How to Start and Run a Paperless Office

Vol. 31 No. 1

By

Nerino J. Petro Jr. (practicehelp@wisbar.org) is the practice management advisor for the State Bar of Wisconsin.

Paper, paper, and more paper! Lawyers often seem to be drowning in a sea of paper. Storing all this paper is not the only issue. How do you keep all of it properly filed? How do you locate it later when you need it? How do you easily provide a copy to a client or other party? For those just starting out in practice, these may seem like minor issues; however, for those who have been in practice for some time and are dealing with overflowing file cabinets and bankers boxes of closed files, this is a very real issue. The answer is not as simple as scanning everything and converting the paper into electronic files. You need to have the proper equipment, software, and processes in place before you get started so that you are as efficient and effective as possible. Otherwise, you can waste huge amounts of time and resources and not markedly improve the problem.

The Paperless Office

Paper was great for our grandfathers and even our fathers, but we live in a digital world. The days of mechanical typewriters and carbon paper are long past. Our clients and other professionals exchange information by electronic means such as e-mail, text messages, and digital files. The reality is that electronic documents are now part of a lawyer’s everyday life. If they are not part of yours, you need to ask yourself why they are not.

So what is the paperless office? According to Wikipedia:

A paperless office is a work environment in which the use of paper is eliminated or greatly reduced. This is done by converting documents and other papers into digital form. Proponents claim that “going paperless” can save money, boost productivity, save space, make documentation and information sharing easier, keep personal information more secure, and help the environment. The concept can also be extended to communications outside the office. (tinyurl.com/584qel)

Many pundits believe that “going paperless” means the total elimination of all paper from your practice. This is a laudable but unrealistic goal, and if it ever arrives, it will be many years in the future. My good friend Ross Kodner, who passed away in July 2013, coined the term The Paper LESS Office. The Paper LESS Office established the realistic goal of reducing the amount of paper necessary and reducing how often paper is handled.

Considerations Before Going Paperless

There is more to becoming paperless than simply buying a scanner and some software, although these are important pieces to the process and we will discuss their importance a little later. Before you scan your first piece of paper, you need to determine a number of things to establish a process and procedures that can be easily followed by everyone.

Storage. Where are you going to store the digital files? Will they reside on a network, on a single computer, or out in “the cloud?” The good thing about current technology is that hard drives are inexpensive and keep getting bigger. Take a 1 TB (terabyte) internal hard drive currently available for less than $75. Let us say for discussion purposes that you generate 2 GB (gigabytes) of files each year. A terabyte is the rough equivalent of 1,000 gigabytes. For less than $75, you can store about 500 years’ worth of information on that drive.

Organization. How are you going to organize your digital files: by client, by type of document, or by some other method? In your current paper filing system, do you put your files in filing cabinets in alphabetical order by client? Or do you perhaps organize by year and then by client? Do you currently organize your files on your computer the same way, or do you use a category of case (e.g., Family Law, Real Estate, Trusts, etc.), or do you organize by type of document (e.g., Pleading, Correspondence, Contract, etc.)? There is no right or wrong answer so long as you and your staff are consistent.

Naming. How do you currently name your electronic files? Is there any consistency to the file naming structure, or does everyone in your office use whatever name they want? When you are starting out, it is easier to create a naming process and then enforce it as you add others to your staff. There are a number of different file naming ideas. Many of the popular ones start by using a date as the file name so that the files will sort by date without relying on the Date Created or Date Modified columns. Others prefer to begin the file name with the type of document so that files sort by type; these folks usually use fewer folders to sort document types. (For several examples of file naming and storage structures, see bit.ly/15Z0FSX, bit.ly/15YZiU4, bit.ly/15Z0tTy, and bit.ly/15Z1afD).

Where to start. If you are just starting your practice, it is easy to start scanning your files. However, if you are bringing files with you to your new practice or have inherited files from a practice you purchased, you face a conundrum faced by others: Do you start scanning closed files first (referred to as “retrospective conversion”)? Here is a hint: The band Boston captured the correct decision in their song “Don’t Look Back.”

