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How to Organize Paperless Law Firm Files

Organizing paperless client files is simple: organize digital client files exactly how you organized your files before you went paperless. Go with the “folder” analogy that your computer uses for organizing files, and use them just as you use your red ropes and manila folders for your paperless law firm file structure.

Consider your “paper-full” workflow. You probably get a document in the mail, review it, then two-hole-punch it and add it to a manila folder, which is put in a red rope “bucket file” and stored in your filing cabinet (or in a stack next to your desk). A paperless workflow is similar, but most of it happens on your computer. After you get a document in the mail, scan it and file it in a folder on your computer. That folder is similar to the manila folder, and it should be located within a folder for the client (the red rope) that is, in turn, stored in a Client Files folder (your filing cabinet).

Client files folder structure

Here is an overview of how I organize my client files:

client-files-structure-overview

This is a screen capture from my actual client files archive, so I’ve blurred out the names of my clients, but you get the idea.

Instead of a filing cabinet, I have a folder called Client Files. Inside that folder are sub-folders (red ropes) for all of my client files. Each matter has the file number and client’s last name. You can use your /Client Files folder as a “tickler” for work planning meetings if you are reasonably diligent about closing files.

Within my /Documents folder, I also have folders labeled BillingTemporary, Closed Client Files, and Declined. (The Billing and Temporary folders are not shown in the image above, because it comes from my archive.) Here’s how I use each folder.

  • Client Files. These are open files. I use a file closing checklist to close files promptly when they are finished.
  • Billing. Files that have been closed, but for which the client still owes me money.
  • Temporary. Any notes, intake forms, or other documents related to clients who have not yet signed a retainer.
  • Closed Client Files. Self-explanatory, except for one important point. I return all paper to the client, together with a CD containing a complete copy of their digital file. I keep my digital copy for 10 years, then delete it (the client receives notice that this will happen in the closing letter).
  • Declined. Files get moved here from the Temporary folder when the client decides not to sign a retainer, or when I decide not to represent the client.

I also have a Client Files Archive folder in my Documents folder with a folder for each year. At the end of each year, I move all the inactive (closed and declined) files into an archive folder for that year. It helps keep my Client Files folder uncluttered and makes it easy to delete archived client files on a ten-year schedule.

Blank new folder template

I keep a blank new folder template handy for new files. Here is what it looks like:

file-structure

It makes sense to stick your templates in your blank folder, as well. Put your letterhead and envelope templates in your Drafts folder, and a settlement negotiations spreadsheet in your Notes folder.

File numbers

If your law firm file structure does not already have a file numbering scheme, try mine. I decided it was worthless to assign arbitrary numbers, and started using numbers that reflected the date the client signed a retainer. So if the client signed a retainer on August 3, 2016, the file number would be 160803. If multiple clients sign a retainer on the same day, just add a letter, like so: 160803a for the first, 160803b for the second, and so on. This makes it easy to tell, at a glance, how long a file has been open. That’s not information I need all the time, but it is more useful than consecutive numbering that says nothing at all about the file.

File naming

File naming is also important for your law firm file structure. Generally, you would sort documents by the date of the document (not the date you scanned the document, which may be days—or years—later). To do this, start filenames with the date, year first: yyyy-mm-dd Filename.pdf. (You have to start with the year, or all your Januarys will end up next to one another. I prefer to separate the elements of the date with hyphens to make it easier to read the date when looking at a list of files.

One last thing. Do not store Word, WordPerfect, Pages, OpenOffice.org, etc., files in any folders other than Drafts or Notes. Those files are not copies of documents. They are malleable drafts that probably look slightly different on different computers, and can be easily edited. PDFs are documents (and PDF is the file format you should use).

The exception is when a client provides you with a digital document. In that case, store it in the format in which you received it in the Docs from Client folder, since that digital file is the actual document you were given.

For more information on running a paperless law firm, read Chapter 5 of our Complete Guide to Managing a Small Law Firm.

Originally published 2010. Updated 2017. Republished 2019-10-16. Updated 2022.

How to Design Your Firm’s Paperless Workflow

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.

Workflows for Going Paperless

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.

How to Secure Your Paperless Office

There is more to a paperless office than just scanning everything and accessing your documents when you’re at home, on vacation, or in court. Even if your office is not paperless, you are certainly storing data and documents on computers. But do you know where all that data is being backed up? Is it being backed up at all?

