Volume 20, Number 5 July/August 2003



By David L. Masters

If your rainmaking has proved so successful that you find yourself in danger of drowning, the answer might be less costly than hiring additional staff and less unpleasant than turning away lucrative clients. A modest investment in new technology can make your solo or small practice more efficient-and better able to handle the additional work coming your way. You may want to start by converting to a paperless office.

The paperless office has many components that replace paper-based systems with digital technology. For example, paperless offices use practice management systems that eliminate paper-based calendars, address books, tickler systems, time and billing systems, and general accounting systems. Another component of the paperless office involves storing all documents for each matter in digital format. Adobe Acrobat portable document format (PDF) stands out as the format of choice. Simple enough, but this statement raises several important questions: Why PDF? How are the PDF files created? Where are the PDF files stored?

Why PDF? Adobe Acrobat provides good image acquisition capabilities, the ability to perform optical character recognition (OCR) on the files while retaining an exact image of the scanned pages, and easy sharing with other users. Printing documents to PDF for clients to review, particularly in transactional matters, provides a degree of protection for the attorney work product that does not exist when editable word processing documents are sent to the client. A number of jurisdictions have activated systems for electronically filing documents with the courts; documents filed electronically are converted to Adobe PDF files (if not already in that format). Current versions of Word and WordPerfect contain drivers to publish word processing files to PDF. The federal courts are moving to an electronic filing system, again using the PDF format. If the courts are using PDF, then it should be a good standard for use in the office. Adobe Acrobat should not be confused with Acrobat Reader; the latter is a free program that anyone with an Internet connection can obtain and that you can distribute freely with your PDF document collections.

In addition to using Adobe Acrobat for converting paper to digital images, it makes the paperless files truly usable. For example, bookmarks and sticky notes can be added to image-only files. If the files have a text background, they can be highlighted (pick a color, any color), underlined, and struck-through. PDF files with background text can be searched; image-only files cannot be searched, but information contained in the "Document Summary" or in attached notes will be included in indexes of document collections or can be found using the search function in Windows Explorer.

How are the PDF files created? PDF files are created by printing to PDF from the application used to create the document (Word, WordPerfect, Excel, E-Binder, etc.) or by scanning to PDF. In Word select Convert to PDF from the Acrobat menu. In WordPerfect select Publish to PDF from the File menu. These files look exactly like the original and have a searchable text background. In most other applications, select Print from the File menu and then select either PDF Writer or Acrobat Distiller as the printer (requires that the full version of Adobe Acrobat be installed). In some applications it may be necessary to find and select a PDF printer through a "printer setup" menu item.

Where are the PDF files stored? PDF files are stored in a shared folder on the local area network. By doing this, everyone in the office has access to all client and office files from their desktop. If files are maintained digitally, they can also be stored on a laptop hard disk drive by synchronizing with the network. By scanning or printing to PDF, the electronic files contain copies of all incoming paper and all outgoing work product. As high-tech as scanning and printing to PDF may sound, the storage and organizational system adheres to an old-fashioned filing cabinet metaphor. The filing cabinet exists in virtual space (on a computer hard disk drive shared over a local area network). The filing cabinet has a name, "Work" (we also have filing cabinets for Closed Files, AdminFiles, etc.). Each computer on the network links to the filing cabinet by mapping a network drive (e.g., X:\Work). Now each desktop has access to the filing cabinet "Work." Within the filing cabinet are scores of folders, one for each client (e.g., X:\Work\Smith). If a client has several matters, the client's folder has a subfolder for each distinct matter (e.g., X:\Work\Smith\Corporation and X:\Work\Smith\Wills). Within each client matter folder are folders for various types of documents, such as correspondence, pleadings, expense receipts, research, and privilege.

Using technology to operate a paperless office allows solo and small firm lawyers to handle more work by being more efficient. You can use this efficiency to take on the potential clients your rainmaking has brought. (Or you can keep your current client load and enjoy some extra fee time; you make the choice.)

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

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