Going completely “paperless” in many law firms is not yet possible, but aiming for an office with much less paper is not only possible, but easy and offers multiple rewards. It will (1) give the environment a break (paper, ink, garbage); (2) cost less (paper, ink, storage boxes, storage costs, staff time copying and tracking down documents); (3) result in documents being filed immediately and effortlessly, instead of sitting in stacks or boxes, difficult to find; (4) create fabulous organization—leading to savings in time and frustration, and the costs of sifting through boxes to find a file; (5) give you the ability to conveniently and efficiently access files from anywhere; (6) provide documents that are electronically searchable; and (7) protect client files from loss and disaster (check out the recently amended comment to the Rule 1.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct).
Getting started on this project can be done quite simply and inexpensively. All you really need is a plan to manage the flow of documents in your office, a consistent system for file identification, a scanner, Adobe Acrobat, and an excellent duplicative backup system.
Plan and Procedures
The first step is to create a plan and procedures that fit your office, and then train everyone to use them. Your procedures will depend on the size of your office and the roles your team plays. It is okay to implement this plan incrementally. Some firms may elect to keep incoming paper for a certain number of days, at least until they are comfortable with the new process. If doing this, to avoid confusion, it is a good practice to apply a standard mark to documents that are already scanned but being retained.
Every plan should contain certain elements. Every document that comes into the office must be dated (or the date identified in its name), scanned, and filed electronically according to a file naming protocol (discussed below). The document can then be either discarded (shredded or recycled) or forwarded to the person who is to receive it. If originals are discarded, the person who was to receive the document must be notified. If it is a document meant for more than one person in the office, a standard notification is sent out, so that everyone can access and view it. The process might vary for different types of documents; accordingly, the procedures must state clearly what happens to every type of document.
Documents that leave the office may either be created electronically or scanned and filed, according to the same file naming protocol. Documents that can be sent or submitted electronically can be created with electronic signatures and therefore never printed.
Some types of files just require that at least parts of them be created on paper, such as certain materials for court appearances. For these cases, you may be able to produce only parts of the file on paper, and keep the complete file electronically. Either way, since the entire file will be electronic and organized, once you no longer need the paper version, you will be free to shred it, rather than filing it in a box in the storage area.
For all of those books and CLE materials, consider purchasing the electronic version. Many are offered in CD, USB port or other electronic medium. Stored on your computer in a “Books” or “Information” area, they are then logically organized and referenced from anywhere.
And all of those articles that you’ve either read and want to keep or haven’t yet managed to read can now be organized and easy to find on your computer. You can create PDFs of many of these directly from the website of origin; if not, you can scan them for future reference and recycle the publication.
File naming protocol
It is critical that your file-naming system be simple, logical and consistent. Everyone in the office must use the protocol so that everyone can easily locate files. My protocol reflects the way that I already created client files, except my method is electronic rather than in paper form. I have a folder or area for active client files. There is a file for each client and matter, with folders for the major items: Administration, Correspondence, Notes, Pleadings, Research, etc. Within each of these folders are subfolders further organizing documents. For example, the Administration folder contains subfolders for Invoices, Payments, Professional Services Agreement, etc. Using a two-digit year, month, and day format (YY MM DD) to date documents ensures that they file chronologically. Once a matter is closed, the file can simply be moved to another area of your computer or network for storage.
The same type of naming protocol can be used for your firm’s administrative files. An “Administration” folder can house expense invoices (you probably are already receiving many of these electronically anyway), client invoices, time logs, bank account statements, COLTAF ledgers, etc.
An “Information” folder can neatly organize research materials, articles, books and CLE materials. Copies of forms and filings can quickly be placed not only in the client files, but also in topic files for easy future reference.
It is likely that you already have the equipment in your office to get started. A good (but not necessarily expensive) scanner is essential. Scanners must be convenient, easy to use and hold a decent number of pages. I now don’t think I could live without my Fujitsu Scansnap 1500, which cost under $500. These are programmed for either a Windows or Mac environment, are essentially plug and play, hold at least fifty pages, and take up little room on a desktop.
Dual or large computer monitors are very helpful. The ability to view multiple documents simultaneously helps curb the urge to print documents. You will then also be able to cut and paste from one to another, increasing efficiency.
For meetings, instead of printing multiple copies, consider projecting the document onto a screen where everyone can work on edits; this document can then be sent electronically to the group.
Backup, backup, backup
I am a huge believer in multiple backup systems with different purposes, and argue that this is absolutely critical even if you are not attempting to go paperless. Without paper versions of files, backups are even more important. An on-site continuous backup system is a good idea, but an off-site backup system, such as a cloud-based service, is necessary to protect your files in case of a fire or other disaster. I also like having a backup that is easy to immediately access for anything that I might need to continue working on if my computer decides not to. For this purpose, I simply use a USB port containing all current files and save documents to both my computer and the USB port. For added protection, it is easy to also save files to a USB port or disc stored in a different location from your computer.
By Karen Kishbaugh, who practices at Kishbaugh Law Firm, LLC in Denver’s City Park neighborhood. She focuses on business and contracts law.