Lots of lawyers have had crash courses in data loss after recent disasters, from 9/11 to hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Many other lawyers have had smaller lessons after losing a hard drive or accidentally overwriting a critical file. Data loss happens all the time, to everyone who isn’t backing up their data. The only way to prevent data loss is a solid backup strategy, and that means redundant backup.

The ideal way to back up what’s important to you is to ensure that you have copies saved both on- and off-site, and both in the cloud and in physical locations.

If you are already paperless and your documents are stored in the cloud, your data is much safer than those of an attorney who still has an office full of Redwelds, legal pads, and an assistant who transcribes Word documents for “safe-keeping” on an office server. However, even though services like Dropbox are great for file-sharing with colleagues or syncing your files across your computers, file sync is not backup. And while you can set up backup on your computer to recover quickly from brief interruptions like power outages or server crashes, this won’t save you if your building burns down.

Being redundant may not be a good thing with respect to lawyering, but it’s a great thing when it comes to your computers, and off-site backup is the key to a good, redundant backup system.

The difference between redundancy and backup

“Redundancy” is storing information in more than one place. Many offices have redundant systems that involve storing data within devices that have at least two internal drives. Redundancy alone is not backup; it is a fail-safe measure in the event of failure of the storage device’s initial internal drive. This means that if one drive fails, another will immediately kick in and preserve any data contained within. It’s just like when you double-bag your groceries — if one bag seems flimsy for what you’ve purchased, you might place the whole thing inside another bag so that if it breaks, there’s a second layer of protection before your eggs crack all over the sidewalk.

However, redundancy alone does not preserve your data. It saves you in the event of a minor technological glitch, but not from physical disaster like fire or flood. “Backup,” on the other hand, is the practice of keeping of data in multiple places so that if something happens to one (or more) copy, you have additional copies. In theory, if you email yourself a document via Gmail, you’re creating a backup. One exists on your hard-drive, and one exists on Google’s servers. But that’s not ideal for a general backup system, for reasons that should be obvious. The ideal way to back up what’s important to you is to ensure that you have copies saved both on- and off-site, and both in the cloud and in physical locations.

Data backup options

Cloud backup: You might already be backing up your data in the cloud. If you are using Dropbox, Google Drive or another syncing application, you are effectively syncing your documents to the cloud (and your other computers) in real time. As long as the Internet is safe, so is your data.

The downside is that if your Internet isn’t lightning-fast, both uploading and downloading can take a long time. Also, if there is a disaster that leaves you without Internet connectivity, there’s no way for you to access any of your documents. And since your data is being handled by a third party, you might not be entirely comfortable when it comes to your highly-sensitive, confidential documents.

Local backup: This includes flash drives, external hard drives and media like CDs or DVDs. These devices are starting to have more and more available space, but there are still limitations. Also, they are only as good as the security of the holder. In other words, if you or an employee lose a flash drive or a CD (which is easy to do), then not only is the data lost, but it also can be viewed by whomever finds it. Of course, if you just need in-office data storage, backing up on CDs or external hard drives is fine. However, there’s no protection in the event of a natural (or other) disaster that affects your physical office.

Network backup: Generally, this refers to a network-attached server (NAS) that keeps copies of data on the network, itself. Sometimes, this can be synced to cloud storage, but it will not going to save your data in the event of a physical event at your office.

Best practices for backing up sensitive data

Local backup and network backup are useful and important, but your data may not be secure without a remote backup server.

A remote backup server can store your data and keep it recoverable in case of a local data loss. For example, if your physical office is in San Francisco, you might have your backup server in North Carolina. This remote backup server would store a copy of every piece of information in your infrastructure on a schedule that does not overload your computer or network; daily, every 48 hours, or whatever you choose.

On the back end, you might have a local repository where you clone your backup job, and then send a backup snapshot over a wide-area network to your remote backup server. This way, you are actually replicating your files so that if there’s a catastrophic data loss, they are still sitting happily on the remote server and are ready for you to easily replicate in a usable way. This is probably the best way to mitigate the risks of daily data protection.

