How to Achieve a Paperless Law Office

A paperless law office isn’t a mythical unicorn.

It’s achievable, and more importantly: it’s a good idea.

Law firms large and small are mired by boxes of paper files that take up a lot of physical space and make finding what you’re looking for difficult (at best) as well as time-consuming.

Not to mention space-consuming.

Imagine having organized, electronic versions of old and current matters, documents from war rooms past, perfectly organized and instantly searchable.

Moreover, imagine being able to work from anywhere, with all of your files easily accessible in one system.

Having a paperless law office makes it possible.

It’s not a pipe dream: In today’s age of legal technology and cloud-based solutions, it very achievable.

We’ll show you how.

The Big Picture: Process and Systems

Building your paperless law office, at 100,00 feet, is a matter of implementing processes to maintain electronic versions of documents and systems to manage them.

Your firm will need to implement procedures to process incoming documents, and a system to manage them once they’re in your data warehouse. The system should support the process, making it all to easy for your legal team to follow.

Don’t worry—its not as big an undertaking as it sounds, and a good system will make it even easier.

Tools You Will Need

We’ll go into a bit more detail with these items, but overall you will need:

  • Legal document management system software
  • A good scanner
  • A paper shredder / paper shredding service like Iron Mountain / trustworthy friend who can burn all the documents
  • Adobe Acrobat Pro

Yes, that is really all you will need.

The Paperless Action Plan:

Your law firm’s Going Paperless Action Plan should look something like:

Step 1: Procure a Document Management System

To function optimally, a paperless law office requires a Document Management System (DMS).

The DMS is the digital hub for your document store.

The DMS will act as both a warehouse to store documents and an engine to make them findable, relevant and useful.

Note that we’re not talking about an on-premise file server or basic cloud storage.

“The G: drive” is not a Document Management System.

Dropbox is not a Document Management System.

While they count as a “warehouse” for documents, they’re not an “engine”: they don’t provide any document management functionality, which we’ll cover next.

A Legal Document Management System goes well beyond simply storing your documents. It actively indexes all content to make it quickly searchable. It maintains versions of documents each time a document is changed. It allows users to check documents out to keep the locked, and check them in later. It allows your staff to add comments and notes to documents. It allows you to tag and categorize documents as contracts, motions, interrogatories and more.

The DMS you select should be cloud-based, so that you can access it anywhere, and to avoid the on-premise server and onsite IT support that a premise-based DMS requires. You will also never outgrow a cloud-based DMS the way you can (and eventually will) outgrow an on-premise DMS on an onsite server. Your chosen DMS should also be legal-focused and matter-centric.

Now, onto the specific DMS elements you’ll need to build your perfect paperless law office.

Matter-Centricity

To support the process and workflow of a law firm, its important to select a Document Management System that is legal-focused, and matter-centric.

A Matter-centric DMS will organize documents, email (more on this shortly) and notes into matters, effectively organizing content the way your law firm organizes its work.

The matter is the hub of your firm’s workflow, and your DMS should reflect that and function accordingly.

Email Management

By most law firm’s account, emails are documents like any other. They need to be stored, organized by matter, searched and retrieved later. A law-office-focused DMS should–and your paperless law office endeavors should–include management of emails just like documents.

Index & Search

Indexing and search it critical to a paperless law office. When you have thousands, tens of thousands or millions of documents: being able to find what you’re looking for—even if it’s from a matter that was closed years ago—is vital.

On-premise file servers and simple cloud storage services like Dropbox are simply not designed to index and make large volumes of documents searchable. A Document Management System, however, is designed to do just that.

A DMS makes going paperless possible by actively indexing the content in all of your firms’ documents, and making it searchable to your firm…. much like how Google indexes the Internet and makes it searchable in a matter of seconds. (Imagine doing a Google-style search and finding that pleading or contract you’re looking for in seconds.) In fact, because of indexing/searching alone, its fair to say you can’t have a paperless law office without a DMS.

