Buying a good document scanner is obviously critical for going paperless. So is a solid backup strategy. After that, you can pretty much just start scanning every document in your office. Your overall paperless workflow doesn’t need to be complicated, but it should follow some best practices.

Designing Your Paperless Workflow

But there is a bit more to going paperless than that. You need to think about your paperless workflow.

In other words, how will you make sure you collect, scan, and file all the documents that come into your office? You may get things in the mail, by email, fax, or from other sources. You have to make sure you collect everything, scan everything, and until you scan it, keep things that have not been scanned and filed separately from stuff that has. If you do not, you will waste a lot of time, at best. At worst, you could lose documents.

Nothing may leave the inbox unless it is scanned before you do anything else with it.

Adopt Inbox-Centric Thinking

Your inbox is probably the most crucial element in a paperless office. Your inbox collects the document you need to scan and file. That means your inbox must be sacred. Here is my rule: Nothing may leave the inbox unless it is scanned before you do anything else with it.

Related“Inbox Zero for Lawyers” and “Getting Things Done, for Lawyers”

This is a hard-and-fast rule. Violating this rule should be grounds for dismissal from the firm.

If you go paperless, you have to be confident that your digital file is complete. You need one complete copy of your file, and once you go paperless, it should be the digital one. The digital file is the useful copy, the one that will be backed up remotely and redundantly, and the one you will be working from every day. You should be able to shred anything that is not (a) in your inbox or (b) filed away in your physical file cabinet, which you should not need to access very often.

The only way to ensure that your digital file is the complete one is to have a hard point at which files make the transition from not-filed to filed. That should be your inbox. Your inboxes, really. Besides the one on your desk, you obviously have an email inbox, and you probably have other inboxes that you use to collect things that you need to scan and file or otherwise deal with. Keep track of all of them, and apply this rule to all of them.

After the Inbox

Everything that is not in your inbox or in your filing cabinet should be shreddable

Immediately after you pick up something up from your inbox, it must go into your scanner, after which you should file it where it belongs. Now, you can do one of the following with the paper you just scanned:

Related“How to Organize Paperless Client Files”

  • Save the document if it is an original you need to hold on to (make sure your physical file makes clear which documents fall into this category).
  • Save the document if it is something you need or want to have around. Maybe you want to read it on paper. Or maybe you want to keep large discovery production around so you don’t have to re-print everything for a deposition or trial.
  • Mail the document to your client.
  • Shred it.

You will probably shred most of the paper you get. Getting rid of paper, after all, is the best part about going paperless. Most of the paper you get is not worth keeping, anyway.

But think about the word paperless as meaning less paper, not no paper. In addition to originals you have to keep, keep whatever other paper you want to, for whatever reason. Just remember that your digital file is your “real” file. In a paperless office, there should be only two kinds of paper outside of the inbox:

  1. Paper that has been scanned and must be saved; and
  2. Paper that has been scanned and may be shredded.

Everything that is not in your inbox or in your filing cabinet should be shreddable, even if you do not actually shred it.

Alternative Approaches

There are many other ways to manage your paperless workflow, but I do not think any of them are as simple and effective as what I have suggested, at least not for small firms. The above rules are clear and easy to follow, which makes it easy to hold lawyers and staff accountable if they do not follow them.

Going paperless should be efficient, not tedious.

Some offices do not scan everything that comes in, and instead prefer to stamp documents that have been scanned. This eliminates the need to be draconian about the inbox, but it introduces inefficiency and the potential for confusion into the process. At some point during every file, someone will have to manually sort through a stack of paper, looking for SCANNED stamps.

Going paperless should be efficient, not tedious. Create an unbreakable “wall” between paper than has been scanned and paper that has not.

Other offices do not scan files in progress but only digitize their archives. While digital archives have advantages over paper archives, this defeats nearly every other advantage of going paperless. If your files are on paper, they are not backed up. You cannot access them remotely. You cannot sync them to all your computers. You cannot pull them up on your phone. You can do this, but if you do, you are really missing out on the advantages of going paperless. Since you will be scanning everything, anyway, why not do it upfront?

The only time I think it makes sense to try another approach is when your firm is big enough that it would be difficult to put a scanner on every lawyer’s desk (or their assistant’s desk) and ensure they are all following procedures correctly.

Bigger Firms

If your office is big enough that lawyers do not do their own filing, putting a scanner on each lawyer’s desk probably does not make sense. The scanners should probably go on the secretaries’ or paralegals’ desks. Otherwise, the system can function pretty much as above, with one exception. You will need a way to inform the lawyers when they have a new document to review.

As new documents are scanned and filed, the responsible lawyer(s) (and their staff), may need to know about the new documents. I can think of a few ways to do this:

  • You could have the staff drop the paper on the lawyer’s desk after scanning and filing it. That way, any paper in the lawyer’s office will already have been scanned.
  • You could have staff email a note with a link to the document in your file management system.
  • Some cloud-based systems like Box let you attach tasks to files, which is probably a more effective way to tell someone (or a group of people) to read something.

Those are just a few of my ideas. If you have found something else that works, please let us know in the comments.

If your firm is big enough that you have someone (or a department) responsible for mail, you should probably incorporate scanning into that department so that everything is gathered and scanned centrally. The scanning department would then be in charge of circulating documents or notices to the appropriate lawyers and staff. Or, perhaps, a new department is necessary to handle the scanning and notification, depending on the size of the operation.

But as soon as you take responsibility for managing the file away from the lawyer, documents can start to fall through the cracks if you are not careful. Even if you have a central department scanning and distributing incoming documents, what about email? What about phones? What about the lawyers’ notes?

Whatever you do, make sure you have a solution for collecting all the documents relevant to a file.

And if you are at the scale where you are really considering a central scanning department, you should probably hire a consultant to help you procure the right equipment and create a paperless workflow and procedures.

Closing Files

When you terminate the representation, get rid of any paper you still have by sending it to your client, along with a copy of their digital file on a CD, DVD, or USB drive. (Use a storage format they are likely to be able to access from a typical computer.) Also, notify your client of your document destruction policy in the file-closing letter, and let them know that when the time comes, you will be destroying their file without further notice to them.

In order to do this, you have to make sure you have gathered everything into the digital file. That means emails, notes, drafts, documents, etc. Make sure you can gather everything into the client’s digital file, in one place. If you have physical evidence, take a picture and return the original to its owner. When you close a file, your goal should be to have nothing but a single folder in your digital archive, which you will delete in 10 years (or whatever your malpractice insurance carrier recommends).

Take the Time to Design Your Paperless Workflow

Once you find out how simple it is to scan things, you may be tempted to just dive in and start scanning everything in sight. That is actually a good idea, at first, but you need to come up with a system to make sure that your firm collects, scans, and files every document that comes into your office, or that you generate, or that otherwise materializes. The best way to do this is with a strict inbox policy that separates documents that are not scanned from those that are and can be shredded.

Originally published 2010-08-10. Updated 2014-06-18. Republished 2020-02-05.

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Last updated October 7th, 2022