Regardless of whether your firm is mid-sized or a solo practice, you must back up every day because — as the conventional wisdom suggests — it’s not a matter of if you eventually have a system failure, but when. So, what happens if you have a crash? You could have to spend days buying a new computer; researching, purchasing and installing software; entering program data; configuring accounts for email and program settings; loading all of your previously stored data and hoping that all of your earlier versions of documents are compatible with the new system. This process requires not only manpower, but expertise. Especially as a solo practitioner, this could take close to a week of time that you’re not prepared to spend in that manner. It’s been estimated that for each day of down-time, your firm could incur a cost of $1,500 per attorney, which does not include tech support and malpractice or liability issues that could arise.

Is my data lost, or simply unavailable? What’s a data spill?

“Data loss” refers to information that has been destroyed by failures of storage, transmission or processing. If you’re suffering from “data unavailability,” your information might just be temporarily inaccessible because of a network outage.

A “data spill” is when lost data is acquired by a third party who is not authorized to view it. This most commonly happens when an employee loses a laptop computer, flash drive, or other portable data storage device (which could even be an iPad or smartphone). The costs associated with these losses can be high, which is why you should encrypt any data that leaves your office. In the event of a data loss or spill, you might have to continue without the data, although you might be able to recreate it. Worst, you might have compromised a client’s confidential information, if the data has fallen into the wrong hands. If you are storing your data in the cloud, use a system wherein your data is encrypted both in transit and during storage.

If you’re choosing to store data on a flash drive (also known as a jump drive or thumb drive), it should be encrypted because those tiny drives can be physically lost so easily. However, while this saves you from a data breach, it doesn’t prevent actual physical data loss. If you’re using one of these micro-drives as backup, be sure that it’s not the only place where you’re storing the most current version of your data.

Practical security considerations with respect to passwords

Passwords should be strong. They should contain at least 12 characters. Don’t use the same password office-wide. If someone is able to crack your password, don’t give them a free ticket to everything in your files. Have multiple passwords. Yes, it can be mentally exhausting to keep track of all of your passwords, especially when you likely have plenty for both work and personal accounts. Apps like SplashID are encrypted for password protection and will store and protect not only passwords but credit card numbers and other most sensitive data. Whatever you do, never have a file on your computer entitled “Passwords”. Unless it’s an airtight decoy, this is never a good idea! In a January, 2012 issue of Law Practice Magazine, the American Bar Association indicated that the most common place where attorneys keep passwords is on sticky notes under their keyboards or in their top right-hand drawers. If you must keep a password or encryption key on a piece of paper, be sure that it’s hidden in a spot that’s highly unlikely to be discovered.

One final item about passwords: Don’t keep defaults. Regardless of whether it’s your router, operating system or any other hard- or software, the default passwords for software and hardware are well-known entities. Like any password, don’t use easily guessable codes like your office phone number, for example.

Easy action items with respect to backing up your valuable data

Cloud backup is inexpensive and allows for your files to be easily located anywhere that you have Internet access. It’s probably the most goof-proof and convenient, but know the risks.

Use office computers as extra backup devices in addition to your backups in external hard drives, flash drives, CDs and so on. Just make sure the backups are password-protected so no one can accidentally work on them as originals and destroy work. This is especially important for small offices where there is a single computer, or if there is one computer that stores data while all other computers are used as workstations.

You can maintain an indefinite number of external hard drives. They’re relatively inexpensive and tend to be stable. Work them into your backup repertoire and maintain them both on- and off-site. If you’re a solo practitioner and you don’t want or need remote server backup, you can transfer files from your office computer to an external hard drive in your home (provided it’s not in the same physical location) via the cloud. Or, you could transfer data by flash drive. Just be sure to work the transfer into your daily routine in order to maintain it as reliable backup.

A crash could also cause lose software, especially if you are using old versions of various applications, it could be difficult to restore data stored within. If you can’t keep a duplicate CD or other version of the actual software, keep an off-site file with the software specifications, version and receipts for purchase. Depending on the circumstances, this information could help you avoid having to re-purchase older software.

Cloud backup is inexpensive and allows for your files to be easily located anywhere that you have Internet access. It’s probably the most goof-proof and convenient, but know the risks. You want to ensure that the data is secure and that the online storage company is reliable and trustworthy. Also, ensure that whatever cloud you’re using has its own backup plan. This should probably not be your only backup method, but it’s excellent as one of them.

