GPSolo Magazine - December 2005
Going Mobile Against Your Will
I have considered myself a mobile attorney for many years. I made a specific choice to make myself into a mobile attorney to free up time for bar association activities, soccer, travel, writing, and other things while still practicing law full-time.
Recently, a large number of attorneys have found themselves forced into mobility in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Natural and man-made disasters can have that impact. It could affect any of us at any time. I saw a number of attorneys put into that situation in the San Francisco Bay area in 1989 as the result of a major earthquake. We saw a similar event as the result of a man-made catastrophe several years ago in New York. All such situations have one thing in common: the displacement of attorneys from their normal working environment. For most attorneys, that displacement means they cannot get access to their files or, for that matter, to any computers left in their office.
In essence, lawyers displaced by disasters find themselves forced to function as mobile attorneys under the worst possible circumstances. Consider what you would do if you woke up one morning to find that a fire had destroyed your office, or an earthquake had caused your building to collapse around it, or flood waters had reached the top of your highest file cabinet, or a disaster had made it impossible for you to get access to your law office for the foreseeable future.
None of us has complete protection from such disasters.
Most of us understand the importance of backing up our computer data and do, in fact, back up, at least at some level. Few of us back up our data as carefully or as often as we should. I thought I had done a pretty good job of setting up a backup ritual in and out of the office, but disasters like Katrina make us stop and think about what we generally fail to back up at all: the paper files in our office. The day may come when law practices do not depend on paper files, but for most of us that will not occur before we retire. Traditionally, lawyers store the paper files related to their cases in metal file cabinets or filing shelves where they have almost complete exposure to loss or serious damage by fire or flood, or even a failure of the plumbing system or a sprinkler system in the office building.
What happens to a practice when the paper files cease to exist in any usable form or simply become inaccessible?
Given the dire consequences associated with the loss of such files, attorneys should take steps to protect their clients, themselves, and their practices against such a catastrophe. What can we do to limit exposure to such a loss? Obviously we can consider the location of a practice. Some areas of the country have higher risks than others; some buildings will likely withstand risks better than others. Those considerations, while worthwhile, do not solve the problem. Simply put, lawyers will never completely insulate themselves against the possible loss of paper files. Attorneys can, however, minimize the risk of such a loss by backing up the paper files.
Given the amount of space (to say nothing of trees) consumed by paper files, it makes little sense to suggest the complete duplication, in paper form, of paper files. Problems with such an approach make it unacceptable, inadvisable, and simply unworkable.
The utility of a backup system depends upon the ability to restore quickly from that backup and to move a copy of the backup quickly and easily to a safe location. If you cannot easily remove it to safety, you risk losing the backup in the same catastrophe that destroys the original. If you cannot restore the backup to functional use, you have not saved anything worth having.
The Digital Solution
For some time I have considered digitizing all my paper documents as the best way to back them up. I could easily take a copy of the digitized documents out of the office and move them to a secure location. Likely all of the documents in my office would fit on a single hard disk drive, especially as the drives get smaller in size and larger in capacity. I already have a 400 gigabyte (GB) drive that is the same size as a paperback book and weighs only about a pound or so. I have a 100 GB drive that takes up no more space than the palm of my hand and weighs only about 8 ounces. You can get large-capacity, portable, stand-alone hard disk drives of 400-500 GB for less than $1 per gigabyte. You can get small pocketable 80-120 GB drives for less than $3 per gigabyte.
In fact, having all the documents in digital form would allow me to keep a copy of my entire file on a matter with me when I travel, so that, in addition to knowing that a fire, earthquake, or flood will not irreparably damage my practice, the digitization of the files would enhance my ability to work effectively on the road by allowing me to carry files without adding any substantial bulk or weight to my briefcase. I already use the 100 GB drive for backup purposes, and it leaves the office with me every day and travels with me on the road. Adding digitized versions of all the files I might want to see during the trip would only take a moment or two (less time than I currently spend getting the specific documents I need and copying them to take with me on the trip).