Closed files don’t generate revenue, and rarely do you need the information contained in them. So closed files are the last place you want to start going paperless, although it is where many lawyers tend to start. New cases are the easiest to start with, and the information they present is the most valuable. Once you have all your new and open files scanned, only then should you consider undertaking retrospective conversion.

Sorting internal and external documents. Documents from outside the office are not the only electronics files that you will deal with. How will you differentiate between files you create on your computer (e.g., in Word, WordPerfect, or Excel) from those that you receive?

A number of paperless office advocates recommend that you treat anything not in PDF format as drafts. If a letter or other document does not also exist as a PDF file, then it hasn’t been sent, and the non-PDF versions are merely drafts of the document (see tinyurl.com/lf4yjau.) This has the benefit of allowing you to quickly see if an internally generated document has been sent. You can store the native files (e.g., Word, WordPerfect, or Excel files) with the PDF versions; this allows you to see if a PDF exists as it should appear immediately adjacent to the native file of the same name. However, some people find this system to be confusing as the files only differ by the document type in the file name. Others, such as David L. Masters, author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Adobe Acrobat (third edition, ABA, 2008), prefers to use a dual folder structure: one folder for the native files and one folder for the PDF files. Using dual folders has the benefit of keeping native and PDF separate but organized. Below is an example of what a dual folder structure might look like, with one folder for PDFs and one for native files:

  • Jenkins Al v Bell Credit Union
    • CorresPDF [all correspondence in PDF]
    • CorresWPD [all outgoing correspondence in native WordPerfect format]
    • PleadPDF [all pleadings in PDF]
    • PleadWPD [all pleadings in native WordPerfect format]

As with most ways of doing things, there are a number of concepts for organizing your folders and files.

Finding your documents. Any filing system is worthless unless you can find your documents once they have been filed. This is true of both paper and paperless systems. If you have an efficient paper filing system, you should consider duplicating that for your paperless filing system as well. If you are not using a document management system (DMS) such as Worldox, Time Matters, or NetDocuments, with their built-in organizational and search tools, then your file organizational structure becomes even more important. But even the best structured system may not be enough to quickly find files. If you remember a phrase or subject but can’t remember the client or file, it will be difficult finding the specific document without further assistance. This is where desktop search engines can save the day.

Searching digital information from the desktop using the correct tools for the job makes finding files easier. Desktop search engines will index every word in digital files that contain text, as well as file names including e-mail and attachments. Windows 7 and 8 include a much more powerful Windows Search tool than prior Windows versions. For Mac users, the Spotlight search tool will do the same thing. To search the text of scanned documents, you must first make them searchable using optical character recognition (OCR) tools that are included with Adobe Acrobat and many other products. (If you are running Windows 7 64-Bit, you may have encountered issues with searching within PDF files; for a fix, see bit.ly/146xBex.)

The tools built into your Windows or Mac desktop are not your only options. Tools such as Copernic (copernic.com), X1 Search (x1.com), and for larger offices Perceptive Search (formerly ISYS; perceptivesoftware.com) and dtSearch (dtsearch.com) provide more search options and capabilities. If you and your staff can find information faster and easier using electronic files, then you are more likely to follow your paperless workflow and adopt it permanently. Although not a replacement for a DMS, combining your folder structure with a desktop search tool can be very effective for a small office.

Workflow

Once you’ve made the decision to go paperless and have decided how you will organize your folders and files, you need to map out your proposed workflow. You will use the workflow along with your decisions on folder and file naming structure to create a written policy for your office. Remember that implementing a scanning and storage policy is not something that you just want to jump into without prior thought and planning. The goal of implementing a scanning solution should be to improve efficiency, simplify storage and retrieval, and allow for a backup methodology. Before you can implement a functional scanning workflow in your office, you should ask yourself some basic questions:

