April 27, 2011

FYI: Paperless Office Technology--Scanners, OCR, PDFs, and Document Management Software

Scanners, PDF technology, optical character recognition (OCR) software, and document management software can be time saving organizational/storage & retrieval methods in the legal setting. In order to make informed decisions about purchases, a review should be made to establish who, what, when, where and how the product(s) will be used.

Scanners come with many functions. Dependent on work load and type of document it is possible to auto-feed documents, scan over-size documents, or lay them on a flatbed scanner. Compatibility with graphics and color is another choice to be made when comparing scanners. Questions such as "will we be scanning documents as text files or as image files?" will determine whether OCR software is necessary. If documents are saved as text files (thus enabling text searching, editing, etc. in the future) the OCR software should be compatible with the scanner and the word processing program. Many scanners and OCR are integrated (bundled) to begin with, thus making it easy to buy a package that will suit the needs of the practice. OCR software also often includes a rudimentary document management component. If the need is for keeping track of the scanned-in text only, then be sure to look for this function in the description.

A popular format for storing documents is to convert them into a PDF (portable document format). A PDF can be thought of as a picture of the original document because all graphics and text will remain as they appear on the original instead of being converted to an OCR document. Adobe introduced the PDF format and the software needed to read PDF files ( Adobe Reader) is available for free from the Adobe site. Because the Adobe Reader is free, and many scanners come with the software to create PDFs, PDF has become a standard for archiving information since it can then later be retrieved. The format also allows all of the original notes and markings on the document to remain intact.

In order to maintain both the scanned in documents and new documents as they are created please read about Document Management software. Other considerations when converting paper documents into a searchable digital archive include digital copier/scanners, outsourcing, and storage options.

When searching and purchasing new peripherals and software never hesitate to call the company and ask questions. Also, before purchasing anything, contact a consultant or expert for advice, finalization, and potentially implementation. This is intended as a guide only. Below are some of the major vendors for these products and some reviews.

First Resources

  • Real World Pile Management
    This ABA LTRC/State Bar of Wisconsin PDF presentation is based upon this FYI and expands upon many of these paperless office topics in greater detail. Originally presented at the Wisconsin Solo & Small Firm Conference in 2007.

  • Document Management in the Digital Law Office
    This "Best of ABA TECHSHOW®" article was originally presented at ABA TECHSHOW 2008, the World's Premier Legal Technology Conference.


Document Management Software

PDFs and Paperless Office Resources

Scanner Product Reviews & Buying Guides

Digital Copiers

Digital copiers can do the traditional work of a copier, with added network capabilities such as printing directly from a digital document or storing a scanned-in document to a network. It will be important to keep in mind for scanning purposes, what capacity feeder is required and whether OCR is used. If the scanned documents are stored as graphic files then the ability to do full text searching will not be available. However, if the documents only need to be accessible by keywords or title than the digital copier, with its myriad functions, could be a good choice. Also remember to be aware of maximum paper size and capacity of auto-document feeder.

CD & DVD Recordable and ReWritable Drives

Rather than storing documents on the network, another option would be to burn information onto CD or DVD. A separate drive will be needed and an index will have to be created in order to access files on the CDs or DVDs once they have been created. Most computers come with a CD or DVD burner or these drives can be purchased as an external add-on for the computer.