How to Design Your Firm’s Paperless Workflow

empty-file-cabinet

Buying a good document scanner is obviously critical for going paperless. So is a solid backup strategy. But there is a bit more to going paperless than that. You need to think about your paperless workflow.

In other words, how will make sure you collect, scan and file all the documents that come into your office? And I am using the word office loosely, here. You may get things in the mail, by email, or from other sources. You have to make sure you collect everything, scan everything, and until you scan it, keep stuff that has not been scanned and filed separate from stuff that has. If you do not, you will waste a lot of time, at best. At worst, you could lose documents.

Nothing may leave the inbox unless it is scanned before you do anything else with it.

Adopt inbox-centric thinking

The inbox is probably the most-crucial element in a paperless office. Your inbox collects the document you need to scan and file. That means your inbox must be sacred. Here is my rule: Nothing may leave the inbox unless it is scanned before you do anything else with it.

This is a hard-and-fast rule. Violating this rule is grounds for dismissal from the firm.

If you go paperless, you have to know that your digital file is complete. You can only have one, complete copy of your file, and it should be the digital one. Once you go paperless, the digital file is the useful one, the one that will be backed up remotely and redundantly, and the one you will be working from. You should be able to shred anything that is not (a) in your inbox, or (b) filed away in your physical file cabinet, which you should not need to access very often.

The only way to ensure that your digital file is the complete one is to have a hard point at which files make the transition from not-filed to filed. That should be your inbox. Your inbox_es_, really. Besides the one on your desk, you obviously have an email inbox, and you probably have other inboxes that you use to collect things that need to be filed in your clients’ files. Keep track of all of them, and apply this rule to all of them.

After the inbox

Everything that is not in your inbox or in your filing cabinet should be shreddable

Immediately after you pick something up from the inbox, it must go into your scanner, after which you should file it where it belongs. Now, you can do one of the following with the paper you just scanned:

  • Save the document if it is an original you need to hold on to (make sure your physical file makes clear which documents fall into this category).
  • Save the document if it is something you need or want to have around. Maybe you want to read it on paper. Or maybe you want to keep large discovery production around so you don’t have to re-print everything for a deposition or trial.
  • Mail the document to your client.
  • Shred it.

You will probably shred most of the paper you get. Getting rid of paper, after all, is the best part about going paperless. Most of the paper you get is not worth keeping, anyway.

But think about the word paperless as meaning less paper, not no paper. In addition to originals you have to keep, keep whatever other paper you want to, for whatever reason. Just remember that your digital file is your “real” file. In a paperless office, there should be only two kinds of paper outside of the inbox:

  1. Paper that has been scanned and must be saved; and
  2. Paper that has been scanned and may be shredded.

Everything that is not in your inbox or in your filing cabinet should be shreddable, even if you do not actually shred it.

Alternative approaches

There are many other ways to manage your paperless workflow, but I don’t think any of them are as simple and effective as what I have suggested, at least not for small firms. The above rules are clear and easy to follow, which makes it easy to hold lawyers and staff accountable if they don’t follow them.

Going paperless should be efficient, not tedious.

Some offices do not scan everything that comes in, and instead prefer to stamp documents that have been scanned. This eliminates the need to be draconian about the inbox, but it introduces inefficiency and the potential for confusion into the process. At some point during every file, someone will have to manually sort through a stack of paper, looking for SCANNED stamps.

Going paperless should be efficient, not tedious. Create an unbreakable “wall” between paper than has been scanned and paper that has not.

Other offices do not scan files in progress, but only digitize their archives. While digital archives have advantages over paper archives, this defeats nearly every other advantage of going paperless. If your files are on paper, they are not backed up. You cannot access them remotely. You cannot sync them to all your computers. You cannot pull them up on your phone. You can do this, but if you do, you are really missing out on the advantages of going paperless. Since you will be scanning everything, anyway, why not do it up front?

The only time I think it makes sense to try another approach is when your firm is big enough that it would be difficult to put a scanner on every lawyer’s desk (or their assistant’s desk) and ensure they are all following procedures correctly.

Bigger firms

If your office is big enough that lawyers do not do their own filing, putting a scanner on each lawyer’s desk probably does not make sense. The scanners should probably go on the secretaries’ or paralegals’ desks. Otherwise, the system can function pretty much as above, with one exception. You will need a way to inform the lawyers when they have a new document to review.

As new documents are scanned and filed, the responsible lawyer(s) (and their staff), may need to know about the new documents. I can think of a few ways to do this:

  • You could have the staff drop the paper on the lawyer’s desk after scanning and filing it. That way, any paper in the lawyer’s office will already have been scanned.
  • You could have staff email a note with a link to the document in your file management system.
  • Some cloud-based systems like Box let you attach tasks to files, which is probably a more-effective way to tell someone (or a group of people) to read something.

