Let’s say you’ve taken my advice and bought a ScanSnap s1500 or some other document scanner. Now, how will you go about turning all that paper that comes into your law firm into digital bits?
First, decide what you want to make digital. All your files, or just your archives?
Paperless Archives Only
Digitizing your closed files is a good way to start going paperless because it gets rid of the main problem with paper files: all those boxes or cabinets full of things you will never look at again. You can probably fit them all on a small hard drive (just make sure it’s backed up).
From a workflow perspective, scanning closed files is easy. Only one person—or department, in the case of very large firms—needs to have a scanner. That may be you, if you are solo, or it may be a file clerk or a whole department in larger firms. Whoever is responsible for closing files will need a scanner. You may still want to have other scanners around for convenience, but they aren’t necessary.
Instead of putting the file in the basement file room, the file closer must be responsible for consolidating all the file information to a single, digital folder. This means the pleadings and correspondence, of course, but also notes, drafts, e-mails, and anything else that makes up The File.
I don’t bother scanning document-by-document when I am merely archiving a file. One or more large PDFs is fine.
When you have a finished file, I think it makes sense to send a copy to the client. You could just hand off the paper file to the client, instead of shredding it, but I like the ease of mailing a CD instead of a huge file folder or several boxes of documents. If you do this, notify the client of your firm’s document destruction policy in the closing letter. Ours is to destroy our copy of the file without notice in ten years.
Going completely paperless means turning everything digital at the door. In a paperless office, there are really two kinds of paper document:
- Paper that has been scanned and must be saved; and
- Paper that has been scanned and may be destroyed.
(You may also need to save things like photographs, audio media, and physical objects. Digitize everything you can, and save what you must.)
There are two ways to handle large-scale scanning. You can funnel all incoming paper to a single person or department, who is responsible for scanning and distributing incoming documents, or you can give every lawyer or secretary a scanner and establish firm procedures. I think the latter works best for very small firms (that is what we do). The former is best for firms larger than about five people, but can work well in any firm of any size.
Whichever structure you choose, some paper will be created internally, and all staff must be held to a firm policy on digitizing documents. Those assigned to a file must make sure that the digital file is The File, complete and up to date at all times.
Going fully paperless requires a simple but important change in your firm, and everyone must by in. Everything works the same; it just has to happen with digital files instead of paper ones.
Fortunately, those who prefer to work with paper may continue to do so—after it is scanned—if your firm decides to allow it. They can simply toss the paper in the shredding bin when they are done with it.