Sunday, September 9, 2012

Going Paperless, Part I: Creating an Electronic File System

A recent post discussed some of the aspects of a client file retention and destruction policy.  Historically attorneys and firms have stored closed files in paper format, either in their own offices or by leasing storage space from commercial providers.  This arrangement can be unwieldy, given the time lag and expense associated with retrieving a file from storage, and the difficulties in searching through a paper file (haystack) for a particular document (needle).

Enter the electronic file.  Electronic documents are less expensive to store than paper files (the historical decline in the cost of computer storage is nothing short of astounding, as shown here).  All documents and the text in them are searchable as long as documents have been converted properly from paper to electronic format. Similarly, electronic files are easier to access (via computer as opposed to having boxes retrieved and delivered), and transmit to a client (thumb drive, CD, or even online file transfer).  In short, electronic files have a much higher potential value to a law firm, because of the ease with which they can be shared, transmitted, and stored.

So what's not to like?  Well, civilization has its costs.  Creating electronic documents requires hardware and software (hard capital) and enough knowledge (intellectual capital) to know how to use it.  The transition process may involve some additional time and effort on the front-end, and lawyers must "securely store a client's file" following the completion or termination of the representation.

This post will discuss some of the points to consider in creating an electronic client file, while a future post will address discuss how law firms "securely store a client's file" electronically.

Build On Your Previous Experience

The mandatory use of electronic case filing (ECF) in the federal court system and in other courts and tribunals has introduced firms and attorneys to Adobe Acrobat portable document format (PDF).  Firms can build on their case filing experience by converting documents to PDF as they are created, filed, and served, and by building the file electronically from its inception.

Take the Opportunity to Put Systems and Processes in Place that Preserve and Build Your Knowledge

The implementation of a partial or complete paperless office, in addition to providing the benefits described below, also gives a law office the opportunity to put systems and processes in place.  As described in this excellent post, the implementation of checklists and standard procedures leads to "increased efficiency, improved quality control and cost reductions."

To take advantage of these benefits, law firms must get comfortable with hardware (scanners) and software (Acrobat or another choice), and implement processes to ensure that current and future staff maintain and supplement their effective use.  The Acrobat Reader is free, although the full-featured version offers many valuable features and functions for law firms, (as described here and here).   There are many great websites for attorneys seeking to learn about Acrobat, including but not limited to Adobe TV, Acrobat for Legal Professionals, and Paperless Chase.  The necessary training of attorneys and staff becomes a great deal less challenging when you realize just how many great resources are literally at their fingertips.
Effective use of PDF requires as least a passing technical knowledge of how it works.  For example, a PDF document that is not searchable is of very little value when its content needs to be located later.  Therefore, it is important to make sure that your scanner is set to make your PDF searchable, or that you employ Acrobat to make it searchable.  The technical term for this process is Optical Character Recognition (OCR).  Click here for a short Adobe TV video explaining the Acrobat OCR process. In many instances the use of a scanner is not necessary for creating PDFs, as documents can be saved or printed to PDF directly from word processing programs.

Understand the Value Proposition   

If you think that going paperless is a costly and time-consuming proposition, don't believe it until you have tallied all the costs of maintaining paper.  And that means office space, storage space, and the time involved for each employee to move it all around-- and to try to find it when it goes missing. And you also have to factor in the knowledge management benefits of having searchable content.  For more on the real costs of a paper office versus paperless, listen to this episode of the Digital Edge Podcast.

As with computer storage, the cost of quality scanners has plummeted, to the point where having a scanner on every desk (distributed scanning) may be most efficient and effective.  For a really good article discussing how to integrate scanners into your practice, click here.

Name and Organize Files Intelligently

If you are not using case management software and its auto-naming functions, consider how you will name and organize the client file so that anybody-- not just idiosyncratic you- can find documents.  Although improved search function can mitigate the chaos of a poor filing system, a standard process for naming and storing electronic files on the front end saves a significant amount of time later.  In other words, consider the important information about a document that can be determined from its name-- before a searcher has to open it.

Accordingly, and as described here, your naming should make finding electronic documents as simple as possible, help sort documents in a logical sequence (e.g. date or version number), identify a document and its subject from its title, and organize versions of documents.

Learn from Others

Don't reinvent the wheel.  Go to school on others who have implemented a paperless office.  See this article by  Richard Keyt.  Or Paperless In 12 Steps by Adriana Linares.  South Carolina attorneys can consult the South Carolina Bar's Practice Management (PMAP) and its resources.