Paperless Law Office Is Easier Than You Think

I have had a paperless law office since early 2006, when I bought my first Fujitsu ScanSnap s1500 document scanner and started scanning every page that crossed my desk.

That—and a bit of planning—is really all it takes to get started with a paperless office.

Benefits of a Paperless Office

There seems to be a tendency to think of digital files as fundamentally different than paper files. In some ways, they are different. Digital files are better. You can encrypt them or back up your paperless files in different places, and do many other nifty things. But from an organizational perspective, paperless office digital files are basically the same as paper files.


Other benefits of going paperless include the ability to work remotely from a mobile office when you want, and the ease of moving your office in the future.

Paperless Law Office Equipment

Another great benefit to a paperless office is that it can save you money.

The only additional equipment you will need is a scanner (we highly recommend the Fujitsu ScanSnap s1500, less so the also-popular NeatDesk scanner). While a good scanner can run around $450, the long-run savings of eliminating file cabinets, copy machines, folders, and other office supplies will more than off-set the one-time cost of your scanner.

Lawyers who are not used to using scanners sometimes find the transition takes a little getting used to—though rarely more than a few days to feel comfortable with the next technology. In fact, we have answered almost all questions about the Fujitsu ScanSnap s1500 that you could possibly come up with.

The Paperless Office Workflow

Creating a great paperless client file folder structure makes it even easier than a paper office to find the files you need. Chances are pretty good you use the same or similar labels on your existing physical file folders.

Other than that, all you have to do is scan everything. A good practice is to have a physical inbox. Never take anything out of your inbox without scanning it. Then, you can shred, save, or mark up the hard copy without worrying about it. You should definitely save originals of some documents, if you are not filing them with the court, but I shred 95% of the paper I receive.

Pretty soon, you will adapt to the slight change in paper workflow in your office, and never look back. If you want more detail before you get going, I put together my paperless law office strategy in much more detail in my webinar “The Paperless (Law) Office”.

Barriers to Going Paperless

In the end, the major hurdles and mistakes in going paperless are not the task of getting your scanner and computer file structure set up, but rather addressing your psychological attachments to paper and your relationship with a paper-centric office. The key, then, is to start with a solid paperless office transition plan that emphasizes changing the way you think about your paper files and your paper workflow.

(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wfryer/134155242/)

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  • Tad Harrison

    Glad to hear you are enjoying the “Paperless Office”, and you are using the gold standard of scanners, the ScanSnap.

    A few thoughts:

    First and foremost, before anyone starts shredding, the backup strategy must be rock solid. The electronic document must exist in two different places before it is shredded.

    I see you use the automatic sorting naming format—nice! Might I recommend that as much useful information be embedded in the filename as possible (and reasonable) since in many cases, that is all you have if your indexing software fails you or a document file is moved out if its folder structure.

    I ended up creating year folders under each subcategory (e.g. “Bills/2008″ and “Bills/2009″). Other arrangements are possible; one being copying your full folder structure for each year (e.g. “2008/Bills”). Mine seemed to work best for me, with many dozens of special folders but only a few with enough content to merit year folders.

    One final thought: I assume you are (or will be) using some indexing software to tag and index your files. Be warned—those tools are great, but they typically keep your tags and such in an internal proprietary database that can be lost due to many things, including obsolescence.
    Here’s an article I wrote on that particular topic: http://paperjammed.com/2009/03/24/help-my-data-is-being-held-hostage/

    Tad

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    @Ted: Great point on backup. I urge people to have at least two backups at all times, one onsite (because it is faster), and one offsite (in case the office burns down). I have a few more backups than that, in three separate locations. And I test them regularly to make sure they are all working.

    If your backup is set up well, you may find yourself using it as an “extended undo” from day to day.

  • Daniel

    Sam, have you given any thought to using digital signatures? Do you still signatures in hardcopy?

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    @Daniel: I use a scanned signature for most cover letters and such things. Some documents require a real signature, of course.