  • What documents do I want to convert to electronic files?
  • Do I want to capture all my closed files and old documents (retrospective conversion)?
  • Do I want to capture documents from a set date and those that come into the office after that date?
  • Am I going to eliminate maintaining paper copies of outgoing documents in my files so both outgoing and incoming documents are all stored electronically?
  • Am I going to scan all incoming documents or only certain incoming documents?
  • If I’m only going to scan a portion of incoming documents, which documents will they be? Mail? Letters? Pleadings?
  • Discovery requests: scan and OCR rather than retyping to respond?
  • Medical records?
  • Other evidence?
  • Will I shred all documents once they have been scanned?
  • Will I keep documents with original signatures on file?
  • Do I have the software that I will need? If not, what do I need?
  • Do I want to be able to search the electronic files, or do I only want an image of the document?
  • Do I want to be able to scan a document and then modify it in my word processor?
  • Do I want everyone to be able to access these documents, and if so, where should they be placed?
  • Am I going to use my existing electronic folder structure, or do I want to implement a DMS?
  • How much can I spend on this project?

You should use these questions as a way to establish an internal procedure that is realistic given your existing resources. Determining what documents will be scanned can impact decisions as to whether or not you will add more hard drive storage space, whether you will use your existing software/hardware or purchase new, and whether you will use your existing electronic folder structure or implement a DMS.

Using all this information, you can create your road map to follow for your office. More importantly, you and your staff need follow it, to the letter. If you are not using a DMS that forces everyone to follow the same rules, your system will rise and fall on consistency. This will take discipline on the part of you and your staff, but it is critical to a successful transition and continuation of going paperless.

What might such a workflow look like? Using a diagram can help you visualize the process and make it easier to follow. It can also help point out steps that could be consolidated or discarded to make the process more efficient. Look at the three charts above. A simple incoming workflow for a paperless office might look something like this:

A simple outgoing workflow for a paperless office might look like this:

(both figures are recreated with permission from Ernie Svenson, paperlesschase.com). A more complex, file-centric workflow might be similar to the one shown here:

(recreated with permission from DocumentSnap, documentsnap.com).

Taking It to the Next Level

If you want to take your scanning and storage to the next level, then use a practice management system such as Time Matters (lexisnexis.com) with its built-in DMS or a dedicated DMS such as Worldox (worldox.com) or NetDocuments (netdocuments.com). Your documents will be related to specific matters, making them easier to find and organize. These products include full text searching as well as the ability to profile the documents with information including the client, matter, type of document, and other categories. Additionally, they will create your folder structure and automatically name your files. While not as full featured, many of the cloud-based practice management products such as Clio (goclio.com) and MyCase (mycase.com) include the ability to associate files with matters. If you use the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 (fujitsu.com/us), you can scan directly to Clio’s included document storage using an app from Clio. You can also use one of the online document storage services including Dropbox (dropbox.com), Box (box.com), and Google Drive (drive.google.com) to store your files and associate them with a matter. However, there is no full text searching in these cloud-based services.

One benefit of using a cloud-based service such as Dropbox, Box.com, or Google Drive is that you can install the desktop app that will then synchronize your documents from your desktop to the cloud and onto any other computer with the app installed. This means that you can make a local backup of all your files. To back up files stored in Clio’s document storage service, you need to create a data escrow account with Amazon and then use client software to download all the files to your desktop. (See bit.ly/14Wgpv3, bit.ly/14WguP8, bit.ly/14WgBuj, and bit.ly/14WhnaD for more information. Note that services such as Dropbox, Box.com, and Google Drive are not true backup services; you still need a backup strategy and method to create a backup of these files.)

A hybrid approach between a full DMS and no DMS is a product called FileCenter from Lucion Technologies (lucion.com). FileCenter works in conjunction with Windows Explorer and uses a filing cabinet and drawer metaphor. It replaces the typical Save dialog box in programs such as Word and WordPerfect (although the user can bypass this and revert to Windows Explorer). FileCenter will automatically name files following rules you establish and also allow you to create templates of folders and subfolders that can be reused time and again. FileCenter works with local and cloud storage services such as Dropbox and Google Drive. At the time this article was written, FileCenter Pro was $199 per computer; it includes scanning and OCR capabilities.