Always be testing

Finally, test, test, test! To make sure that your backup is functioning properly in the event of a disaster, be sure to periodically retrieve your files from your remote server and make sure that they are readable. Remember, your backup files are just as valuable as your active data. This means that whatever precautions you’re taking to ensure the security of your active files should be taken (and then some) on your backup files. Hopefully, the worst-case scenario will never happen to your files. But if it does, at least some of the aggravation can be alleviated if you’re confident that your data is securely and properly backed up in a way that it can be accessed any time from anywhere.

Originally published 2013-10-30. Updated 2020-01-23.

Small Firm Roadmap Stories: Build the Tech You’re Missing

Lawyerist Lab is a community where solo and small-firm lawyers go to innovate, test, experiment, and improve their law businessesWe’re interviewing Lab members on their experiences as they align with The Small Firm Roadmap.

“People may not realize that if there’s not a technology or software product out there that works for your needs, you might be able to build one. It might not be as expensive or as complicated as you think.”

Tell me about your practice. How did it start? What were you doing before it started?

I launched my practice in late 1999. We focus on trademark law. 

Prior to launching my firm, I worked at the US Patent and Trademark office for about a year as an examiner reviewing trademark applications.

When I decided to launch my practice, I had a couple of thoughts. One: I knew working for the federal government wasn’t for me. It didn’t meet my professional goals. I wanted to be an entrepreneur — get out on my own.

Also, the internet as a marketing tool and platform was really just taking off at that time. When I launched my business, the majority of law firms didn’t even have websites. I saw an opportunity. 

What kind of opportunity?

I decided to charge flat all-inclusive fees from the beginning.

I also realized that technology was changing the way that firms worked and marketed, particularly in a field like trademarks where your practice can be national. So, I built a website, marketed online, and got my first clients. 

What were your struggles when you transitioned to own firm?

Like most solos, I struggled with being alone. I had a huge support network at the trademark office and in school before that, so being on my own was different. At the time, I didn’t have the wisdom to reach out to find mentors. 

Plus, there weren’t a lot of small or solo IP shops at the time because the market was undergoing an evolution. There were no roadmaps to follow. I really had to make my own way. 

You had your practice for quite a while before you joined Lab. What made you join?

A combination of things. Number one, even when things are going well, I’m always looking towards the future. I don’t want to be static or stuck in place. The practice of law is changing. The management of firms is changing. If you don’t keep up, you’ll get left behind.

Second, I had become tired of going to traditional conferences in the field. You’re surrounded by people who practice in the same field and they have the same type of lectures every year. I was getting so little out of going to those conferences that I wanted to try something new.

I wanted to think out of the box and make fresh connections. And Lab has been so valuable for this. Even if other attorneys in the group are working on different issues, I still get value out of hearing their stories, their obstacles, and how they overcame them.

What else do you find helpful about Lab?

When I was ready to grow, I had no idea how to handle staffing. I had zero experience or training in managing, overseeing, hiring, firing, all of that. To have support and coaching in Lab while I figured all of it out was really important. 

It’s also great to be around like-minded people — attorneys who are thinking differently about subscriptions, billing, staffing, processes, and everything else. Even if we aren’t working on the same issues, just hearing their solutions and stories is so helpful.

The Masterminds [peer-led brainstorming groups] have been tremendously helpful. Being around other people who are sharing their experiences and challenging each other and asking questions and learning is so valuable. 

Finally, one-on-one coaching with Stephanie. I’ve been working on a book, and she’s kept me on track. She’ll ask me questions like, “You finishing that book today? No? OK, what’s keeping you from writing? What’s the struggle? How do we fix the jam?” I can make a list of a hundred things to do, but it’s hard to do them without accountability. 

What’s one area of The Small Firm Scorecard where your firm is doing well? How are you maintaining that growth?

Technology. We’ve always been ahead of the curve there and we’ve kept the progress going. 

Going paperless is huge. You would think it’s not something to brag about anymore, but you’d be surprised. You’re still ahead if you’re paperless. And if you aren’t paperless yet, make it a priority as it opens up so many other doors with efficiency. 

