Making the move to a paperless practice can seem daunting. After all, you’ve spent your entire academic and professional career, however long that is, working with paper: books, legal pads, memos, pleadings, files. Paperless? How can you possibly do that? Well, the reality is, you can’t. Not really. You are going to need to deal with and produce paper, at least for the foreseeable future. But you can establish a paperless practice that has a digital file at its core. Here’s how.
The reality is, you are going to need everyone to get on this band wagon if you are going paperless. You are going to need full buy-in to the process. You can’t have half the attorneys in your firm working with paper files and half with digital. And you don’t want to maintain fully duplicated copies. The biggest barrier to going to a digital law practice is attorney and staff participation. You are going to fundamentally change the way you physically interact with your files. In fact, you are going to change what a “file” is. But don’t worry, you can make it so familiar in structure that it will be an easy transition.
You will need some basic technology if you are going paperless. I practice solo and I’ve helped other small firms make the move to paperless, so my advice is going to be geared toward solos and small firms. Larger firms will have the same issues and needs, simply scaled up.
From an equipment standpoint, the basic components needed are a computer, a scanner and a printer. From a technology standpoint, you will need some basic applications and a cloud-based file storage system. Based on my experience, I would recommend the following:
Laptop Computer: Obviously you can go paperless using desktop machines, but really, what is the point? One of the major benefits to going paperless is the fact that, once implemented, your files are accessible to you wherever you are. Take advantage of that with a good laptop. Personally, I’m an Apple addict and have been for many years. Long before the iPhone and iPad, I found that Apple computers were reliable, rugged machines that simply work. The addition of the rest of the Apple ecosystem and the interconnectivity and syncability of the iPhone and iPad simply drive the point home.
Scanner: There are a number of options out there. You can choose one of the large networked copier/scanner combinations that lease for big money. However, I’ve found that most solos and small firms do better with multiple desktop scanners, 1 for every person in the firm. Desktop scanners assure that there is no reason not to scan everything, immediately. You avoid the pile-up of items “to be scanned” that will pile up just like the “to be filed” pile in a paper based office. For years I’ve recommended the Fujitsu Scan Snap as the best small footprint scanner on the market. They have just introduced a new model, the iX500. It is fast, does duplex (2 sided) scanning automatically, and comes bundled with a license for Adobe Acrobat X Standard. (More on Acrobat later.) That bundle price makes the iX500 a good deal. If you already own a license for Acrobat, then consider the Epson Workforce series of scanners. I’ve used one of these for over a year now and I can attest that the Workforce is a work horse.
Printer: Wait a minute! Aren’t we talking about going paperless? Yes we are, but you will still have to produce paper. To file with the court, to send to opposing counsel, for your clients. A good solid printer that is economical to own (which is not the same as the cheapest) is a must in every paperless office. What you won’t be doing is printing as much. Once you establish paperless workflows that fit your practice, you won’t be printing out the copy for your file, or the copy to markup, or the copy to take with you to that deposition. You’ll work with and review digital copies.
Adobe Acrobat XI: Let’s be clear: I am not talking about the free Acrobat Reader that may have been included with your computer. Acrobat is the gold standard for creating and working with .pdfs. And .pdfs are the core of your digital paperless file. Every piece of document you would file away in a traditional case file is, instead, a .pdf that can be manipulated and used in any way that you could with a piece of paper. (Ok, you can’t make a paper airplane out of it.) With Acrobat you can redact, add sticky notes, highlight, fill out forms, add typed addendums, underline, etc. You can also make the document searchable by running the built-in optical character recognition (OCR). There are other .pdf applications out there, but don’t bother with them. Use Acrobat and you won’t be sorry.
Dropbox or other Cloud Storage: By having your client files in digital (.pdf) format, it makes it easy to have your files available to you whenever you need them, wherever you are. My personal experience is Dropbox is simple to use, secure and extremely reliable. Dropbox has iPhone, Android and iPad apps so that you can access your files on your mobile devices.
How does Dropbox work? Dropbox creates a folder on your computer where you place your files. Those files stay on your computer. You have full access to them even when you aren’t connected to the internet. The Dropbox folder will get backed up by your backup regimen. But here is the nifty trick: anything in that folder will get synced to your Dropbox account. You can access your account from any internet access point, anywhere, any time. And you can configure Dropbox on as many computers as you want and that Dropbox folder will stay in sync across all computers. You can access your Dropbox account with apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android. Dropbox makes your paperless workflow accessible across platforms and devices and allows you to maximize your mobility and efficiency. Using Dropbox, or a similar product, you become a mobile legal warrior.
Those are the minimal products and services that you need to establish a paperless workflow. In my next post, I’ll outline how I leverage these products into my solo practice for maximum efficiency. In future posts I’ll concentrate on specific aspects of the workflow and tips and tricks I’ve learned.