenance of the non-original critical documents.
- When it is time to put together a package of information for co-counsel, or an expert or other consultant, it is far easier and less costly to simply copy digital files to a CD than to make paper copies of sometimes voluminous documents for review.
- If you ever want to find a document from a prior case, even one prepared by the opposition, it will be readily accessible in the “Inactive Clients” folder, or if already removed from your hard drive, on the closed files CDs, instead of fishing through boxes of closed files. If the closed files have been discarded or given back to the client, those documents would be lost forever in a hard-paper environment.
- If you transition to a completely paper-free environment, the economic savings are very substantial. No more time spent filing documents, creating tabs and indexes in hard files. In fact, a truly paperless office will not need the room traditionally taken up by file cabinets and boxes of client documents. This can turn into savings on space needs, which translates often into money. Even if you elect to keep the paper, but not maintain fully tabbed file folders as suggested in this article, the time and cost savings will still help you pay for the technology needed for the conversion.
- By following a specific scanning protocol, you are creating a permanent record of what has been received and sent by your office. For instance, if your office protocol is to always scan a document on the day it is received, there will be a permanent computer record of all documents received by your office, and the day it was received. This can be invaluable.
- By keeping a back-up of your data off-site, you have created far more protection for your files against catastrophic loss than if you have only paper files. If your office burns down, paper files are forever destroyed. Digital files, kept off premises, can be seamlessly accessed by other computers.
- As discussed above, a paperless environment makes it far easier and quicker to transition your files to many popular trial presentation software packages, to be used in trials, mediations or settlement conferences.
- Last, but not least, reducing paper usage is environmentally friendly. The legal community consumes incredibly large volumes of paper. When that community goes paperless, the impact will have to be substantial.
It’s Time to Change
A little over twenty years ago lawyers were transitioning personal computers into the law office. It was a hard transition for those lawyers who were comfortable with the old ways. However, the change was inevitable, and those lawyers who made the transition early gave themselves a competitive advantage. It is time to recognize that another law office transformation is occurring. The digital office age is upon us, and the only way for solo practitioners and small firms to compete against the large firms and their large clients it to recognize that is true, and make the transition.
1. For those more computer-savvy, there is a way to reverse the order. However, I will not address that in this article to keep the information basic.