Factors to Consider Before Taking Your Practice Paperless
Going paperless is the dream for many solo and small law firms. Running a paperless office is often considered a viable means for increasing productivity and efficiency. However, what most people who preach about the merits of the paperless practice fail to admit—or simply omit—is the cost of going paperless.
If your practice is drowning with bankers boxes and paper files stacked chest high, you probably consider the benefits of going paperless each and every day. But the benefits of increased productivity must be considered and weighed against the time and expense of getting to “paperless paradise.”
While there is little doubt that going paperless will ultimately result in increased productivity for most law firms—because it decreases the time it takes to sort through and find information over time—it is important to plan and develop a working strategy for determining whether you can or should go paperless, or how paperless your firm should be. Here are some factors to consider before you go buy your new scanner and a shredder.
How Paperless Can You Go?
If you have considered going paperless for any significant length of time, you likely have begun to realize that there is no such thing as being truly paperless. Frankly, there are few practice areas in the law that could really permit a lawyer to consider going completely paperless.
Regardless, if you develop a plan to go paperless, that plan needs to complex enough for your team to be able to know what should be electronic and simple enough so that your team never has to ask you what should be scanned and shredded. It’s a scary proposition is you aren’t planning and training appropriately.
Electronic File Storage
Possibly my least favorite conversation I ever had with my office leadership team is related to how we should structure our electronic files when we decided to commit to going digital. The conversation lasted for a little over three hours—not continuous arguments—but long enough for me to realize that everyone has an opinion. What did we argue about? Well, whether we should use subfolders or not as our default file structure.
If you are planning to go digital with your practice, you have to realize that everyone has an opinion, but more than that, everyone has electronic computing habits that are hard to break or train. Each person is different and, as such, you need to plan to accommodate these differences as much as is practical.
Security and Permissions
If you are considering taking your files to the cloud or even just to a local shared storage device, it is important to spend some time thinking about how you are going to secure your clients’ data. While the cloud offers significant flexibility and access to your data, it also opens up your practice to cyber attacks.
Along these lines, it is important to understand who in your office will have access to the files. Additionally, you should consider whether all employees would have access to each and every file. If Paralegal A only works on personal injury matters, will he or she have access to criminal client files? Modern web storage systems are sophisticated and complex and can allow your practice significant flexibility in determining what is accessible, not only to you and your staff but also to your clients.
If you are planning to go paperless properly, you should give some serious consideration to what file formats you plan on using and what software is available to read, edit and search your files. If you plan on turning all of your files to PDFs, stop and consider whether you plan on making your PDFs readable through OCR. Will you convert current electronic files to PDFs? Have you budgeted for PDF editing software?
File Naming Structure
Possibly one of the most complicated components of going paperless is developing an easy-to-use file name structure. A poorly created file name structure means that 1) staff members often name files incorrectly or 2) files can not be located because the names are not consistent. Spend time thinking about how you can make the file naming structure easy to use and remember, but also simple to create.
Our first attempt at going paperless was a bit of a failure. However, once we discovered that spending time and energy before we started scanning was key, our paperless policy worked well. I am proud of the efforts that my team has made this year to turn our office to a paperless wonderland. Just remember that if you decide to go paperless, spend as much time as possible preparing the plan of action before you start scanning and saving files to the cloud.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success. Anyone who has ever met Jared will tell you h