When It Comes to Reading, Should You Go Paperless?

Everywhere you go, it seems legal tech experts beat the drum of going paperless and the overwhelming advantages of paperless offices. Many of us, of course, have crossed this bridge.

But sometimes, and for some tasks like reading, working with paper just feels better. At least that’s what I told myself.

The advantages of going paperless are certainly many. If you travel, going paperless is a godsend. No more backaches from lugging briefcases full of documents around or paying exorbitant fees for shipping. Moreover, the search capabilities of paperless documents are superior. Cloud storage also makes all of our documents far more accessible.

Despite these advantages, many of us still use and prefer paper sometimes. Why?

Sometimes We Just Want To Use Paper

Many of us, even if we aspire to be fully digital, seem to revert to paper in certain circumstances. Even though I think of myself as technologically savvy and like to push the technology envelope, I’ve found that when I’m up against, say, writing a brief and facing a short timeline or studying the other side’s pleadings (particularly complicated ones), I seem to concentrate more when I work with paper. The same is true when reading a lengthy judicial opinion. It just seems faster.

I also like paper when I have a long document and don’t need to read some sections as closely as others. Part of it may be that with a paper document I can easily tell exactly how long it is and make value judgments about what and how much of the document to read or skip.

Maybe Being Analog Is Just Innate

In The Revenge of Analog, Real Things and Why They Matter, David Sax says we are wired to prefer analog things to digital in certain circumstances, particularly when reading. Sax says the ability to touch, hold and manipulate analog products like paper appeals to people because analog makes us perceive and feel closer to the product. This makes us feel like the product unique. In turn, we pay more attention to it. This intimate relationship with analog products like paper, he argues, helps us concentrate on words better.

Some of Sax’s conclusions are a bit overblown. He would have us believe that everyone takes notes using fountain pens and Moleskine notebooks, but few people I know do this regularly.

So my preference for paper in reading long documents or when I have to concentrate is innate and entirely natural, right?

Reading is Fundamental

There’s a fair body of work suggesting that our brains process material differently if we read it on paper versus on a screen. A recent study in Norway concluded that “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.” It was simply easier for those who read on paper to remember what they had read.

Another study found that screen-based reading behavior involved more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and reading more selectively, and less time on in-depth and concentrated reading. In other words, people pay less attention to things they read on a screen.

Some believe this is because paper offers spatiotemporal markers while you read. Touching paper and turning pages aids the memory, making it easier to remember where you read something. Having to scroll on the computer screen makes remembering more difficult. When that tactile experience is removed, sometimes it prevents people from navigating long texts in an efficient way.

Some studies find that our brains think of text as a tangible, physical part of the world we inhabit, and therefore might be perceived as more real. The brain decides that letters are physical objects so it can comprehend them. Both anecdotally and in published studies, people report that when trying to locate a particular piece of written information they often remember where in the printed text it appeared. For lawyers, this might mean that they are better able to quickly locate key parts of a brief, a deposition, or a legal opinion.

All of this would seem to support the conclusion of Sax that paper is better for concentrated reading. But do we concentrate more when we read something on paper or do we concentrate more only because we think we can concentrate more? Is it just habit and attitude rather than measurable cognitive effort during reading that made people prefer print texts?

Perhaps I was just trying to glorify my habit of reading on paper.

A 2013 study compared reading effort on three media: a paper page, an e-reader (e-ink) and a tablet computer. The authors studied eye movement, brain activity and reading speed. The participants also answered a few questions to determine reading comprehension. All of the participants said that they preferred reading on paper, even though the study found no support that it was harder to read on digital media. So why did the participants still prefer to read on paper? The authors argue that it might be more about people’s attitude towards the digital media than the actual reading experience.

Another study found that the problem with screen reading is more psychological than technological. Medium preferences matter, however: those who studied on their preferred medium showed both less overconfidence and got better test scores. Some lawyers might still be approaching computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.

What Should You Do?

So should lawyers resort to paper when they think it is better or force themselves to think and work digitally? This is typical of many technological decisions we face as lawyers: should I do what is comfortable and established under the guise that it gets me an immediate perceived better result, or do I do what is less immediately comfortable and hope for an improved experience down the road?

I started out thinking that since I think I do better with paper, I should use it more, not less, than digital. But now, I think that’s just my brain giving me an excuse to keep doing what is more comfortable. It is a cop-out for not pushing myself into what is clearly the future—less paper, more digital. Reverting to paper discourages my use of tools that are only available digitally. Also, reliance on paper lends itself to taking a similar stance on other technology—an attitude that I think has resulted in too many lawyers being too technologically behind.

So, paper is nice. I like writing in a Moleskine with a nice fountain pen. Reading a paper brief is like wearing an old comfortable pair of shoes. But that’s not the future. Wearing old shoes may be comfortable, but once you take the time to break them in, new shoes are better.

Stephen E. Embry
Stephen is a member of Frost Brown Todd LLC and the Firm's class action, privacy and mass tort groups. Stephen is a national litigator and advisor who is experienced in developing solutions to complex litigation and corporate problems. Stephen is also a frequent speaker and writer. In addition to practicing law, Stephen's passions include education, officiating swimming on national and local levels and all things tech. He is a husband and proud father. And, finally, he is unabashedly and unapologetically a University of Kentucky basketball fan.

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