August 28, 2013

Simple Steps: How to Go Paperless

Law Practice Magazine | September/October 2013 | The Finance Issue

I KNOW THE SMITH FILE was in this stack!” my friend Bill—the name has been changed to protect the not-so-innocent—howled as he frantically tore through the piles of files on his desk, searching for some information he needed for the hearing to which he would likely soon be late. Fortunately, his paralegal, who had taken the file from his desk to add some recently received documents, heard the commotion and whisked the file into his hands and him out the door—just in the nick of time—while I could only stand there and smile. He and I have had so many conversations about paperless practice, but he just can’t quite bring himself to give up his paper-based system.


Many solos and small law firms could benefit from going paperless, but they don’t because they become overwhelmed by the idea that doing so will add a bunch of new tasks onto the already crowded to-do lists of both lawyers and staff. Or they’re not quite sure how to proceed, so they put off, indefinitely, implementing a new system of processes that could really help improve their efficiency and cut their costs, not to mention make their lives run a whole lot more smoothly. After all, a paperless filing system has many advantages. Paperless is cheap. You don’t need to buy folders or file cabinets, or pay rent on the space to house them. Most lawyers already have sufficient digital document storage capacity to house their files. Because there’s less physical filing, you also don’t have to pay a file clerk and can either eliminate that position or shift additional duties to that person. File folders never go missing or, if they do, it’s much easier and quicker to search for them using a desktop search engine than it is to tear your office apart. With a paperless system, more than one person can access the file at a time. Best of all, though, if you store your files online in a secure environment, you can access what you need, when you need it, from anywhere in the world where you have Internet access.

So, if you haven’t already done so, here are the simple steps to help you move into the world of paperless practice.


Don’t worry about scanning existing case files. (Nine times out of 10, having these old files in digital format won’t make you any money, although you will eventually save on space for file storage.) If you begin to create your paperless system with the very next case you open, within roughly six months you’ll likely be almost paperless. If you later identify pending or closed matters that you would really benefit from having in your paperless system, cherry-pick just those to scan and include.


One of the hardest things about moving to a paperless practice is figuring out how to organize your electronic files. One option is a document management software system that requires that each document be saved in accordance with rules that you set up ahead of time. This type of system is very useful for firms with many people or firms with a few people who can’t remember, or won’t follow, the firm’s rules for naming and filing electronic documents. In addition, many practice management software systems have document management capability built into them. But there is a do-it-yourself option for solos and small firms that would like to keep things organized but still keep them simple and inexpensive.

The key to such a system is to create a few rules that everyone is willing to follow—and then follow them every time you create or scan a new document. First, consider establishing a written filing-tree system that is as close as possible to the paper-based system you are currently using—or an ideal paper-based system if your current one isn’t working so well. For example, you could create a file folder for each client, subfolders for each individual matter you are handling for the client and sub-subfolders for things like pleadings, correspondence, discovery, etc. But the secret sauce is in how you name the documents within each file, and it can greatly reduce the need for subfolders. I learned the following trick at the ABA TECHSHOW 2010 in the “Document Management on a Dime” session presented by Donna Neff and Reid Trautz.


If you start each document name with the date on which you create or receive it, in year-month-date order followed by a detailed description of the document’s contents, your documents will always fall in chronological order within the file. And you can use Windows Explorer’s ability to sort files to flip them, putting either the oldest or the newest on top. An example of such a file name would be “2010-11-01—Letter to client outlining settlement options.” You have about 250 characters to work with when naming a file, so be creative but consistent.

Establishing a policy for scanning all incoming documents and creating an effective set of file-naming conventions and filing organizational techniques will save you a great deal of time while reducing your frustration over searching for misplaced documents. It will also allow you to comply with requests for production in document-intensive cases in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take.

Start implementing your paperless system today and, in no time, all the matters you are currently working on will have neatly organized folders in which you can easily find what you’re looking for—without having to resort to an anguished plea for help.