Through the years lawyers have talked about going into a less paper-driven state. In CLE classes, we have referred to it as PAPERLESS and, more recently, PaperLESS (meaning we will still have some need for hard copies of documents in some contexts, but we strive for practices less dependent on these hard copies). The process of going PaperLESS has unnecessarily intimidated many attorneys. It really does not take much effort to do it and do it well. Once you make the decision and start the process, it begins to feel very natural, and ultimately the conveniences it offer become overwhelming.
When I first started practicing law, in what now seems like the dark ages, planning for how much space a law firm’s offices required involved some very serious analysis of how long you would stay at a location and how much your law library and your file room would need to accommodate for the duration of your stay. Now that we do most research online, many law firms have no physical law library. Often such libraries are not even kept current but remain for decoration or to impress clients.
As more and more attorneys move to electronic document and file retention, the space required for physical file storage rapidly diminishes. Moreover, having an electronic file gives you many advantages in terms of backup, accessibility, search capability, and mobility. In today’s legal world a sole practitioner or small firm attorney can carry the firm’s entire file system on a hard disk inside a small laptop or on an external SSD that will fit in a pocket or purse. Alternatively, you can store it securely in the cloud and pull it down whenever you need it.
Here are a few tips to help you get started with the process of going PaperLESS.
Tip 1: Get the right hardware. You do not need a lot of hardware, but you do need some. First, get a good high-speed scanner capable of scanning both sides of the page and with a document feed. You can choose between a dedicated scanner and an all-in-one machine that scans, faxes, copies, and prints. So long as it works relatively quickly, has a document feed so you do not need to load one page at a time, and can do two sides of a page at the same time, you are good to go. For many small offices, the Fujitsu ScanSnap has proven ideal. You can get a faster scanner, but the ScanSnap works fast enough for most small offices.
Tip 2: Decide how you will store the documents. In most cases in our experience, small offices tend to use primarily PDF and secondarily JPG for storage. We prefer PDF as it is easy to make it searchable. There are other formats available, and you may also want to include Word documents when you have created something in your office and want to save it for later modification or revision.
Tip 3: Get the right software. You will want to do three things with your documents: store them, find them, and, in some cases, produce them. You want software that facilitates all three functions. From our perspective, the starting point is Adobe Acrobat Professional. If you deal with PDF documents, you need to have that program on your computer. Aside from controlling the scanning process, it will OCR them (make them searchable by converting them from graphics to text via “optical character recognition”), Bates stamp them, allow you to redact a copy as necessary and appropriate, and allow you to combine them for production and/or searching. You can usually use the retrieval systems built into your computer’s OS to locate a single document, but in most cases, this will be limited to finding something based on its title (more about that later). You can also get third-party programs designed to help you store, locate, and retrieve files.
Tip 4: Set up a filing system. You can simply toss all the documents haphazardly into a documents folder and hope for the best when you look for one, but we do not favor that approach. When we moved in the direction of a PaperLESS office, we set up a file system on our computer that more or less mirrored the hard copy filing system we previously employed. As a result, we have a folder for each client. In the client’s folder we have another folder for each case. In each case folder (depending on the nature of the matter) we have several more folders. For example, in a litigation matter, we would have a “pleadings” folder, a “correspondence” folder, a “client’s documents” folder for documents received from the client, and a “discovery” folder for all discovery matters. We might also have sub-folders—particularly in discovery. These might relate to discovery we sent out and the responses we got, discovery served on us and our responses, “documents produced,” and “deposition transcripts.” We file each electronic file in the appropriate folder, giving us a more traditional and mechanical way to find the file we need.
Tip 5: Use a consistent file-labeling format. It does not make a lot of difference how you label your files, so long as you do so consistently. For example, you might use the following format to label correspondence: “17-1004 Smith-Jones terms of deal” where “17” represents the year (2017), “1004” represents the month and date (October 4), “Smith” the sender, “Jones” the recipient, and “terms of deal” represents the substance or content of the e-mail. If you use a consistent file-labeling format, you increase the likelihood of finding the file quickly when you need it.
Remember, once you start down the road to a PaperLESS office, you should continue, even if it is a bit frustrating at first. Ultimately, it becomes easier, and you will see the rewards of your labors in the convenience that this approach to the storage of documents and files gives you.