What You Need to Get Started

To begin your move to the paperless office, you need only a few basic tools to get started:

  • Newer computer with sufficient storage, CPU, and memory
  • Scanner
  • PDF software
  • Backup tools

Computer. Computer prices continue to drop, and no one should be using a system that is more than three years old. To ensure that your hardware does not create a bottleneck for going paperless, it should have a midrange CPU. Computers with 32-bit operating systems should have 4 GB of RAM (in fact, 32-bit operating systems cannot address more than 4 GB of RAM). Computers with 64-bit operating systems should have at least 8 GB of RAM. You also need to have sufficient hard drive storage for your immediate needs and the next several years. If you are going to begin scanning all your incoming documents, you need to make sure that you have at least 500 GB of available storage space. If you are putting your documents and your software on a single computer, then ideally you should dedicate at least 500 GB just for document storage. One way of doing this is to use a larger hard drive (say, 1 TB) and create several disk partitions on it: one for your operating system and programs and then a second for your files. (For more, see bit.ly/146FuRp.) For a desktop computer, a better option would be to install a second hard drive or to use an external drive.

Scanner. It is understood that you will need one or more scanners in your office. The real question is what type of scanner and what features should it have? Start with a sheet-fed scanner. These are scanners that scan individual pages and can handle either one sheet or multiple pages at a time, depending on the machine’s capabilities. These scanners include automatic document feeders (ADFs) similar to those found on copiers.

What is the estimated daily volume of scanning you will do? All scanners have a “duty cycle” that indicates the maximum number of scans they can realistically process. For instance, the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 is an excellent desktop scanner product with a duty cycle of about 750 pages per day. If you will have more pages than that on a consistent basis, you may need to use a more expensive scanner, such as a digital document center, that can scan thousands of pages per day. However, for most offices, one or more decent desktop scanners such as the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500, Epson GTS-50 (epson.com), Canon imageFORMULA DR-C125 (usa.canon.com), or similar scanner may be the best value.

Scanning speed is also an issue. The slower the machine, the more time it will take your staff to scan documents. The faster a scanner captures pages, the more expensive the machine will typically be. Once you determine the average volume you will process per day, calculate the amount of time it will take to scan those using different page-per-minute rates and determine what speed you feel to be the best value, given your volume and staff resources. The scanners cited above hit a sweet spot for most solo and small law offices. Generally, desktop multi-function printers are too slow for true paperless productivity.

The need for speed is not the only consideration when selecting a scanner. Ideally, you need to be able to scan double-sided (duplex) documents, scan in color, and be able to scan different-size pages. You should also check to see if the scanner integrates with the software and/or services that you are using in your office. If you use Clio as a practice management system and use Clio’s included cloud-based document storage service, the Fujitsu ScanSnap may be ideal for you; as noted above, Clio has software that allows you to scan directly to the Clio document storage from a ScanSnap scanner. ScanSnap will also scan to Dropbox, Google Drive (with the free ScanDrop addon), Worldox, NetDocuments, and Evernote (evernote.com). The other scanners listed above are TWAIN compliant and will work with any software or service that is also TWAIN compliant. (For more on TWAIN, see tinyurl.com/yvycp8.)

Most lawyers have only an occasional need to scan a book or something that won’t go through a sheet feeder. For those rare instances, consider adding one of the inexpensive flatbed scanners available from a big-box office supply or electronics store.

Portable scanners are great tools for road warriors to scan paper documents quickly while out of the office. Modern portable scanners use a USB connection, and some offer duplex scanning. The trade-off for this portability is slower scan speeds and either no sheet feeder or lower capacity sheet feeders than a desktop scanner. Models include the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1100 and S1300, the Canon imageFORMULA P-215 Scan-tini, and the Visioneer Mobility (visioneer.com).

If you find that you are doing large volumes of scanning for personal injury or medical cases or something similar, then you may want to explore a large digital copy center such as the Canon ImageRUNNER, Xerox WorkCentre (office.xerox.com), Konica Minolta bizhub (kmbs.konicaminolta.us), or Kyocera multi-functionals (kyoceradocumentsolutions.com). Generally, these replace the old photocopiers that you found in offices and can scan at 40 or more pages a minute with much larger capacity sheet feeders.

