Shuffling through piles upon piles of paperwork on your desk.
Stepping over the boxes taking up every corner of your office.
Sound familiar? If so, you’re still relying on paper for your day-to-day business activities. And, unfortunately, this method is a surefire way to remain stressed and disorganized.
Now is the time to take the leap and go paperless, switching from physical paper to digital documentation. Going paperless saves you time and cash while enabling you to provide a better client experience. Plus, it enhances the security of sensitive files and boosts your overall productivity.
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The Benefits of a Paperless Law Office
We know the thought of going through one stack of paperwork is overwhelming, let alone your entire office. We also know the benefits of going paperless far outweigh the work you’ll need to do at the outset.
Labster Erik Pelton has been completely paperless for years. He’ll even bring tablets to use as exhibits. People are wowed by this. They can’t believe all he takes to court is a briefcase. But by going paperless, he’s opened so many other doors for efficiency.
- Saves time. Time spent doing office work should count just as much as time billing clients. There’s no need to search through hundreds of files to find one document. Instead, you’ll have every document filed neatly in a searchable database. Plus, filing is simple, done at the push of a button.
- Saves money. The typical office employee uses more than 10,000 sheets of paper per year, which is around two cases. When the average cost of a case of paper is anywhere between $30 and $50, this adds up to some serious numbers over time. Combine that with the cost of filing systems, labels, and more, and it gets fairly easy to visualize the cost savings of removing paper from your workflow.
- Improves the client experience. Imagine misplacing an important document from your client’s file or spending fifteen minutes of your client’s time searching for their file. These minutes matter when it comes to offering a solid client experience. Going paperless eliminates these mishaps, improving the way you serve your clients.
- Enhances firm security. Through electronic document management practices, it’s simple to restrict access to your files, ensuring only those with a password can access critical client information. Should a natural disaster occur or office theft, you’ll have multiple back-ups of your files offsite through cloud hosting services. It’s also easier to remain compliant when your office is paperless.
- Boosts productivity. Becoming a paperless law firm also means going mobile, which allows you to access your files and documents from anywhere. Plus, the time you save by going paperless can be used for more important business matters such as client work, marketing, and more.
How to Start Going Paperless
There’s absolutely no excuse to not be paperless at this point. Look at federal courts – they’ve been paperless for years! It’s OK to occasionally print out a document if you really and truly need it, but your primary authoritative file should be paperless.
But before you scan that first document and join the paperless lifestyle, you first need a paperless plan in place. And technology is going to be at the center of that plan, so get ready.
Paperless Law Office Hardware & Software
First things first, you’re going to need some equipment to ensure your transition to paperless is a smooth one:
- Document scanner. One of the most important pieces of your paperless workflow is a dedicated document scanner for your files. We also recommend grabbing a mobile app for scanning on-the-go.
- Extra computer monitor. You’ll be using your computer to read documents from here on out. To make it easier on your eyes, we recommend purchasing an extra computer monitor to view two pages at once. Or, purchase a new, larger monitor to replace your existing one.
- Tablet. Although optional, a tablet reads just like a document. Plus, it’s easy to pass to a client or a colleague when they need to sign or review a document.
- Shredder. Yes, you’ll still need a shredder for destroying paper documents you receive from clients and colleagues. When you’re just starting out, you’ll find you’ll need to destroy vast amounts of paper.
- Physical back-up. Should your documents disappear on account of a data breach or serious user error (hey, it happens), you’ll need a back-up. We recommend using an external hard drive for daily back-ups and a remote back-up for a complete back-up of all your files.
You’re also going to need some specific software to ensure you’re able to scan, file, and organize your documents in a way that makes sense for your firm.
- Adobe Acrobat. With Adobe, it’s easy to quickly rearrange, redact, Bates stamp, and more. We recommend reaching for Acrobat Pro, instead of the standard, so you’ll have access to all of these features.
- Cloud storage. For easy file sharing, you’ll need cloud storage such as Dropbox for your devices. After all, using the Cloud is so much simpler than maintaining documents on your own server.
- Document automation software. Thankfully, there’s software out there that will help you scan, organize, and name your files.
Paperless Law Office Procedures & Workflow
When you go paperless, your current workflow will be replaced with a completely new paperless workflow. And, once you have your hardware and software in place, you’ll find this part is quite simple.
What Do I Do With My Existing Files?
Let’s start here, shall we? After all, the elephant in the room is all those boxes of files clogging your workspace. If you have only a few boxes, all you need is one day to scan everything into your computer on your own.
OK, we know that sounds easier than the task actually is. We know some attorneys who will schedule a sprint, where they block off a chunk of time to get the task done. Depending on how much paper you have, you might want to schedule several days for a Paperless Retreat. You and your staff will spend that time getting all of your papers scanned and filed.