    But yes, I do. There is little sense printing out a cover letter, signing it, and then scanning it, if I am just going to e-mail or fax it.

  • Chris

    Sam,
    Do you (or anyone reading this note) have any experience with the Xerox Documate scanning products? I am deciding whether to go with them or Fujitsu. The Xerox 262 is double the cost of the Fujitsu 1500. The 152 is about $100 more.
    Thanks,
    Chris

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

      Chris, If the Xerox is double the cost of the ScanSnap, what is its appeal to you?

  • Chris

    the software package seems robust.

  • Robert

    The Xerox is also Twain compliant.

  • Francis Barragan

    I find that one problem with this is that mentalities do not change very easily. In an office where people are interdependent, some will frown (and it is well within their right) on having associates not having paper files.

    That being said, it is fairly clear that this is the direction we’re going in, and there’s no turning back.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I definitely agree that hardware and software is easier to change than habits. We have hard-and-fast rules about how and when things are scanned, and keeping to them is a part of the job.

  • Jim S.

    We have been paperless since 2004. The best thing about going paperless is that it is so much easier to refer to and locate files. Previously when someone would call me and ask for a copy of their documents, it was a real chore to go dig out the file, find the documents they needed, copy them, and send them out. Now we can literally accomplish that same task while we are on the telephone with the client. I usually have sent the documents to them before we get off the telephone. I never felt right about billing clients for the huge amounts of time we spent finding files in the old days; now we don’t have to. It’s all right at our fingertips.

  • http://www.lawferrell.com Jami (my wife thinks I’m the best personal injury lawyer in Memphis) Ferrell

    I’ve got the Fujitsu fi-6130 and absolutely love it. If they weren’t so expensive I’d have one on every flat surface in my law firm. But I do need to implement some of your procedures for getting everything scanned in a timely fashion and in the proper file.

  • Aaron

    Other than the coffee maker, the scansnap is the most used device in my office. Don’t know what I’d do without it

  • Larry

    What do you do when you go to trial without a paper file in hand? What if you need a document while at trial and you did not anticipate needing that document?

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I don’t understand how this would be different if you left the piece of paper behind. If you have paperless files, you can just have the clerk print up a copy—or send your second chair around the corner to a copy store to print copies.

  • http://www.jmckinneylaw.com Jessica McKinney

    Sam,

    I went paperless in about 2008. Back then i had a lot more clients than I do today. In about 2010 I completed the transition with a practice managment system that fully organizes the client documents, deadlines, notes, emails and billing. I am happy. I’m holding out, however, on still keeping the original signatures on retainer agreements, intake packets and court documents. Is this even necessary?

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Probably not, except for documents you must file in the original (like complaints, in my jurisdiction). Shred them or send them to the client.

  • Nathan

    We would love to go paperless – we have ‘ROOMS’ of paper. Our issue is almost every 8×11 paper has a 3×5 card stapled to it. I don’t need both scanned separately, just as 1 sheet. But the snapscan 1500 won’t accept the scan with a staple. (That is super annoying)

    So I carefully remove the staple, tape the card to the full sheet of paper, then scan the file. The Snapscan program always complains there is ‘overlap detected’.

    I thought I loved these scanners, but right now I am very frustrated.

    Any help or thoughts? I would appreciate.

    Thank you.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      You could just turn off the dual-feed detection.

  • Lori Beth Michelli

    Our office is having an issue with figuring out how making sure everyone who needs to see the document sees it before it goes into the system and is invisible. We can’t figure out how to get passed that. How do others handle that. For instance, if something comes in and both attorneys need to see it, do you scan and then email a copy to both attorneys? We use NetDocs as our document management.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      I think the best way is to assign a task like “Read such-and-such document” using whatever your office uses (Outlook, Clio, etc.).

      Since you’re using NetDocs, you can even link to the document in the task.

      • Lori Beth Michelli

        Thank you so much Sam!!! I am going to play with that and see if it works.