PDF software. You must have PDF software to go paperless. The de jure file format for electronic documents in most instances today is the PDF (portable document format). The ideal PDF software allows you to not only create PDF files but to work with them as well. These features include running optical character recognition (OCR) on a scanned PDF to create a searchable text layer and editing text within the PDF. (For a full-length comparison article on the most common PDF software for lawyers, see bit.ly/12m4orS.)

Backup tools. Moving to a paperless office means that you can now easily back up all your files—and you must do so. A solid backup plan should target all your critical files and should include both online backup as well as a rotating series of local backups in which the backup media is moved off-site. With the drop in cost of online document storage and backup services, subject to bandwidth and provider limitations, you are able to back up all your documents and other critical files online for not a lot of money. Providers include CrashPlan (crashplan.com), Carbonite (carbonite.com), BackBlaze (backblaze.com), and many, many more.

Conclusion

When you are getting started is the best time to begin converting to a digital practice. With a reasonable investment in hardware and software and time spent detailing your workflow, you can make your life easier and more efficient by getting rid of the paper.

Additional Resources on the Paperless Office

Acrobat for Legal Professionals (blogs.adobe.com/acrolaw): A blog by Rick Borstein of Adobe that aims to be “a resource for lawyers, law firms, paralegals, legal IT pros and anyone interested in the use of Acrobat in the legal community.” 

The Basics of Client Files and Paperless Systems: Opening, Closing, Documentation, and Ticklers (bit.ly/146tkYw): Downloadable PDF from Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company.

Beginning Acrobat for Lawyers (bit.ly/14Wo5gM): Paper on using Acrobat by Catherine Sanders Reach, Director, Law Practice Management and Technology at the Chicago Bar Association.

“Document Naming System in Our Paperless Office” (bit.ly/146oNp4): Article by Donna Neff and Natalie Sanna from Law Practice Today, September 2009.

DocumentSnap (documentsnap.com): Tips and tricks as well as fee-based resources for going paperless.

Getting to Paperless: A Lawyer’s Step by Step Guide (tinyurl.com/k595fzc): Slide deck on going paperless from the 2009 ABA TECHSHOW.

Go Paperless! A Guide for Lawyers (slidesha.re/14WlBiy): Good set of slides for lawyers on going paperless.

Lawyer PDF (lawyerpdf.blogspot.com): Information and advice on PDFs for lawyers.

MacSparky Paperless Field Guide (macsparky.com/paperless): Terrific guide from David Sparks (available from the Apple Book store or in PDF format) providing a wealth of information for going paperless, especially for the Mac-centric office.

Paperless Chase (paperlesschase.com): A wealth of information on all things paperless from lawyers Ernie Svenson (who writes the Ernie the Attorney blog), Andrew Legrand, and Adriana Linares.

Paperless for Lawyers—A 12 Step Plan (tinyurl.com/mf7rjh9): Useful article from Adriana Linares.

The Paperless Law Office: A Practical Guide to Digitally Powering Your Firm (tinyurl.com/k5lslod): ABA book by Benjamin F. Yale on moving to a paperless practice.

Scanning 101: Scanning for Small Offices (compujurist.com/downloads_page): Detailed paper discussing scanner types, PDF, and OCR tools.

ScanSnap Community (scansnapcommunity.com): The official Fujitsu site for all things ScanSnap, including tips and tricks, marketplace, and more.

“Setting Up the Paperless Office” (bit.ly/146nKFx): Article by David L. Masters from GPSolo magazine, December 2003.

“Super Structure: The Paper-Based System Holding Up Your Paperless Office” (bit.ly/146utze): Post on organizing your office from the Small Firm Innovation Blog.

“Tips on Creating an Inexpensive Paperless Law Office” (bit.ly/14Wmd7K): Good post from Technology Tips for Lawyers Blog.

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