OCR is Vital

There is one caveat to the magic that is indexing and search: OCR. By default scanned and faxed documents such as PDF files are not stored as text, but rather as an image. Documents you scan in your office or receive from outside parties by email will often image-based, not text based. This, essentially, makes the PDF file or scanned file a photograph of the document, which means a DMS system cannot, by default, index it, and a search will never find this document.

(Have you ever noticed how some PDF’s are like photographs, and you cannot select, copy paste the text within them, while others’ text are fully select/copy/paste-able? This is the difference between an image-based, un-OCR’d document and an OCR’d, full-text document.)

OCR technology will effectively convert an image-based document, such as a scanned PDF, to a text-enabled document. This makes the document indexable and searchable. It also allows the user to select, copy and paste text from the document as you would from a Word document.

Employing OCR technology is vital to your paperless law office endeavors: How useful is a repository of (effectively) photographs of documents? What good is having electronic documents if you can’t search and manage them?

So how do you implement OCR into your mission to realize the paperless law office dream? Some scanners have the option to OCR documents when you scan them—but this doesn’t help with un-OCR’d documents that are sent to you by email or other means. Adobe Acrobat provides the ability to OCR documents on a file-by-file basis, but this (apart from being incredibly manual) leaves the process of OCR’ing up to and at the discretion of each of your staff. (Recall that we established that the system should support a seamless process for going paperless.)

We recommend that the Document Management System itself perform the OCR function, automatically, as documents are added to the system. This ensures that documents, regardless of how they arrived, are OCR’d, and that the OCR-ing of documents is not left to the discretion of each individual user.

Sidebar: Fax Integration

As an aside: A good Document Management System will also integrate with your fax machine or fax service, so that incoming faxes are immediately in your DMS, automatically OCR’d and can be quickly filed to the appropriate matter.

Step 2: Buy Scanners

While you may already have this, we’ll mention it anyway: Implement scanners firm-wide. Either a big, centralized multifunction scanner for the whole firm (such as a Dell or Konica-Minolta multifunction), or individual desktop scanners (such as the Fujitsu Scansnap) or both.

You can’t get your documents onto your DMS without a decent scanner.

This will be your workhorse.

Every incoming piece of mail, every signed original document, everything is going to be scanned.

So don’t skimp on getting a quality product.

We also recommend installing document scanning applications on each employee’s smart phone and tablet (such as Tiny Scanner, our favorite mobile document scanner app).

As we discussed earlier, rather than leaving OCR to each scanner, app and individual employees: Your DMS should automatically OCR documents as they’re stored in the system.

Step 3: Outline Your Process

Next, create a document intake policy. This policy doesn’t have to be fancy or long-winded. (In fact, the best-followed company policies are simple and fit on one page.) A straight-forward policy like the table above that instructs users on how to get documents from their original source (paper, email, scan and so forth) into the DMS and filed to the appropriate place. A good Document Management System will make this workflow easy.

Document Intake

This is the process by which new documents come into your firm, and into your Document Management System.

Generally speaking, documents will enter your DMS in one of several ways.

Often, they will come in as an email attachment, a document you created, via mail, or court hard copy.

However they get to you, they need to reach your DMS.

Below is the recommended process for bringing in hard copy documents into your DMS:

  • Document comes in (either via mail or what have you)
  • Document is scanned immediately
  • Original is retained and set aside for open matter duration if necessary
  • Original is shredded or mailed to client if original retention is unnecessary
  • Once matter is completed, document is returned to client and shredded after a given period (pursuant to your retainer agreement)

That’s for original documents.

For electronic files and emails, everything should go into your DMS.

Ideally, your legal document management system has a Microsoft Word and Outlook integration so you can take all your incoming and outgoing emails and documents and organize them by matter.

Here is a sample policy for documents:

About the Author: Dennis Dimka
Dennis Dimka is the CEO and founder of Uptime Legal Systems, North America's leading provider of technology, cloud and marketing services to law firms. Dennis is the author of Law Practice as a Service: How and Why to Move Your Law Firm to the Cloud, and was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist in 2016. Follow Dennis on LinkedIn.

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