I’ve also found that people may not realize that if there’s not a technology or software product out there that works for your needs, you might be able to build one. It might not be as expensive or as complicated as you think. We built our own product that works as a CRM, an intake, and our docketing system. It’s invaluable. A bonus benefit is that it is a great marketing tool when I tell prospective clients that we’ve built our own proprietary software.

If building a new tool feels daunting, talk to an expert and break it down into pieces – maybe your tool only needs to do one thing to start. What’s one very repetitive task you need help doing that you can’t find the right tool for? 

What’s your advice for someone starting their own firm?

Number one is to find a passion that you can tie into your work. I don’t believe in the separation of work from life. For instance, if you love sports, try to work with sports companies. If you love music, go to music events and network and promote your services that way. Combine your passion and work in every way you can. 

Second, have patience. I used to say, wait six months for progress — and even that’s probably generous. But when the returns start to come in, the results can be contagious. People are calling you because they spoke to you at an event a year ago. It just builds.

And then I’m always looking ahead, so that even when things are good and busy, I’m planting new marketing seeds to make sure there are pipelines of business coming in six months or a year. 

Erik Pelton is all about energy, whether he’s representing clients, addressing workshop or conference-goers, volunteering with Falls Church City’s Economic Development Authority, testing his mettle in a triathlon, drumming up support for charity, or wrangling kids on Bike to School Day. His superpower is making complicated subjects clear, using real-world examples to illustrate his points in an engaging—sometimes-hilarious—way. And as an early-adopter gadget freak, the exploding world of technology and associated intellectual property laws is to Erik familiar and fun rather than intimidating. Erik got his start as a trademark examiner for the USPTO and, in the years since, has grown his law practice with the enduring ideals of customer service, affordability, and clarity.

How to Get Started Going Paperless

If you haven’t already gone paperless, you will. It’s long past time to leave paper mostly behind. I went paperless shortly after I started my solo practice in 2005. Back then, it was still a pretty cutting-edge thing for a lawyer to do.

I used to spend a lot of time debunking common misconceptions about the paperless office and pointing out the advantages. It’s not worth doing that any longer. Plenty of law offices are paperless now. In fact, the federal courts have been paperless for years, and even state courts are converting to electronic filing and paperless case files.

If you aren’t paperless already, you need to catch up.

When you are ready to leave paper (mostly) behind, use this guide to get started.

Essential Equipment Needed for Going Paperless

Document scanner. In order to turn paper into bits, you will obviously need a document scanner. If you already have an all-in-one machine, you can use it, but a dedicated scanner is a better choice.

When it comes to dedicated document scanners, there are plenty of options, but only a few good ones, and one clear leader. The best scanner to set on your desk is the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1500. Feel free to do your own research, but if you just want a great scanner, get the ScanSnap.

For scanning on the go, get a scanning app for your smartphone rather than a portable scanner. The best options right now are Scanbot for iOS and CamScanner for Android.

Adobe Acrobat. Acrobat is to PDF as Word is to DOC/DOCX. There are alternatives, but if you regularly need to rearrange, redact, Bates stamp, and OCR PDF files, you should probably get a current copy of Acrobat Pro. You can get by with Acrobat Standard, but you are better off with Acrobat Pro, which adds useful features like Bates-stamping.

A bigger (or another) monitor. Since you will be viewing documents on a screen most of the time, you will want to be able to look at two pages (at least) side-by-side. The smallest monitor that will do this comfortably is a 21″ monitor, although a 24″ monitor, or more, is closer to ideal.

Better yet, get two monitors if your computer supports that option.

A tablet. A tablet (read: iPad) is definitely optional, but highly recommended. A laptop or desktop display does a poor job of replicating the feel of holding paper in your hand. A tablet, however, makes it easy to lean back in your chair to read a brief or hand a document to someone else to review.

To get the most out of your iPad, get GoodReader.

A shredder or shredding service. Once you go paperless, you will be throwing away more paper, so you will need a shredder or shredding service.

If you get a shredder, it doesn’t really matter which one, so long as it creates confetti, not ribbons. Just get something duty cycle that matches your usage.

If you get tired of slowly feeding documents through your shredder and lugging the bin to the trash room, you could just sign up for a shredding service like Iron Mountain.

Cloud storage. Once you are paperless, you will need a way to access your files from all your devices and share them with any other members of your firm. Dropbox and Box are probably the best options — and they are much better than trying to maintain your own file server.

