Going Paperless: Everything You Need to Get Started

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If you haven’t already gone paperless, you will. It’s long past time to leave paper mostly behind. I went paperless shortly after I started my solo practice in 2005. Back then, it was still a pretty cutting-edge thing for a lawyer to do.

I used to spend a lot of time debunking common misconceptions about the paperless office and pointing out the advantages. It’s not worth doing that any longer. Plenty of law offices are paperless now. In fact, the federal courts have been paperless for years, and even state courts are converting to electronic filing and paperless case files.

If you aren’t paperless already, you need to catch up.

When you are ready to leave paper (mostly) behind, use this guide to get started.

Essential Equipment

Document scanner. In order to turn paper into bits, you will obviously need a document scanner. If you already have an all-in-one machine, you can use it, but a dedicated scanner is a better choice.

When it comes to dedicated document scanners, there are plenty of options, but only a few good ones, and one clear leader. The best scanner to set on your desk is the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500. The NeatConnect is also worth a look if you need TWAIN1 Feel free to do your own research, but if you just want a great scanner, get the ScanSnap or NeatConnect.

For scanning on the go, get a scanning app for your smartphone rather than a portable scanner. The best options right now are Scanbot for iOS and CamScanner for Android.

Adobe Acrobat. Acrobat is to PDF as Word is to DOC/DOCX. There are alternatives, but if you regularly need to rearrange, redact, Bates stamp, and OCR PDF files, you should probably get a current copy of Acrobat Pro.2

A bigger (or another) monitor. Since you will be viewing documents on a screen most of the time, 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″ monitor, although a 24″ monitor is closer to ideal.

Better yet, get two monitors if your computer supports that option.

The best value overall is still the still-great 24″ Dell UltraSharp U2412M. The price goes up and down on Amazon, but it is generally about $300. Just consider that monitor resolutions are probably about to double, and it may pay to wait a couple of years before you make a major investment.

A tablet. A tablet (read: iPad) is definitely optional, but highly recommended. A laptop or desktop display does a poor job of replicating the feel of holding paper in your hand. A tablet, however, makes it easy to lean back in your chair to read a brief or hand a document to someone else to review.

To get the most out of your iPad, get GoodReader.

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 creates confetti, not ribbons. Just get something duty cycle that matches your usage.

If you get tired of slowly feeding documents through your shredder and lugging the bin to the trash room, you could just sign up for a shredding service like Iron Mountain.

Cloud storage. Once you are paperless, you will need a way to access your files from all your devices and share them with any other members of your firm. Dropbox and Box are probably the best options — and they are much better than trying to maintain your own file server. Add Viivo or Sookasa to encrypt your client files.

Backup. 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 WD Elements line of drives are ideal, no-frills external backup drives.

You should also back up your files remotely. CrashPlan is probably the best option for this. It is very secure and it is a good value.

Set up your backups before you shred anything, and test your backups regularly to make sure they work properly.

Paperless Workflow

Once you have the right equipment, going paperless is technically as easy as putting paper in your scanner and putting the Scan button. But it helps to spend a little time thinking about your paperless workflow and organization.

If you don’t know where to start, here is a basic blueprint that you can tweak as needed to suit your own practice.

Existing files. If you do not have a lot of paper files right now — say 3 bankers boxes or fewer — take an afternoon or two and scan them yourself. If you have more than that, or if you don’t want to lose a day to scanning, hire someone to do the scanning for you.

Going forward. From now on, use your inbox as the gateway to your office. Nothing should leave your inbox without being scanned before you do anything else with it. The inbox is sacred. It must be the only place for documents that have not been scanned.

That is critical, so I will repeat it: Nothing should leave your inbox without being scanned before you do anything else with it. Don’t even pick it up and read it. Scan it first. If you have people working for you, make sure they know that if they violate this rule you will fire them.

Why is this so critical? You cannot afford to have any uncertainty about which documents have been scanned and which have not. The simplest way to make sure this never happens is to make sure the only documents that have not scanned are the ones in your inbox. Everything else has been scanned and can be shredded or saved as necessary or convenient.

For more, see my guide to desigining a paperless workflow.

Organizing files. The easiest way to organize your digital files is pretty much the same way you organize your paper files. Here is how I set up my client file structure:


In other words, have a Client Files folder, and within that folder make a folder for each client or matter. In each of those folders, have as many folders as you need to organize documents sensibly.

Finally, name your files starting with the date of the document and a plain-language description, like so:

2015-02-06 Letter to Joe Smith RE Settlement Offer.pdf

The date (with the year first) will sort your documents in chronological order, and the description will make it easy to scan your folders for the document you are looking for.

For more, see my guide to organizing paperless client files.

Once you have the right equipment and a basic plan, start scanning! Soon yo.u will have a more efficient, more portable, more paperless office.

Originally published February 25, 2015. Republished July 29, 2016.

  1. If you don’t know whether you need TWAIN or not, you don’t need TWAIN. 

  2. You can get by with Acrobat Standard, but you are better off with Acrobat Pro, which adds useful features like Bates-stamping. 


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  • Not a fan of the “nested folder” solution but still a very helpful article.

  • Bob Loblaw

    How do the various cloud-encryption services work with mobile PDF editors like GoodReader? Is the syncing still seamless or do you need to move files back and forth between encrypted and unencrypted folders every time?

    I work in a firm with a supported document-management system and only use Dropbox for working files. I don’t store sensitive client information there (just working drafts, markups to pleadings, tabbed PDF “binders” for meetings or hearings, etc.) I’d still consider adding encryption if it worked with the apps I’m currently using.

    • None of them work directly with GoodReader or any other mobile PDF app I’m aware of. I talked to the Viivo crew at ABA TechShow last year and they said they had talked to the GoodReader developer, but nothing seems to have come of it, yet.

      Viivo (the Dropbox encryption app I use) works okay for viewing encrypted PDFs, just not for marking them up or keeping multiple documents open in tabs. You can also open files in Word from Viivo and save them back to Viivo.

      I think your approach — keeping only active files in Dropbox — is a reasonable compromise.

  • john ryan

    Totally agree the year-month-day then the description. The hyphens are much easier to see the date clearly.

  • (((I’m With Walt)))

    Not vouching for security or encryption, but for general digitizing, Scannable is a fantastic app for getting paper documents PDF’d using your iPhone camera — syncs and stores directly into Evernote and/or Photos.

  • Paul Spitz

    You can save a lot of money on a scanner if you have an office in a shared-office workspace, where there is a scanner/copier available for all the tenants.