GPSolo Magazine - December 2003

Setting Up the Paperless Office

Operating a paperless office is like baseball. As Yogi Berra once said, baseball is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical. The proportions are just the same for setting up and operating a paperless office. Making the transition to a paperless office requires a major shift in thinking about how you as a lawyer handle information, which can be a difficult transition for some folks. The physical “half” of the paperless office depends on hardware and software, some of which you already may have and some you may need to purchase. Read on for the details.

90 Percent Mental

Lawyers and law firms process information—little more and little else. We receive information from clients and other sources, we add information gained from research and experience, and we deliver information. The information lawyers deliver takes many forms—pleadings, oral presentations, opinion letters—but in the end, we receive, process, and deliver information.

Most of the information that comes into the law office arrives as paper documents. For that matter, most of the work product from law offices goes out as some type of physical document as well. In a simple and abstract view of the typical law office, three primary systems are involved in processing documents: (1) generation, (2) copying or replication, and (3) retention or filing.

Figure 1 (Incoming Documents) and Figure 2 (Outgoing Documents) illustrate how these systems work in a traditional law office. Notice that all documents (whether incoming or outgoing) pass through the copying or replication system. In a traditional office, a photocopier acts as the copying or replication system. In the paperless office, replication is done by a combination of imaging software and a scanner. Incoming documents pass through the scanner, producing digital copies that can be stored electronically. Most outgoing documents are already in electronic form (e.g., Word or WordPerfect), but for consistency’s sake and ease of storage/retrieval, they should be converted into the same format used for the scanned incoming documents: portable document format (PDF).

Once documents are converted to PDF and stored on a network hard drive, they are accessible to any user on the network. The file room in the paperless law office consists of electronic filing cabinets, filled with folders that contain everything found in traditional paper files. If the shared hard disk drive is the file room, large divisions on the disk are the cabinets inside the room that hold the folders for each client matter. Most client matter folders are further divided into subfolders to aid in organization and navigation.

Think about what it would be like to be able to find documents without leaving your desk or rummaging through file cabinets or boxes. Think of all the paper you put in files because you may need it someday, or the burdensome process of closing files and moving them to storage. Recall the times you’ve gone to storage to retrieve a single piece of paper. Now, consider what it would be like to have all those documents in electronic format, readily available whenever needed, or to close files simply by dragging them from an active work directory to an archive directory. This is the reality of the paperless law office.

50 Percent Physical

Once you decide to go paperless, the physical part of the paperless office becomes manageable. It consists of the hardware and software needed to convert paper documents to digital documents and to store, retrieve, work with, and back up those digital documents.

Scanners. The most important item on the list is the scanner. There are many scanners on the market, not all suitable for the paperless law office. Inexpensive flatbed scanners generally lack an automatic document feeder (ADF) and as a result cannot process paper quickly enough to be useful. Small, single-sheetfed scanners likewise are too slow to be much benefit. Both of these models are convenient for individual users who only occasionally scan documents. High-speed sheet-fed scanners are attractive but lack the ability to handle books and magazines and may require use of a transparent sleeve to hold small or fragile documents for transport through the page feeder.

The best model is a scanner that combines the benefits of flatbed and sheet-fed models and has the ability to acquire images at a rate of at least ten pages per minute (ppm). Scanners in this category are priced at $800 and up. Whether you realize it or not, two key pieces of your office infrastructure are rated on a ppm basis—printer and photocopier. Because the scanner in combination with a printer replaces the photocopier, the ppm rating is a prime factor to consider. When shopping on the basis of ppm, be sure to consider the capacity of the ADF—a scanner that runs at 20 ppm with a 25-page ADF will need constant attention. Next consider whether you need to acquire color images; some of the faster scanners acquire gray-scale images only. In addition, consider the frequency at which you receive and/or may need to image documents printed on both sides of the page. Some higher priced scanners come with a manual duplexing feature; some lower priced high-speed scanners can handle two-sided documents with added software (feed the documents through to acquire images of side one, turn the stack over to acquire images of side two; the software takes care of collating). (See the article “Scanners” on page 42 for more purchasing considerations.)

Software. Once upon a time, the choice of imaging applications was difficult and complex. Today, Adobe Acrobat is the standard for document exchange and provides a good means for converting paper documents to digital files. Many state courts have implemented systems and standards for electronically filing documents using Adobe PDF files, and the federal courts are moving to a PDF system as well. (Don’t confuse Adobe Acrobat with Acrobat Reader, a free program available on the Internet, which makes PDF files readable.)

