June 01, 2016 Road Warrior

ROAD WARRIOR: Life with Less Paper

Jeffrey Allen

The environmental orientation of this issue of GPSolo magazine inspired me to focus on the evolution to an environment that depends far less on physical printing or copying onto paper and more on the use of electronic files. This evolution has, can, and will (if properly employed) continue to make law offices more efficient and more economical to run. At the same time, the use of the electronic file as the primary level of information storage in the office makes it much easier for the Road Warrior to function effectively and efficiently.

The last decade or so has seen phenomenal growth of the electronic storage of information. Clients do it. Opposing parties do it. And, in fact, lawyers do it in their personal and, increasingly, in their professional lives. While our friends at Nike would have us Just Do It!, I like to take a somewhat different tact when it comes to the practice of law. I prefer to advocate that you do it right. Not surprisingly, as with everything else relating to the use of technology in the practice of law, there are right and wrong ways to do things. The wrong way carries some risks you likely do not want to run. Accordingly, I will focus on the process that I recommend for the conversion to a primarily electronically stored information office. Making the conversion can save you the costs of paper, toner for the copier, folders, file cabinets, and storage space (electronic files require electronic storage, which costs much less and takes up far less space than paper storage).

Rule 1: Plan before you leap. A little planning can go a long way toward helping you make the conversion efficiently and smoothly. Your planning should include a filing system that will enable you to retrieve your information quickly and easily. It also should include a decision about whether you want to make the conversion prospectively or retroactively. Changing prospectively has the advantage of giving you and your staff some time to adapt and does not require as much effort or expense. Changing retroactively may introduce a bit of culture shock as it happens immediately and it also requires investing time and/or money to convert your older paper files. When I converted my office, I simply drew a line in the sand and said after this date we will store new information electronically. Simply translated, this meant that when clients provided documents, we would scan them instead of photocopying them. When we got information in discovery or from the other side in a case, we scanned it for our files and e-mailed a copy to the client rather than photocopying it and mailing it. When we did letters or pleadings or documents, we kept a Portable Document Format (PDF) copy as our file copy. For security purposes, photocopies we received were either returned to the client or shredded (not simply tossed in the garbage).

Rule 2: Organize your files. You have an almost infinite number of ways to organize your files when you go electronic. Remember that even if you misplace a file in your computer, the computer has the ability to locate it much more quickly than if you misfiled it in a paper filing system. This represents one of the many efficiencies you get from the conversion. Although some people may want to toss their files into a virtual pile and rely on the computer to find them, I generally like to organize things a bit more carefully than that. This may reflect my age and history, but when we made the conversion, I felt most comfortable creating an analog of our paper filing system. Accordingly, I have a file folder for each client on my computer. Inside that folder, I have a separate folder for each matter for that client. Inside each matter folder, I have a series of folders based on the type of matter.

For example, if my client, Sally Smith, hires my firm to sue one of her customers, George Jones, I would add a folder labeled “Smith v. Jones” inside my folder labeled “Sally Smith.” Inside “Smith v. Jones” I would have the following stock folders: “Pleadings,” “Research,” “Correspondence,” “Discovery,” and “Client Documents.” As the case proceeded, I might find it necessary to add some additional folders (e.g., “Expert Witnesses” or “Trial Prep”) or to add some subfolders inside some of those identified above. The individual files get dropped into the appropriate folder as we go through the case, much as we would have done with a manual paper filing system. The differences: It takes less time to find a file and file the document; it takes less space to store the files; the files are far more portable; and we can more quickly and easily locate a misplaced document.

You probably also will find it helpful to adopt a standard labeling structure. For example, we use a system that would label a piece of correspondence like this: “16-0407 Allen-Smith representation.” This label means that we have a letter from Allen to Smith dealing with the subject of representation dated April 7, 2016. The advantage of placing the date first and in this structure is that it automatically organizes the information chronologically in the computer directory.

Rule 3: Invest in good hardware. If and when you move to electronic files, you will want a really good scanner in your office. Depending on the size of your practice and the number of people you have, you may want more than one. I particularly like the idea of a small desktop scanner on my desk and a larger, more powerful one for my assistant (who does most of my scanning). When you shop for a scanner, look for one that is relatively fast and that has an automatic document feed. Ideally, you will want one that can scan both sides of the page at the same time and keep the information straight. This expedites the process. If you do relatively little scanning, a document feed that scans 20 to 25 pages per minute may be adequate. If you do a lot of scanning, you will want one that scans 40 to 50 pages per minute. Either way, you will want software to operate the scanner that produces PDF files and that has the ability to make them searchable, enabling you to locate information with a character string search. I am partial to the Fujitsu ScanSnap scanners for desktop and small office use (fujitsu.com/us). Other manufacturers worth exploring include Canon (usa.canon.com) and HP (store.hp.com). Canon also makes some excellent larger and more powerful scanners. Adobe Acrobat Pro works very well as the software (adobe.com). You also will want to invest in some good-quality hard disks for storage and have a good high-speed Internet connection to facilitate moving information to the cloud for storage.

Rule 4: Diligently stick to the process. The process only works if you use it consistently and constantly. If you use it sometimes, but not others, it becomes decreasingly efficient. Ultimately it can devolve into a messy situation that creates extra work in that you have to check both electronic and physical files for the same document as you have not consistently moved things into an electronic format.

Rule 5: Back up regularly and frequently. You need to back up your data regularly and often. Keep multiple copies for safety and security. You should store at least one copy in a secure location in the cloud. Make sure your devices, your cloud accounts, and your backups have strong passwords protecting access and that you have encrypted confidential information.

Now you can travel light. If you follow these rules, you can easily and relatively painlessly convert your system to electronic storage. Once you have done that, it becomes much easier to work on the road as you can carry your entire file (all your files, if you want) with you without adding any weight or significant volume to what you have to move around. I bought a 2 terabyte hard drive at Costco for about $100 and can store my entire practice as well as my media collection on it and still have lots of extra room. It will fit in my coat pocket or in a briefcase for easy transportation and leaves the office with me daily. I could fit my entire practice on a USB thumb drive without any problem as these drives now are available in varying sizes up to 256 GB. Making an encrypted copy of the folder that houses my practice files and storing it on a USB drive takes very little effort. I also can store that encrypted data in the cloud and download it whenever I need to access it.

Bonuses of going electronic:

  1. By not printing or copying documents onto paper, my office helps the environment as we have a smaller carbon footprint and save a lot of trees.
  2. By storing the information on a small hard drive and not in large filing cabinets, we can save the cost of the filing cabinets and the rent for the space to put them.
  3. By keeping the files in the computer, we can more easily locate a misfiled document.
  4. By storing files electronically, we can more easily duplicate them when needed for any reason, including production in discovery.
  5. By storing files electronically, I can easily pack them, carry them with me whenever I leave the office, and use them wherever I am going.

Jeffrey Allen

Jeffrey Allen (jallenlawtekblog.com) is the principal in the law firm of Graves & Allen in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker on technology topics, he is Editor-in-Chief of GPSolo magazine and GPSolo eReport and a member of the Board of Editors of Experience magazine.