YourABA: November 2013
YourABA November 2013 Masthead

Building a paperless law office

Many lawyers are unsure of how to make the paperless leap. But as more courts and agencies move toward electronic-only document submission, lawyers must adapt to new paperless ways or be left behind.

The recent American Bar Association webinar "The Paperless Law Firm" built the case for the efficiencies that can be gained by moving toward a paperless practice and shared tips on creating such a practice.

"There’s really no single right way to go paperless," said Joseph Kashi, an Alaska-based attorney who has been strictly paperless since 2003. "It all depends upon the kind of work you do and your working style — what you’re comfortable with. You really just need to experiment to see what works best for you."

Going paperless has allowed Kashi to do more work with half the staff. "There are some significant benefits from a purely financial standpoint," he said.

When Kashi decided to go paperless, "I finally made the decision that the only way to do it effectively was to just start from wherever I was in a particular case. I went forward and started scanning from there. We did not go back."

Within about three months, "we had probably 90 percent of what we needed already in the system," he said.

Kashi put "the fastest possible" hard-wired computer network in his office. Everyone has a scanner, and everyone has Acrobat.

"Aside from the inherent security benefits, a hard-wired network is much, much faster than any wireless or Internet-based support," he said. "You have to remember that when you’re using image documents, they become very large files very quickly. As a result, my sense is that using them on the cloud or over a wireless network is probably too slow to be efficient. So we have gone with a fully hard-wired system with a redundant backup onto our internal file server."

Dave Bilinsky, a lawyer with the Law Society of British Columbia in Vancouver, said all the different parts of the system have to work together. "This goes back to a quote from Bill Gates, where he says, ‘Technology applied to an efficient system will improve the efficiency. Technology applied to an inefficient system only magnifies the inefficiencies,’" Bilinsky said. "It’s kind of a cycle. You start bringing in some work-flow improvements in terms of accessing your documents electronically, remote access, imaging them … that leads to productivity improvements because you don’t have to go out there and find the paper anymore."

In 18 years of practice, Bilinsky used a paper file, or a "bucket" system. "There would be one big folder with a bunch of subfolders in there: pleadings, correspondence, research," he said. "Each folder represented a different classification of information. The equivalent in the paperless office is to have some sort of document management system that draws together all of those bits of electronic communications that you have on the file."

Another important consideration about going paperless is having a backup plan, Bilinsky said. "You definitely need a backup plan, a backup of the software and a plan for recovering if a hardware drive fails," he said. "I prefer the ioSafe SoloPRO. This is good for the smaller firm or the home office. It’s fireproof for a certain period of time, waterproof for a certain period of time, it’s air-cooled, it’s silent, it’s good for PCs or Macs, and it’s large capacity," he said. "If you want a good hardened local copy of your data, this isn’t a bad way to go."

Kashi shared a different perspective. "What works best is an eSATA connection from the file server system board into an eSATA backup device," he said. "I can back up 800 gigabytes in two and a half hours, which is pretty quick. It’s not very expensive either."

Of course, going paperless is not just about changing the technology. "It’s about changing the way people work and think," Bilinsky said. "Attitudes are important here. You start getting resistance when change is being thrust upon people. People are comfortable with the way things work now and don’t see much reason to change, so this can be an issue for you."

Kashi added: "You just have to train people and train people and train people until they’re comfortable with it. A few people just won’t be able to make the change psychologically, and quite frankly, you’ll have to find a place for them where they can’t do damage because sometimes you’ll find they’ll do more damage than if they weren’t doing any work at all."

You have to give some thought and attention to how you manage the change to a paperless firm, Bilinsky said. "You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so try to do all the background work, the investigation, the prototyping first," he said. "Give considerable thought to plans for the introduction."

Bring people into your organization who you would identify as your early adopters, and let them get familiar with the system first, Bilinsky said. "They will be more open to the change than other people will be," he said. "Identify who would be roadblocks in your system and what kind of strategies you can use to bring them along."

Celebrating your successes is also important, Bilinsky said. "Establish your milestones and announce when you achieved them, and keep the team moving forward," he said. "As you start to deal with change, you learn from your mistakes and you learn from your successes, you record it, and the next change becomes that much easier."

"The Paperless Law Firm" was sponsored by the Law Practice Division and the Center for Professional Development.

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