Furthermore, digitizing the documents as searchable PDF files would allow me to find things much easier than I can with paper. The computer can search for a character string and find it much faster than I can locate the file and look through it for the specific document required. And that comparison assumes everything has gone smoothly with the assembly of the paper file—imagine how much time you waste when a document has been placed out of order within the paper file or, even worse, has been placed in an entirely different file by accident.
Given the clear advantages, why haven’t we all digitized our files? Recognize that undertaking the conversion of your paper files to digital files will involve a significant effort. Many of us have considered the possibility in the past and decided that it would cost too much or that we could not easily meet the demands it would make on our time and resources. Accordingly, we did not do it. Has the world changed enough so that the concept works now? Perhaps. Or, perhaps we have simply come to recognize the inevitability of natural and man-made disasters and decided that it makes more sense to try to protect our clients, ourselves, and our practices than to just keep hoping that the next disaster strikes somewhere else.
Whatever the reason, the time seems right to take the plunge. Having decided to digitize my files, I needed to develop a plan to make it work. I also needed to make some decisions about how to accomplish this feat.
Taking the Plunge
Some years ago I inquired about the cost of having an outside group come in and convert my paper files to digital. I got an estimate of approximately $40,000 and decided I had better places to spend that money. The advances of technology have actually reduced the cost of having someone come in and digitize your files. In some ways that choice makes good sense. The process will take some time, and by using an outside agency you get it done much more quickly—and without tying up your in-house staff. If you choose an outside group, you don’t need to worry about equipment, staffing, training, or software for the conversion. The outside group will provide it all.
On the other hand, financial considerations may make it more reasonable to do it in-house and absorb the cost and the extra work over time. And even if you have an outside agency convert your existing files, you will need to keep creating new digital files in the future, so you will need to invest in equipment, software, and training anyway.
Ultimately, I decided to do the conversion in-house for several reasons, including cash-flow considerations. By doing the conversion over time, I pay for it on what amounts to the installment plan. I suspect that many solos and small firm attorneys will reach a similar conclusion. If you do it yourself, you will need to acquire the necessary hardware (a scanner) and software (generally scanner drivers and software come in a package with the scanner), and an OCR (optical character recognition) program. Many scanners come with OCR software included. If you do not already have a full copy of Adobe Acrobat (which you should), you will want to get one.
The nature of the scanner you choose will depend on the size of your office and how many documents you anticipate scanning. Remember that you will not only be converting existing files, but also creating digital files for all your future work. In fact, you may want to consider having more than one scanner in the office. I have, for example, acquired scanners for each person in the office. At least one scanner in the office should have ADF (automatic document feed) capabilities. You may also want to consider automatic duplexing (the ability to do both sides of a page in one pass).
Scanners come in two basic configurations: sheetfed and flatbed. A flatbed scanner allows you to lay an open book or an oversized page on the bed and scan it into a digital file. A sheetfed scanner can only take single pages. Scanning a page out of a book would require that you first photocopy the page (or tear it out of the book) and then run the single page through the scanner. ADF works with sheetfed scanners. It does not work with a pure flatbed scanner. In the best of worlds, you would have both types available in your office or a combination scanner that includes both capabilities. Generally, a good combination scanner with ADF will cost more than a sheetfed scanner with ADF. Fortunately, the cost of high-quality ADF scanners has dropped in recent years.
Here are some recommendations you can consider respecting scanners. I found myself quite impressed with the lower end of the Fujitsu line of ADF sheetfed scanners. Its ScanSnap lists for under $500 and comes with a full copy of Adobe Acrobat 7.0 Standard Edition. If you don’t have a full copy of Acrobat, that package offers an incredible value. I have seen the ScanSnap offered for even less online, and the last time I checked the Fujitsu site (www.fujitsu.com), I found a $50 discount coupon offered with the ScanSnap. The ScanSnap takes up relatively little desktop space (it’s about the same size as a football). It scans documents directly into PDF files for you. The ScanSnap’s ADF holds up to 50 pages (the closer you get to 50, the more likely it is to jam; but I had no problems with 30 to 35 pages and only an occasional jam at 45 to 55), and it scans in duplex mode at up to 15 pages per minute in black-and-white. The ScanSnap does not have an ISIS or a Twain driver (standard scanner drivers), which limits its ability to interface with third-party software such as OCR programs.