When you scan an incoming document, Adobe Acrobat converts it to PDF for storage; for outgoing documents, Word and WordPerfect contain drivers to convert (publish) word processing files to PDF files for storage. Adobe Acrobat not only creates storable images, but it lets you make the PDF files truly usable by making them searchable (scanned PDFs are “image-only” files that cannot be searched for a particular word), as well as allowing the option of adding bookmarks, sticky notes, and underlining.

Once your documents are converted to PDF, you’ll need a system to file and retrieve them. Figure 3 shows an example of a simple electronic file system. Because it’s digital, you can add all the subfolders you want, then simply drag and drop the contents from one folder to another. File reorganization can’t be much easier. And unlike paper files, digital files are very easy to search. Basic searches can be done using Windows Explorer or its Macintosh equivalent. If you want or need more, consider Worldox, which provides industrial- strength file management (at a price, of course). Between Windows Explorer and industrial strength are case management programs such as Amicus Attorney, TimeMatters, and GroupWise, which offer varying degrees of document management capabilities. (For more, see the article “ Document Management” on page 60.)

Storage devices. As you begin creating Adobe PDF files for all incoming and outgoing paper, you’ll find your office looking empty—all those filing cabinets now will be electronic components, typically, hard disk drives. Document collections should be stored on a network drive: an internal hard disk or a storage appliance such as a SnapDrive. When planning or acquiring storage devices, consider the speed at which documents can be retrieved. Fast hard disk drives (7,200 rpm or 10,000 rpm) are much preferred. If stored documents will be available across a network, fast Ethernet (100 MB/second) provides good performance. Standard Ethernet (10 MB/second) and 801.11(b) wireless (11 MB/second) do not provide sufficient bandwidth for retrieving and working with large scanned documents (1,000 pages or more). (For more information on networking options, see the article “ Benefit from Wireless Networks Through Risk Management” on page 22.)

As a general rule, a standard letter page scanned at 300 dots per inch (dpi, a measure of resolution) requires approximately 50 kilobytes (KB) of space, and a single drawer in a filing cabinet holds approximately 10,000 pages. Storing the same 10,000 pages electronically requires 500 MB (megabytes) of storage—less than a single compact disc (CD-ROM, CD-R, or CD-RW), which holds 700 MB (equivalent to 1.4 file cabinet drawers). An entire four-drawer filing cabinet (40,000 pages) thus requires only 2 GB (gigabytes) of space. Although standards issues have yet to be resolved, prices for DVD writers now fall within the reasonable range, with many under $300. A single DVD holds 4.7 GB, or the equivalent of two four-drawer filing cabinets. A 100-GB hard disk drive—the equivalent of 50 four-drawer filing cabinets—currently sells for less than $100.

Outgoing word-processing documents converted directly to PDF require even less storage space than scanned incoming documents. For example, a six-page document requires 300 KB of storage space (at 50 KB per page) when scanned and converted to PDF; the same six pages converted directly from a word-processing document to PDF require only 70 KB.

However it’s measured, available space for digital document storage is vast, and the cost is low. Contrast that with the space required for paper files and the ever-increasing costs associated with physical storage space. A standard filing cabinet is 18 inches wide by 24 inches deep. Allowing 18 inches to open the drawers and another 18 inches of human space increases the depth to 60 inches. In other words, a standard filing cabinet has a footprint of 1.5 feet by 5 feet—or 7.5 square feet. To build that square footage, at $150 per square foot, will cost $1,125 (then you have to heat it, insure it, pay taxes on it, etc.). Renting the same footprint at $15 per square foot will cost you $112.50 per year (plus utilities, insurance, etc.). Would you rather pay the cost for digital storage or continue warehousing paper files?

100 Percent Backup

If you commit your files to the digital realm, you must back them up. (See the article “Backup: Invest Now or Pay Later” on page 66 for purchasing considerations.) Backup is simple if you just follow the rules:

  • Rule 1: Perform full backups daily; do not rely on differential or incremental backups.
  • Rule 2: Keep one (or more) complete set of up-to-date backups off-site.
  • Rule 3: Test the backups occasionally to make sure (a) they’re actually being recorded to the media and (b) you can in fact restore the files.

David L. Masters practices law in Montrose, Colorado, and can be reached at dlm@masterslawfirm.com.

 

Back to Top

< /