Digitizing the Paper File
A frequently asked practice management question of the risk management advisors at MLM has been, “How can lawyers begin scanning and digitizing client files?”
Many of the lawyers who are considering saving a digital copy of the file did not turn to the digital option out of a desire to make their law office paperless. Instead, they found the digital option after realizing they have assigned many more files to permanent storage than they ever anticipated, and they’ve come to realize that saving key portions of the file digitally might be a cost-effective way of eliminating the paper file before it reaches the end of its retention schedule.
Another reason lawyers are considering digital means for saving client files is that, increasingly, documents arrive in the firm in digital formats such as email, or are produced within the firm in a word processor. These documents are readily available to be stored electronically in the firm’s network directory or in a case management software system.
Lawyers who are considering scanning client files are also finding that many firms already possess several of the key components a firm must have to scan and save client information. As lawyers look around their firms and see their networked computer can hold several gigabytes worth of data, they have come to realize that they may be one good scanner away from becoming a digital law firm.
There are four key components that a firm needs to have to consider scanning and saving matters digitally. They are:
- Networked computers—Many law firms have only begun recently to network their computers so workstation users can share client data.
- Data storage—With the price of data storage coming down in recent years, consumers can now own many gigabytes worth of storage space necessary for scanning and saving document images.
- Scanning software—Image-making software like Adobe Acrobat Professional Edition is necessary to save the scanned images in a format that is both searchable and retrievable.
- Scanner—The primary tool for converting paper to digital images. Many copier machines now double as a scanner and can scan digital images in the same time it takes to copy a document.
For lawyers who are considering digitizing client files, some initial considerations are necessary to determine how the program will become part of the firm’s filing process. For example, the firm needs to consider which group of files will be part of the scanning program—open files, closed files, both open and closed files, or perhaps just files in long-term storage.
Firms that opt to begin scanning newly opened files take the approach that the system for scanning client documents will be administered on the front end—that is, scanning the documents for the open client files as the documents arrive, one by one, in the mail. Building scanned files from the front end is a decision that allows the firm to ease into the scanning process and build up the digital files over time.
By incorporating a small, high-speed scanner that can capture digital images at 30 pages per minute in the firm’s mail sorting area, letters, reports, court orders, pleadings, discovery documents, and anything else that arrives in the mail that would ordinarily be delivered to the attorney can be scanned and saved immediately to the digital file.
It is important that a firm organize its scanned documents in an electronic filing system that is understandable by everyone in the firm. Lawyers receiving paper copies of the documents should know where in the firm’s computer system they can find the digital equivalent.
In a digital office environment, backing up the scanned data with a tape backup system or some other form of digital media is more important than ever to preserve the scanned images for all time. If the firm is going to make a conscious effort to save matters electronically, it needs to know that the current backup system is working and consider adding another layer of protective backup.
Although some attorneys choose to take a big leap and begin scanning client documents on the front end, most practitioners who are choosing scanning for preserving client information seem to be opting for scanning the old files in storage. Scanning older, closed files does not usually require that the firm initiate new systems that everyone must learn. After all, the files in question are the files that, in theory, the firm may never have to use again.
For firms choosing to scan older or closed files, the key decisions that need to be made are which files should be designated for scanning (recently closed, or those in long-term storage) and what, if any, documents from the closed files do not necessarily need to be included in the scanning effort.
The most common question for lawyers who are actively scanning any file is, “When is it okay to destroy the paper file?” The answer to that question is, of course, “It depends.”
Knowing when it is okay to destroy the paper file can change depending on the goals the firm pursued when they initiated the scanning program in the first place. For example, firms who initiate the scanning program for files in long-term storage, where the likelihood of needing the file ever again is remote, find that destroying the paper file immediately after scanning the image is an acceptable step to add to the file retention schedule.
Firms that initiate scanning on the front end, while the matter is active and the file is building, are finding more often that properly destroying the paper copy of the document soon after it is scanned is an acceptable part of the procedure. Courts tend to accept digital reproductions of common documents especially in cases where the original documents can be produced if necessary (e.g., client medical records).
Of course, any scanning procedure that involves destroying paper documents related to active or recently closed files must involve thorough training for the individuals assigned with the task. Staff personnel must be able to recognize the difference between an ordinary letter of correspondence and a letter that bears more evidentiary weight such as an opinion letter.
Coming Up With a Plan
Recently, an Iowa lawyer approaching his 60th year in practice represented a fifth-generation farmer involved in a land dispute with a distant relative. The lawyer expressed how he sometimes wished he had the file with his original notes from the 1940s outlining the wishes of the great grandfather of the disputing parties.
A firm can now save all the items from any client file forever—in a digital format. Whether the firm chooses to maintain a paper file system, or to incorporate some or all of the file in a digital system, it is important that the firm have in place a well-documented file retention policy. Everyone involved in the process should have a clear understanding of his or her role in maintaining a plan for the file, or bringing about its final destruction.
Remember that for any retention schedule, the plan must be created and supervised by the attorneys. The staff will not know of changes in law that could affect the length of time a file should be stored.
By carefully considering the retention schedule, and supervising the plan activities, your firm can be well served for generations to come.
Todd Scott is the vice president of Member Services for Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company. He is a member of the Minnesota State Bar Association, where he serves as co-chair of the Practice Management & Marketing Section, and the Nebraska State Bar Association.
© Copyright 2008, American Bar Association.