Going paperless shouldn’t be about just scanning in the paper that comes into your office. To take full advantage of going paperless, establish a paperless workflow to increase your efficiency.

The first two considerations are establishing a workflow for incoming paper and one for outgoing paper. The goal is to minimize the steps required to deal with the paper and optimize your ability to access your digital file later. Also, by creating pre-populated file and form templates that you can simply duplicate whenever you establish a new client or matter, you can further leverage going paperless.

Incoming Paper

When going paperless, your incoming workflow is probably the easiest and most logical step. After all, you simply scan everything that comes into your office, right?  Well, yes, it is that simple. But then again, maybe not. What you want is to have everything that comes into your office scan immediately, so that everything is available in your digital file as soon as it hits your door.

Naming Your Documents

But there is a little more to it than simply putting a pleading or correspondence on the scanner and hitting the button. You then have to name the resulting document in such a way that you can easily find it. My suggestion is that every document be named starting with a date, followed by a description of the document. If you use the format YYYYMMDD.description then the document will always automatically be in chronological order in whatever folder it is placed in. Not so if you use the format MMDDYYYY.description. That will result in documents being placed together by month and date, thus jumbling documents from different years together.

By using this naming format and establishing a digital file of nested folders that mirrors how you organize the paper file you are accustomed to using, and you will be able to easily save and then locate your documents.

Tip: Some practice management softwares will take care of this naming for you! 

Tracking Your Tasks

Another important aspect of incoming workflow in going paperless is how you track what you need to do in response to the paper you receive. Do you need to write a letter in response, or file an answer to a pleading or respond to discovery? Are you one of those people that keeps track of those task by placing documents in piles on your desk? If so, you are not going paperless. What I suggest is a good “to do” or task application. There many available and reviewing them is a constant subject among legal bloggers. Suffice it to say that you should find one that fits your sensibilities and stick to it. My personal favorite is a Mac and iOS application called Omnifocus. Whether you follow the tenets of Getting Things Done or not, a good task management application is essential to going paperless.

Outgoing Paper

You may initially think that how you handle outgoing paper really doesn’t have that big of an impact on you or your file. After all, that is paper that is leaving your office, so what do you care? But think about it…lawyers keep a copy of everything that goes in and goes out. So how you handle outgoing paper is at least half the battle. But actually, you can reap the greatest efficiency benefits by tweaking how you handle the outgoing paper.

One obvious way to handle outgoing paper is to simply do with it exactly what you do with incoming paper. Once you print out the outgoing copy, scan it in and apply your file naming protocol. But you are wasting effort if you do that. There is a better way: print to .pdf or save as .pdf (depending on whether you use Windows or Apple OS.  By simply printing to .pdf you save the same copy you would have created by printing and scanning.

Digital Signatures

But what about signatures? Pretty simple. There are several tools out there that allow you to easily upload your document and send out it for a digital signature (think HelloSign, DocuSign, etc).

As an alternative, you can either create a signature stamp in Adobe or, within Word, you can use a signature font. By using a signature font, you save yourself the step of actually signing pleadings or letters and you save the step of adding a signature in Adobe. I set up standardized correspondence and pleading templates with my signature font already inserted, as well as an automatically updating date.  With this set up, you can create your outgoing document without having to print out your document, unless you need to snail mail a copy. (Your Word “document” is only a draft. The .pdf version is the permanent document you will rely on in the future.  Word documents are always drafts, never final “documents”.)

Ditch the Physical Fax

You can further leverage this workflow by ditching your physical fax.  There are many options for “e-faxing” and almost any of them will be better than dealing with toner, paper and the cost of a fax machine and separate fax line. Some are: RingCentral, MyFax and eFax. By sending and receiving fax transmissions on your computer, you bypass using the fax machine and then scanning the resulting transmission into your system.

Optimizing Your Paperless Workflow

Once on the road to going paperless, be aware of all the ways you can eliminate creating and handling paper, and minimizing repetitive tasks. With a digital file, there are many techniques to accomplish this.

Form Templates

Don’t constantly recreate forms that you use regularly. Create templates of your often used forms  complete with signatures and automatically updating dates. Form templates go hand in hand with digital signatures. By pre-populating your form templates with your digital signature, you save time and effort.

Digital Letterhead

But what about letters you ask? You need to print to letterhead, right?  Wrong. Save time and money-ditch the pre-printed letterhead. The days of needing engraved letterhead in order to make a good impression are gone. Many, if not most, large firms have gone to digital letterhead. It is easy to do: Set up your letterhead in Word using the header and footer functions. Save a letterhead template and you can copy it and use it for all correspondence. Same thing for envelopes.

Client File Templates

To save time, create a standardized client file template, complete with preset subfolders with frequently used forms. Then, instead of recreating a client file every time you open a new case, simply copy the entire folder and rename it with the client’s name. Then you will automatically have all your needed forms in place when you need them.  Here is another example of How to Organize Paperless Client Files.

Originally published 2013-02-22. Updated 2020-02-03.

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Last updated October 7th, 2022