YourABA June 2012 Masthead

Taking paper out of the law office

Benjamin Yale

Benjamin Yale

Abraham Lincoln famously said, "A lawyer's time and advice are his stock in trade. " Lincoln's statement, made two centuries ago, describes practicing law in the modern paperless state, said Benjamin Yale, author of The Paperless Office, in his new book. "Time becomes more relevant and more valuable, as it is not just time, but better-quality time," Yale wrote.

A paperless practice, he contends, allows a lawyer to move with "less effort, greater speed and more focus. "

Yale spoke with YourABA about transitioning to a paperless office.

What are some of the advantages of practicing in a paperless office?

Greater concentration comes to the work at hand due to minimal disruptions and distractions that accompany physically searching for paper documents and flipping through pages and notes. The work product is better. Fewer disruptions save time, and because of that, I have regained my evenings and weekends while handling more matters than I did previously.

Are there any disadvantages to consider?

Lawyers resisting the transition can actually impair those who are paperless or want to be that way. Coexistence of the two systems comes with a cost. Unless everyone in the firm is on board, the advantages of being paperless are greatly diminished. The papered lawyer will become a drag on firm performance, which, in some cases, can make the firm uncompetitive.

Making the transition:
15 steps

In The Paperless Office, Benjamin Yale mapped out a plan to transitioning to a firm that operates without paper. Here is advice, excerpted from his book:

1. Acquire the needed equipment and software (see "What software do I need?"). This is an ideal time to systematically go through all of your equipment and software and update it. You may also want to have a consultant provide assistance, and in some cases do the acquisition and setup, to save time and effort.

2. Immerse yourself and staff in handling documents paperlessly through the tools provided with PDF— word processing and spreadsheets — individually and in combination.

3. Make sure that security and backup systems are in place and operating.

4. Install the equipment and software.

5. Continue to operate the office as before. Until the "full go" is announced, the office should continue to handle everything as before with paper files. It is important that there be no break that will leave a crack into which a client may fall.

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How do you get those individuals on board with the change in culture?

End the use of paper phone messages and insist on use of email or other electronic ways of notification. If others are collaborating in the document preparation, insist that they send you a digital form of the document and not a printed one, and then work on the digital copy. The changeover, particularly in editing, will not necessarily come easily but requires effort. Once the lawyer gets use to editing on the computer, the time savings will be amazing.

What are the essential investments a firm must make to become paperless?

The good news is that almost every lawyer already has everything needed in terms of computer hardware. The exception might be the need for additional data storage and a high-quality, high-speed scanner.

For the solo or small firm, a scanner at 40 pps (points per second) and a high DPI (dots per inch) that is bundled with a printer, copier and fax can provide an economical value.

But today because so much of the data comes in a digital format, the need for scanning is decreasing. The lawyer can almost as quickly go to the scanner, load the documents and scan as fast as asking someone else to do it.

Are there certain "old fashioned" devices that a lawyer may need to have in his or her back pocket?

An old-fashioned land line with a fax can be a lifesaver if power, cable and wireless go down.

What do you do if your software isn't compatible with what another firm uses?

In the case of Word documents and spreadsheets, you can ask the sender to send it back in a format that is more basic, either an earlier version of Word or in RTF (rich text format). Docx standards allow a lot more ease in moving those documents, but often the formatting gets messed up. Another solution is to ask for it in PDF and then convert the PDF into a Word document in a format that you can use.
I try to stay up to date with the latest versions and have access to both WordPerfect and Word, even though I now almost always use Word. Another desperate option is to have the originator fax or send you a printed copy, scan it, render it and convert it to a document. It is not easy, but I have had to do this a few times.

What happens if a court isn't paperless? Would a firm need to be prepared to convert back to paper?

I finalize what needs to be filed to a PDF in the final form, including the signatures. I then physically print out the minimum paper copies for filing. Never do I file extras or ones for my files—I have the PDF. I email the clients the PDF. With opposing counsel, I like to reach an agreement that mailing the PDF can substitute for mail service. Most lawyers go along. Keep in mind that even paperless courts sometimes require courtesy print copies for the judge and the law clerks. Check for local rules and orders for those. The "less" in "paperless" does not necessarily mean paper-free but paper-light.

How can you assuage client fears that confidentiality and security could be compromised in a paperless office?

In all but a few cases, confidentiality and security are compromised more by paper than paperless. For example, a tornado or storm that opens up the office building and spews client documents for hundreds of miles cannot happen with electronic data. While it would be logistically and economically prohibitive to have multiple backups of every paper document in multiple locations in case of data loss due to any event, for electronic storage, the cost of multiple site storage is minimal and readily available. Electronic documents can be locked from alteration, encrypted to conceal from the unwanted view, and tracked to the second in creation, storage and display to protect against post hoc additions to the file. A misfiled paper document is permanently lost, but it is almost impossible to lose an electronic file.

What steps should a lawyer take to ensure document security?

The first step is to identify the risk. Security from destruction and disruption caused by natural or human origin, by accident or intent, requires a complete and continuous backup and restoration protocol that is easy to install, implement and maintain. Security from theft of information requires systematic use of passwords and encryption. Mobile devices [could] require implementation of remote wipe of the data.

Overall it is a mindset developed in the lawyer to be aware of the new context and environment in which the data is being created, stored, and relayed, and to take the steps to protect it.

What type of backup plans should a lawyer make in case systems fail?

You do not have a backup unless you have backed up at least three different ways and on three different systems and in different places. It begins with automatic backup and routine manual saves of documents during document creation and editing, automatic mirroring of files, on-site backup of all data, and off-site (cloud) backup. Since backup devices are so cheap, having one attached to each computer and modem and other device can also assist in restoring service.  

Backup also requires having access to equipment off site (even on site) that can access the backup and use the information. For example, saving documents to the Web is great, but if the off-site equipment does not handle the document database or the word processor is out of date, it could mean having no backup.



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