Currently, the ScanSnap works only with Windows machines (officially). Many Mac users have made it work with a Fujitsu Japanese driver or with third-party software called Scan Tango. Fujitsu has announced that it will have a Mac version of the ScanSnap available soon (the same hardware but with Mac OS software). Fujitsu already shows the Mac version on its website. It should be on the market by the time you read this article. I am informed that it will sell for the same price as the Windows version and that it will come with the Mac version of the full Adobe Acrobat 7.0 Standard Edition.
Fujitsu makes a much more powerful (heavily featured and industrial strength) sheetfed ADF scanner that sells for about twice the cost of the ScanSnap. The Fujitsu 4120c looks like a slightly larger ScanSnap (about the size of a rugby ball). It also has duplexing capabilities and comes with both Twain and ISIS drivers, making interfacing with third-party software quite easy. It comes with a full copy of Adobe Acrobat 7.0 Standard Edition as well as other software to facilitate scanning and management of scanned documents.
The 4120c looks and feels more substantial than the ScanSnap. It has a faster rating (25 pages per minute simplex and 50 pages per minute duplex). Like the ScanSnap, its ADF holds up to 50 pages, but I found the 4120c ADF to work a bit better at the higher end of its capacity.
If you want a high-quality combination flatbed and sheetfed ADF scanner, take a look at the HP/Compaq offerings. Their 8200 series excels. The base of the series, the 8200, is a simple flatbed scanner. The 8250 gets you an ADF top that attaches to the flatbed to create a combination scanner that holds up to 50 pages in ADF mode and scans up to 15 pages per minute. The ADF top for the 8290 also holds up to 50 pages, but it runs documents through the scanner at up to 25 pages per minute. All three versions come with Twain and ISIS drivers. The 8290 also has a high-speed SCSI interface. The 8250 costs $900, and the 8290 costs $1,500.
All the scanners come with software that allows you to scan your documents into one or more formats. With Adobe Acrobat, you can create searchable PDF files out of your scans. If you want the ability to convert imaged files to word processor formats, you will also need OCR software. You can acquire very competent OCR software for around $400. I am very impressed by DocuLex OCR for Lawyers ($399), ReadIris Professional Version 10 Corporate Edition ($399), and OmniPage 15 ($499, $199 as an upgrade), all of which I recently reviewed.
A Winning Game Plan
For your digital backup system to succeed, you will need a game plan. I have adopted a relatively simple one. I already have a set of electronic folders on a networked server for each client and each client matter. Instead of saving documents that go out of my office in Word files, we will also create a copy of each document as a searchable PDF, giving us the ability to freeze the document’s form and to search for it easily. As documents come into the office, my secretary will scan them to searchable PDF files, placing the digitized files into the appropriate client matter folders. That will apply to mail, pleadings, and documents brought in by clients. Effectively everything going forward will have an electronic existence to back up the paper and to allow us to use it better and more efficiently.
Existing files will get converted over time. We plan to convert several files a day until we complete the conversion of all current, open files. If the process goes too slowly, I will hire part-time help to assist in the conversion. At any rate, I expect that we will have completed that conversion in the course of a few months. (Now, if we can only hold off that earthquake they keep predicting. . . .)
I’ve not yet decided whether closed, warehoused files deserve the effort it would take to convert them. And the older they get, the less value they have. Eventually, we would destroy them anyway (we have a written destruction policy that our clients sign when they retain us). One thing’s for sure: As we move forward, destroying paper files will create less angst because we will still have electronic backup for them.
In fact, I like this concept so much that I told my wife I want to do the same thing with our personal files.
Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker on technology topics, he is the special issue editor of GPSolo’s Technology & Practice Guide and editor-in-chief of the Technology eReport. He also teaches business law in the graduate and undergraduate divisions of the Business School of the University of Phoenix. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.