Tip: If your paper files feel really out of control, just start with your open files. Leave your closed files stored in an organized way and mark the outside of the box with a date the documents can be destroyed.
If you have more than you feel you can handle, hire someone to do the scanning work for you.
Data Security & Data Threat Planning
We know an attorney who walked into his office one chilly December Minnesotan morning and a pipe had burst. You can picture it. Every box, every single sheet of paper, was soaked. Some of his documents were scanned, but they weren’t in the cloud yet. What a total mess.
So what happens if you walk into your office to a water leak that destroys your computer? Or, what happens if a criminal should threaten your data? A paperless law office needs a data security and data threat plan in place.
The ABA states that you must use reasonable efforts to protect client communications. First things first, build a threat model that outlines what threats you may be exposed to and how you should act on it. Consider these questions:
- What risks to our clients’ data exist?
- What are the consequences of those risks?
- What’s the appropriate measure to take given the risk?
Now, determine which steps to take to counteract the threat. For example, if there’s a threat of someone accessing your computer while you work at a local coffee shop, the appropriate action can be simply locking your computer screen should you need to walk away.
Or, if there’s a threat of someone hacking your computer system, the appropriate action would be to encrypt your files, install anti-virus software, and use complex passwords. More and more of us are working remotely, at home, or in co-working spaces. You have to make sure your files are protected.
Document everything in your threat plan and review it often. Ensure everyone on your team understands the plan and what to do should the worst-case scenario happen.
Paperless Law Office Document Management & File Structure
Now that you have the necessary tools and a plan in place for moving forward, you’re ready to start scanning and managing your documents electronically.
Organizing New Documents
Scan every single document that comes into your firm, regardless of where it comes from. Sounds daunting, but once you and your staff get into a routine, the process will be seamless.
Tip: There are companies that will do this for you! Earth Class Mail is an example. You’ll have your mail sent to the company, then they’ll scan the document and send it to you electronically. Saves you a big step and keeps paper from ever touching your office.
For example, make sure everything in your email inbox is scanned into your system as well as whatever lands in your snail mailbox. Make it a habit to scan it immediately, doing nothing else with the document until it’s scanned. Scan first! Drill that into your muscle memory.
If you don’t have a practice management system, create a system that makes sense for you and your firm. For example, create a folder in your documents called Client Files. Then, create subfolders for each individual client, complete with their case number or date of retainer to make them easy to find.
Inside those folders, create additional folders for billing, discovery, notes, pleadings, etc. We also use folders for billing when cases are closed yet money is still owed, closed client files, declined clients, and a client files archive for inactive files.
You can also use the same method in Dropbox or whatever file sharing and storage service you choose. Once you create your organization method, document it so everyone in your firm follows suit.
Each month, make time to clean up any misfiled or badly-named files.
How Do I Name Individual Files?
We recommend using a file naming convention that sorts documents by the date of the document. For example, start filenames with the date, year first.
Creating a Document Destruction Policy
You need a document destruction policy even if you’re paperless. As for client files, an easy practice is to scan everything and destroy anything the client doesn’t wish to keep. Make sure you communicate your document destruction policy to each client at the outset of your work.
If you feel it’s necessary, keep critical documents such as death certificates, certified copies, ink-signed documents, etc. Most of the time, you’ll likely return these documents to your clients or send them elsewhere at the clients’ requests.
And like we recommend for everything, have a system you follow to the letter for document destruction. If you’re keeping documents for five years, create a system that ensures you delete those files after five years. The popular recommendation is to store client files for the length of the statute of limitations on a malpractice claim in your jurisdiction.
Training for Current & Future Employees
You know what we say: Get your new system out of your head and into the hands of your staff. One of the most important parts of becoming paperless is training your current and future employees on proper digital handling. Once you have your strategy in place, immediately train your employees on using your system. They’ll need to know how to scan and organize files to keep your office running smoothly. Plus, they’ll need to know what to do should a threat occur.
Finally, make sure you set time on your calendar to review and revise your paperless system each month. There’s always room for improvement.
The Initial Work to Go Paperless Is Worth It
We know that this is a lot to take in, especially when you have so much on your plate. Yet, becoming paperless will save you time and cash while improving your productivity and enhancing the client experience you deliver.
Take it from those who have done this before: Labster Doug Stein is almost 100% paperless. Every document that arrives in his office is immediately scanned, placed in the correct folder, emailed to the attorney, and then destroyed. Any document that needs to stay in its original form (like a will) is scanned, then immediately filed. He doesn’t even have to think about paper. The system is in place and leaves him time to focus on the important tasks of the day.
Ready to Take Your Practice to the Next Level? Download Chapter One of The Small Firm Roadmap.
Whether you’re ready to go paperless, trying to get your finances in order, or simply want to know how to better serve your clients, we’re here to help. Our book, The Small Firm Roadmap, is your roadmap to solo or small law firm success. Download the first chapter for free today.