Those are just a few of my ideas. If you have found something else that works, please let us know in the comments.

If your firm is big enough that you have someone (or a department) responsible for mail, you should probably incorporate scanning into that department so that everything is gathered and scanned centrally. The scanning department would then be in charge of circulating documents or notices to the appropriate lawyers and staff. Or, perhaps, a new department is necessary to handle the scanning and notification, depending on the size of the operation.

But as soon as you take responsibility for managing the file away from the lawyer, documents can start to fall through the cracks if you are not careful. Even if you have a central department scanning and distributing incoming documents, what about email? What about phones? What about the lawyers’ notes?

Whatever you do, make sure you have a solution for collecting all the documents relevant to a file.

And if you are at the scale where you are realistically considering a central scanning department, you should probably hire a consultant to help you procure the right equipment and create a paperless workflow and procedures.

Closing files

When you terminate the representation, get rid of any paper you still have by sending it to your client, along with a copy of their digital file on a CD, DVD, or USB drive. (Use a storage format they are likely to be able to access from a typical computer. Also, notify your client of your document destruction policy, and let them know that when the time comes, you will be destroying their file without further notice to them.

In order to do this, you have to make sure you have gathered everything into the file. That means emails, notes, drafts, documents, etc. Make sure you can gather everything into the client’s digital file, in one place. If you have physical evidence, take a picture and return the original to its owner. When you close a file, your goal should be to have nothing but a single file in your archive, which you will delete in 10 years (or whatever your malpractice insurance carrier recomments).

Take the time to design a paperless workflow

Once you find out how simple it is to scan things, you may be tempted to just dive in and start scanning everything in sight. That is actually a good idea, at first, but you need to come up with a system to make sure that you collect, scan, and file every document that comes into your office, or that you generate, or that otherwise materializes. The best way to do this is with a firm inbox policy that separates documents that are not scanned from those that are, and can be shredded.

This article was originally published on August 10, 2010. It was pretty much entirely rewritten before being republished on December 4, 2013.

Featured image: “file cabinet” by Nicole Mays is licensed CC BY-NC 2.0. The image has been cropped and color-corrected.

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  • http://www.corporatefocus.com/ Jeremy Spencer Wright

    Sam,
    I completely agree with your points here and the Scansnap is a great scanner to assist lawyers and paralegals with going paperless.

    I’ve found with our clients that the difficult part is getting started, so in a blog article in July, I wrote a 12-step program for paralegals looking to scan in their minute books. With your focus on the paperless office, thought you might be interested in it: http://blog.twostep.com/bid/39011/Going-Paperless-for-Minute-Book-Documents-A-Twelve-Step-Program

    Keep up the excellent paperless articles. Jeremy

  • http://www.aisww.com Zaheer Master

    Hi Sam,
    Another great article! You mentioned a paperless workflow but I think its important to also talk about an “automated” paperless workflow. This means that when the secretary scans the document, he/she doesn’t have to email the attorney letting them know, the system should do that automatically. This automated notification saves time and ensures that no document goes into the system and is then forgotten about. With advanced workflow you can even do things like approvals, set deadlines for documents, and much more. You can see more examples on our blog at http://blog.aisww.com

  • http://www.PAinjurycase.com Dave S

    Tough thing with paperless for me is deciding which documents don’t need to be saved. I seem to cling to too many. We have the set up where we each have a scanner and I and the paralegal are good about scanning things in as they come in. So, I have an organized digital file. But, we are saving almost everything and putting them into files. It seems to make some sense because why trash something you may then need to print out later. Then, at the end of the case, we give the client to option to keep most of the paper file. Most don’t want it. Some opt for a digital copy of their records on a CD. Otherwise, we purge much of the paper file at the end of the case and maintain a digital copy for several yrs.

  • Mark Symms

    Sam, How do you handle e-mails?

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      I’m lazy. I wait until I’m closing the file, then gather all the emails. Using Outlook, I just search for all the key email addresses related to the file (client, opposing counsel, any witnesses I may have corresponded with) and the client’s name, which I always include in the subject line. Then, I export them all to a PDF file and store it in the Correspondence folder.

      If you have multiple lawyers and staff, each person will need to do this. The best way would be to construct a search that you can just email out to everyone so that they can paste it into their Outlook search box (for example, something like this: client@client.com AND opposing@counsel.com AND “Client’s Name”) Here’s more on advanced searching and Outlook.

      (You can probably do this with other email software, but note that in Gmail, for example, there is no way to print multiple emails, so there is no way to print them to PDF or export them in any other way. I like to keep a copy of Outlook synced up with Gmail for this purpose, and so that I always have a backup of my email.)

      Lots of people prefer to file email as they go, with a folder (or label, for Gmail users) for each client. But it’s difficult to grab and file/label outgoing messages, so you won’t get a complete file that way. And it seems like a waste of time to me, since indexed search makes it easy to find what you need later on. I’ve never had trouble finding past messages, although I realize many people seem constitutionally incapable of finding a message older than a day.

