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6 Recommendations for a Painless Transition to a Paperless Law Firm

By Joseph Shields

Are you on your way to creating a paperless law office? You're not alone if the results of an International Legal Technology Association survey are any indication. It reports that almost half of all legal industry purchases of imaging, scanning or optical character recognition were made by small law firms, which may point to the fact that many are transitioning to a paper-light or paperless law firm.

Here are 6 recommendations to consider as you transition to a paperless law office.

  1. Properly secure client and matter information

    You wouldn't leave confidential documents in an open file in the middle of an office lobby, but that's the equivalent of what too many firms are doing digitally. Consider the ABA 2017 Legal Technology Study Report which reveals that most firms, especially small ones, don't bother to secure files with encryption, leaving them wide open for hackers.

    • On average, only 21.4% of law firms protect files with full-disk encryption.
    • Only 15.1% of solo law firms protect files with full-disk encryption.
    • Only 13.1% of law firms with two to nine attorneys protect files with full-disk encryption.

    And in May 2017, the ABA issued Formal Opinion 477 which mandates, in essence, that lawyers make a reasonable effort to protect digital client information.

    What all of this means is that you need to keep your paperless files secure, or risk breaching legal ethics. The easiest way to achieve this is with cloud based legal practice management software that has the same stringent security as global financial institutions. This includes encrypting data in both transport and storage, and multiple third-party security certifications, such as SOC 2 Type II and ISO 27001.

    Their servers should be highly protected as well so that no matter what kind of disaster hits your office or your cloud provider, your files won't be impacted. For secure cloud computing, make sure your system:

    • Has multiple servers in discrete geographic locations
    • Has trusted IT experts maintaining and operating servers around the clock
    • Backs up your files to multiple secure locations at least once daily
    • Guards servers 24/7 - both digitally and physically
  2. Thoughtfully begin digitizing files

    Start with the most recent files
    Convert your current, active files first so that your day-to-day operations go paperless first. Selectively convert older files. Instead of scanning all 2,000 pages of an 8-year-old file, for instance, only convert the brief and other key documents. While doing so, follow these steps to avoid headaches later on:

    1. Create a consistent organizational structure for every file; never depart from this structure.
    2. Never scan a file into a single PDF. Scan each document separately.
    3. Include only the pertinent documents related to the matter.
    4. Once digitized, dispose of paper files through secure document destruction unless, of course, you're obligated to retain paper copies.

    Set up files so they're easy to search
    Electronic file folders should duplicate the structure of the paper filing system. This is achieved with a consistent naming convention. How you go about this depends on your practice, but here's an example:

    • File number – 1755
    • The client's name – John Smith
    • The type of document – correspondence
    • Date – 8-30-2017

    So the file name would look like: 1755-John Smith-corresp-8-30-2017.

    A consistent naming convention enables you to virtually flip through files – you'll know what's in the document without having to open it.

    Determine how to make files digital
    Set aside a couple of hours a week to scan files. If you're finding that you're just not making headway converting files, you may want to enlist a vendor to help. Select a company that:

    • Doesn't outsource work
    • Has excellent, verifiable references from other law firms
    • Never holds on to electronic or paper copies
    • Has high levels of security – both physically and digitally
  3. Create a long term process your firm can follow

    Implement protocols for digitizing every document which arrives at your office. Provide every member of your staff a quick-reference sheet outlining them. Make sure everyone understands and follows it to the letter. Here's an example for an administrative assistant:

    1. Scan document.
    2. Upload the document in the digital file using the naming convention (provide an example of it). If you've just created the document, do the same.
    3. Once the file is online keep a hard copy, if legally required, or shred it.

    You may want to schedule a few minutes of daily document scanning on an assistant's calendar.

  4. Use the right technology to organize your paperless files

    A cloud based law practice management system will make storing, organizing, and working with files in a digital format as good as or better than working with paper files. You'll easily be able to:

    • Instantly access the files you use most often.
    • Make notes within the files.
    • Add to files.
    • Track every version.
    • Share files with colleagues.
    • Search files – in fact, the best practice management systems will allow you to plug in a single search term to pull up the file you need.

    Even better, with a cloud-based system will allow you to do this from anywhere – at home, at the courthouse, or on the road. And law practice management systems offer many more benefits that your firm can take advantage of including matter management, legal calendaring, time and billing and financial reporting.

  5. Use a client portal to communicate with clients

    Increasingly, clients prefer electronic communication, so your paperless law office will serve them better. But, again, it's important to keep in mind that you must make a reasonable effort to protect electronic communication with clients or you will breach legal ethics.

    Remember, standard email travels across multiple servers which provide abundant opportunity for their messages and attachments to be hacked. That's why smart lawyers keep themselves covered, and their client information protected, by selecting a law firm practice management solution with a secure client portal. This service allows you and your clients to communicate and share documents with the utmost cybersecurity.

  6. Enjoy a decrease in your overhead costs

    Reducing paper and digitizing your office gives you an unprecedented opportunity to successfully lower your cost of doing business. Combine your digitized office with law practice management software to save time and money by decreasing your investment in:

    • Physical storage space
    • Paper, ink, and files
    • Printer maintenance and repair
    • Labor to file and retrieve documents

    In the process, you'll have new opportunities to increase revenue by:

    • Finding documents in a click - instead of spending hours fishing through files, you'll just plug a search term into your browser.
    • Serving clients from anywhere at any time – they won't have to wait for you to get back to the office to respond.
    • Instantly and securely sharing documents and collaborating.
    • More effectively representing clients. Consider what looks more professional to a judge: Finding what you're looking for by digging through boxes of files and making a phone to your paralegal, or quickly pulling up what you need on your smartphone or laptop?

Although shifting to a paperless law office will require an initial investment of time and resources, the return in terms of money saved and money earned through a more efficient and effective practice will be more than worth it.

Joe Shields

About the author
Joe attended Northern Michigan University for undergraduate and Saint ouis University School of Law for law school, graduating cum laude in 2013. After practicing at a small St. Louis, MO based firm for two years, he joined Thomson Reuters in 2015 as an account manager. He is now a Product Specialist for practice management products, supporting Firm Central, Time & Billing, Deadline Assistant, Form Builder and Custom Forms.

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