Was Lao Tzu thinking of law offices in the 21st century when he wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” in the 6th century B.C.?
Without question. There’s a reason the e-book “The Paperless Law Office” is the most popular one my team has ever produced: Lawyers understand how critical is it to ditch physical files, but a lot of times they get hung up on how to start what seems like a Herculean task.
For those struggling with going paperless, let 2019 be different. If you follow this month-by-month advice and take it step-by-step -- even starting now -- by the end of the year you’ll be set up for success going forward.
March: commit to starting slowly and chipping away
Do you want to go paperless? Commit to it, and realize that after this 10-month plan is over, your office will operate with a lot less stress and waste. According to legal technology speaker Bryan Sims on a recent episode of the 10-Minute Law Firm Podcast, going paperless is the single most important thing you can do to run a more efficient law practice.
So this month, make a commitment: You will chip away at going paperless step by step. You will approach the project with grit and determination, never getting knocked off track by setbacks.
You will overcome resistant employees, removing them from their roles if need be, because you deserve a more profitable and stress-free enterprise.
April: Determine your process
We’re taking things nice and slow, so before we rush headlong into purchasing a bunch of expensive technology, we must first sketch out a process.
Specifically, you need to define how you will handle two situations: first, internally created documents and second, externally created documents. For more information and to get some ideas, watch this recording of a webinar we did with Sims last year.
Once you define this process, create a checklist that your staff must follow. Discipline is key here: everyone must follow the same steps or chaos will ensue.
May: Establish naming and filing conventions
As part of your process review, you and your team might get hung up on how to name something and where to put it. This may or may not come as a shock, but these sorts of discussions can become quite passionate.
For this reason, I recommend defining your overall folder structure and file naming conventions separately from your overall paperless workflow. It will build momentum and make things simpler.
For suggestions, or better yet a complete playbook on how to name your files and structure folders, a guide created by paperless lawyer Andrew Kucera can help you.
June: Get desktop scanners
It’s time to take the plunge and buy hardware. And the best move is to get desktop scanners and put them on everyone’s desk. It doesn’t make sense to have one central garbage can in your office, does it? So, it doesn’t make sense to have one central scanning resource, either.
You are a document professional, so get the best document tools. Do not get multi-function devices, such as printer/copier/scanner/fax machines. These devices compromise functionality since they support so many tasks.
I share the opinion of many legal tech experts that the best solution for desktop scanners is the Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500. For approximately $400 (at the time this article was written) these machines come with PDF creation software, process 25 double-sided pages per minute and perform all sorts of wonderful tasks.
July: Choose online file storage provider
I recommend choosing an online storage provider that syncs automatically with your desktop or laptop and I am a big fan of Google Drive. I already use Gmail, Google Calendar and other G Suite tools, and Google Drive plays well with them.
I recommend smaller law firms look at specialized document storage tools like Dropbox, Box, iCloud or OneDrive. Larger organizations might want to stick to NetDocuments, Box or Google Drive.
Now stop and smell the roses! Summer is coming, and at this point, you’re pretty much paperless: you’re scanning documents, have processes defined, have consistent file and folder conventions and you’re backing your documents up securely. Nice work!
August: Automate your billing and collections
One of the biggest forms of waste in a law firm is sending out paperless bills and waiting for checks. This onerous process requires many people-hours, is a slow way to collect revenue and is out of step with how many modern clients want to pay.
Furthermore, you end up collecting a much higher percentage of your invoices with electronic billing, which more than compensates for credit card fees.
Instead of printing, folding, stuffing, stamping, addressing and sending invoices, with paperless billing you click a button and invoices are emailed out to clients. They can then pay online with debit or credit cards and you have your money the next day.
To learn how to embrace paperless billing, this e-book can get you started.
September: Automate simple documents with document assembly
Consider the humble engagement letter: imagine if you could collect information about a new client during your intake process and then instantly generate a document.
Document assembly allows you to click a button and create a document from fields you’ve saved in a database. It scares attorneys, especially ones who are not very technically savvy, but the reality is it’s not too tough to do and the benefits are amazing.
July is usually one of the slower months for law firms, so use it to expand your knowledge and add this critical skill to your toolset.
There are many ways to start –you are probably already using Microsoft Word, so learning about Mail Merge fields will help you get started. This is how Rocket Matter’s and other practice management software document assembly tools work.
There are also more powerful tools such as HotDocs, which are better suited for more complicated document production.
October: Use summer slowdown to scan backlog
You have a decision to make: do you want to scan all documents or just your active cases? Personally, I’m lazy. I prefer to scan only the active stuff I’m working on.
That said, there is a lot to catch up on even if you’re only scanning your active files. It’s best to approach this task by doing it gradually throughout the year. But when August hits and business slows, take advantage of the downtime to really make a dent in your scanning backlog.
November: Embrace mobile paperless tools
If you haven’t done so already, start taking advantage of the tools you can use on the digital Swiss army knives we carry: smartphones and tablets.
Smartphones allow for scanning-on-the go functionality. The cameras in the latest models are incredible, and perfect for getting a document quickly into your system.
iAnnotate makes it possible for you to write on PDFs using a tablet – this is just one of many PDF tools you can find for markup. And the online document storage tools you implemented in May pay dividends: no matter where you are (as long as you have a data plan or internet connection), you can pull up your files.
December: Automate pleadings and more complex documents
It’s time to take the next step with our document assembly project that we started in July. Hopefully, at this point, you’ve dipped your toes in the waters of doc automation with your engagement letter and are happily and efficiently onboarding clients.
Now it’s time to really ratchet up your efficiencies. Make a list of the top 10 documents your law firm creates on a regular basis and convert those into document templates.
Spend some time learning what Microsoft Word can do with mail merge fields, such as if-then-else logic, prompting for questions and special formatting. You will be amazed. You can switch pronouns based on gender, swap paragraphs out based on conditions and significantly reduce the errors as well as time in document production.
Not everything needs be digitized. Even the most paperless of law firms still use paper. Paper is still great for note-taking. For me, no stylus and tablet can reproduce the beautiful tactile experience of writing with my favorite pen. And handwritten notes are still special, even more so in our noisy, social media-infected world.
It's not over
Congratulations – you did it! It took 12 months, but you took it nice and slow and now you don’t have to spend 15 minutes looking for files. You can view them from anywhere you are. You can work from home more. You have more time on your hands because creating documents takes a single click. And you’re collecting more money than ever because of your conversion to electronic payments.
Our work is not done here. Now that you’ve got the fundamentals down, it’s time to scout for more inefficiencies in your processes. What can you do better? How can you run an even better firm for 2020?
ABA Law Technology Today was launched in 2012 to provide the legal community with practical guidance for the present and sensible strategies for the future. LTT brings together practicing lawyers, technology professionals and practice management experts from a wide range of practice settings and backgrounds. LTT is published by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center.
Larry Port, Rocket Matter founder and CEO, is a speaker and award-winning writer at the crossroads of the legal profession, cutting edge technology and law firm marketing. He speaks to an international audience on technology, productivity and the business of law and was recently recognized by Fastcase as one of the 50 top innovators in the field of law. Port is the author of two books, “The Law Firm of Tomorrow” and “Legal Productivity,” and also writes extensively for legal publications, including Legal Management, Law Technology News, Law Practice Today, ILTA’s Peer to Peer, FindLaw, Chicago Lawyer and Legal Productivity. He frequently discusses design and efficiency, and techniques that can be leveraged by lawyers. Port has worked with his client law firms to help them plan their online presence and is aware of what truly works online.