      So if you want to be lazy, you definitely can be. If you don’t want to be, try filing as you go, then export the client’s folder at termination. (Just make sure you actually have a complete record of your email correspondence.)

      • Paul Spitz

        Is there a program comparable to Outlook that works on the Mac system? The Great Seattle Satan still doesn’t make Outlook for Macs.

        • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

          What about Outlook for Mac?

          • Paul Spitz

            It’s not sold as a standalone. I can only buy it as part of Microsoft Office, and I already have Word, Excel and Powerpoint. I’d have to pay for them all over again.

            • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

              Gotcha. I’m assuming you are using Office for Mac 2008, then? Don’t you think it’s time to upgrade, anyway?

              Although at this point, it seems like a new version of Office for Mac is about due. Maybe it’s worth waiting.

              However, all the features Outlook offers are present in the built-in productivity software that comes with OS X. It’s not all bundled into a single app, but it functions just as well. Unless you just love Outlook, you can get all the functions without spending a dime.

      • LB

        I think every lawyer should have Simply File. It is an amazing and inexpensive program that works with Outlook. I think I paid $50 and it is my best purchase apart from my scanner. Simply File “learns” and then suggests which Outlook client folder to store the emails in, both sent and received (it suggests the folder before it sends). Just a click of the mouse – no drag and drop. This is the only way I have ever managed to keep a clean inbox and sent box. At the end of the file, convert the emails to pdf and store in your digital archive. I love how Adobe Acrobat indexes the emails.

  • Phil_Rhodes

    I have maintained a paperless system for the better part of three years. As each document is scanned, I drop it into a redwell for that month, i.e. December. When December 1 came, I emptied out the December redwell December 2012 scanned documents to the shredder. In three years, I have not had to look back in these redwells for an unscanned missing document. I also maintain, when necessary, a small client file that contains original wet ink signatures ONLY IF NECESSARY and client documents to return at the end of the matter. It helps significantly that I practice primarily bankruptcy and serve and file most documents electronically.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      I do something similar with my shredding basket. I empty my basket into the shredder about once a month, which means I’ve got a paper “backup” for about that length of time. Like you, I don’t think I’ve ever used it.

  • John McCarthy

    I really liked this article. Thanks!

    I have a couple of insights on this issue myself. Firstly, get rid of your printer! Secondly, buy a better shredder! Thirdly, buy an all-in-one Smart device scanning app (it combines and automates the function of scanning and converting). Getting rid of your printer frees up space in your office. It also reduces the chance you will have extra paper and will be a constant reminder to you of your new, productive habit. Buying a better shredder is a tough call. Already having spent the money on a shredder, a lawyer might say “I’ve already done my part.” Well, you are probably right, probably. See, I have designed an automated process to actually un-shred documents. With about 1/10 (at least) of the original work, I can put together a complete original copy of the document that was shredded. There are different levels of shredders, I personally only have the first level of protection (I am a young, budding attorney. ;)). But there are other levels that do zig-zag patterns, etc. There are shredding alternatives, as well, such as de-inking bags that you can run through the laundry. If you are dealing with wealthy clients or bank account numbers and such, better invest in a better shredder. And an all-in-one Smart device app can allow you to actually convert every document directly into PDF.

    If you do these three things, you will succeed! I guarantee it!

  • Christian Denmon

    So we do it this way:
    1. Shredders on paralegals and assistants desk.
    2. We have email service in civil courts in Florida. We designate pleadings for email service to a specific email address.
    3. We send all our “faxes” (received digitally) to the same email address.
    4. Processing mail: Emergency pleadings are scanned and personally delivered to lead attorney.
    6. Everything else is scanned by staff and and stored digitally at the end of the day.
    7. Staff then tells lead lawyer to review by creating a task in Clio titled, “Review: [Name of Document], and assigns it to the appropriate client.

    If the document is a Notice (notice of filing, ect.) or an explicitly enumerated document, then the document is emailed to client by staff at the same time. if the document is something else (like a Motion, rog, ect.), then the lawyer makes sure the client gets the documents.

    Clio has been really helpful with the “tasks” part. We tried using email to tickle the attorney, but it is just too much. We are working hard to separate tasks from communications (which is what email should be)

  • Moejo

    I’m a young solo practitioner with a humble practice and most of my clients are reduced fee clients so I don’t have a lot of cash to toss around or can allow myself to be on the hook for too many expenses. I like the idea of using USB flash drives as a means to deliver the client’s docs at closing the file. Do you pass the expense of that USB flash drive on to the client? IF so, do you consider it a close out fee or is it just itemized as an expense on the bill? I practice in North Dakota.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      I have always used CDs, and never considered passing the (minuscule) cost on to the client. Just factor it in as overhead.