I went paperless over six years ago, shortly after I started my own law firm. It was one of the best law practice decisions I ever made. I have saved lots of time and money, and I have been able to take my files with me everywhere I go (if I want to). Plus, my digital, encrypted, and backed-up files are far more secure than paper could be.
The decision to go paperless is a no-brainer, but many lawyers who want to leave paper (mostly) behind just don’t know where to start. This list of essentials includes everything you need to get started.
If you are going to go paperless, you will need to turn paper into digital files. The easiest way to do this is with a document scanner, and the best document scanner to put on your desk is the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 (or S1500M for Mac). It’s also a great deal, because in addition to the scanner, you get a copy of Acrobat Standard (or Pro, if you get the Mac version). That’s a $250 software package with your scanner!
If you get the ScanSnap, you can probably skip this section. The version of Acrobat that comes with the ScanSnap will probably do everything you need it to.
Otherwise, you will need a copy of Adobe Acrobat. If you aren’t familiar with Acrobat, it is software that lets you edit PDF files, including adding, removing, inserting, and extracting pages, adding watermarks, page numbering, and annotations, and much more. If you go paperless, you will need to do this.
You can get by with Acrobat Standard, but you are better off with the Pro version, which adds useful features like Bates-stamping.
A bigger (or a second) monitor
Since you will be viewing documents on the screen more often, you will want to be able to look at two pages (at least) side-by-side. The smallest monitor that will do this comfortably is a 21-inch monitor, although a 24″ monitor is closer to ideal.
Better yet, get two. If your graphics card has two outputs (or if you upgrade your graphics card), you can get two monitors and spread out your work!
The best value overall is probably the 24″ Dell UltraSharp U2412M. The price goes up and down on Amazon, but generally it is about $350. If you aren’t picky about color accuracy and viewing angles, however, you can definitely get by with something like this 21.5″ Asus for about $150.
A shredder or shredding service
Once you go paperless, you will be throwing away more paper, so you will need a shredder or shredding service.
If you get a shredder, it doesn’t really matter which one, so long as it doesn’t do “ribbon”-style shredding. Just get something with a pretty solid duty cycle, like this Fellowes shredder, so that it will last.
You can also sign up for a shredding service like Iron Mountain, which is what I do. Iron Mountain picks up our shredding bin every 8 weeks for about $20 per month. It’s a good value and a lot less time spent feeding pages through a shredding slot.
Recordable CDs, mailing sleeves, and envelopes
After I eliminated my own stacks of paper, I stopped sending stacks of paper discovery, as well. Instead, I just burn everything to a CD, slip it into an envelope, and mail it with standard postage. I’ve saved hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on copying and posting costs over the years as a result.
To do this, all you need is a CD burner (which your computer almost certainly already has) and a stack of recordable CDs and sleeves. I use these half-page envelopes to mail discs, because they don’t require extra postage.
A file sharing service or file server
There are tons of ways to organize your files, but I prefer to stick with the regular old file manager on my computer. After all, computers are built from the silicon up to manage files. If that is good enough for you, then you don’t need fancy (and expensive) document management software; you just need a way to access your files from all your computer and share them with colleagues.
Dropbox, SugarSync, SpiderOak, and Box.net are all good options for a dead simple way to sync files across all your devices, and with others at your firm. Just put all your files in your Dropbox, and you have a perfect replacement for a file server.
If you want more control, you can set up your own file server, but don’t even think about it unless you already know something about administering and securing a server. Stick with Dropbox, if you don’t.
If you think you want a more robust document management system, there are a lot of options, and you will want to shop carefully for one that fits your firm’s needs.
Going paperless can be much more secure than maintaining paper files, but a bulletproof backup strategy is critical. At a minimum, use an external hard drive for daily backups. The Western Digital Elements 1TB drive is an ideal, no-frills backup drive. Just use the built-in Windows backup tool to make a daily, incremental backup, and you’re all set.
You should also back up your files remotely. If you use something like Dropbox, that’s good enough, since it saves backup versions of your files for 30 days. If not, consider Mozy.
As a general rule, you should have at least two backups in at least two different places. Test them regularly to make sure they work properly.
Before you go paperless, take a few minutes (at least) to decide how you are going to convert your existing paper files into digital files, and how you are going to process and organize your files going forward. Then, dive in.
Here’s what I recommend.
If your existing paper files are few—say 3 bankers boxes or fewer—take an afternoon or two and scan them yourself. Or just return closed files to your clients instead of saving them. If you have any more, or if you don’t want to lose a day to scanning, hire someone to do the scanning for you (there are plenty of companies that specialize in this).
Going forward, use your inbox as the “gateway.” Nothing should leave the inbox without being scanned, first, then reviewed, mailed, filed, or shredded, as appropriate. That way, it’s easy to tell what has been scanned (everything that’s not in your inbox) and what hasn’t (everything in your inbox).
Take a few minutes to come up with a plan, then start scanning!