Backup. Going paperless can be much more secure than maintaining paper files, but a bulletproof backup strategy is critical. At a minimum, use an external hard drive for daily backups. The Western Digital WD Elements line of drives are ideal, no-frills external backup drives.

You should also back up your files remotely. CrashPlan is probably the best option for this. It is very secure and it is a good value.

Set up your backups before you shred anything, and test your backups regularly to make sure they work properly.

Paperless Workflow

Once you have the right equipment, going paperless is technically as easy as putting paper in your scanner and putting the Scan button. But it helps to spend a little time thinking about your paperless workflow and organization.

If you don’t know where to start, here is a basic blueprint that you can tweak as needed to suit your own practice.

Existing files. If you do not have a lot of paper files right now — say 3 bankers boxes or fewer — take an afternoon or two and scan them yourself. If you have more than that, or if you don’t want to lose a day to scanning, hire someone to do the scanning for you.

Going forward. From now on, use your inbox as the gateway to your office. Nothing should leave your inbox without being scanned before you do anything else with it. The inbox is sacred. It must be the only place for documents that have not been scanned.

That is critical, so I will repeat it: Nothing should leave your inbox without being scanned before you do anything else with it. Don’t even pick it up and read it. Scan it first. If you have people working for you, make sure they know that if they violate this rule you will fire them.

Why is this so critical? You cannot afford to have any uncertainty about which documents have been scanned and which have not. The simplest way to make sure this never happens is to make sure the only documents that have not scanned are the ones in your inbox. Everything else has been scanned and can be shredded or saved as necessary or convenient.

Organizing files. The easiest way to organize your digital files is pretty much the same way you organize your paper files. Here is how I set up my client file structure:

client-files-structure-overview

In other words, have a Client Files folder, and within that folder make a folder for each client or matter. In each of those folders, have as many folders as you need to organize documents sensibly.

Finally, name your files starting with the date of the document and a plain-language description, like so:

2019-02-06 Letter to Joe Smith RE Settlement Offer.pdf

The date (with the year first) will sort your documents in chronological order, and the description will make it easy to scan your folders for the document you are looking for.

Once you have the right equipment and a basic plan, start scanning! Soon you will have a more efficient, more portable, more paperless office.

Originally published 2015-02-25. Updated 2016-07-26. Republished 2019-12-06.

Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1500 Document Scanner Review

The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1500 is the newest in the line of impressive ScanSnap scanners we’ve reviewed and recommended for paperless law offices over the years and replaces the iX500.

The ScanSnap line, including the new iX1500, are the scanners we most recommend for small law firms and paperless office management.

If you need a document scanner, this is still the one you should get, and it remains the top pick in our buyers guide for scanners. Here’s why.

fujitsu-scansnap-ix1500-photo

Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1500 Price and Features

The iX1500 is about $415 on Amazon.

There are less expensive desktop scanners that will get the job done, but the ScanSnap iX1500 is substantially better than any of them, and it has a lot more to offer, feature-wise. 

The iX500 scans 30 double-sided pages per minute. It will automatically detect and remove blank pages, although this is conservative and you will probably find plenty of blank pages in your scans. It is also good at detecting when two or more pages get pulled into the scanner at the same time. When this happens, the iX1500 will stop to let you separate the pages before it continues. With the ScanSnap Connect app for iOS and Android, you can scan wirelessly to your smartphone or tablet.

With ScanSnap Cloud, you can scan directly to almost a dozen cloud services, including Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, Google Drive, Evernote, and more. ScanSnap Cloud is by far the easiest way to use the iX1500 for normal, day-to-day scanning. For longer documents or more complex scanning jobs, you will want to use ScanSnap Connect with your mobile device or ScanSnap’s management software with your computer.

Hardware and Design

As far as scanners go, the iX1500’s simple new white and black form looks pretty nice on a desk. It is unobtrusive without being unattractive. Not that style should be a major concern when scanner shopping.

Inside the scanner is a processor that helps speed up image processing and handle processing when the iX1500 is not plugged into a computer. It even handles optical character recognition, which means you’ll spend less time waiting for OCR to finish than you would with other scanners (or older ScanSnaps).

Like most document scanners these days, the iX1500 has an ultrasonic multi-feed detector. And to reduce the chances you will need it, there is a new Separation Roller setup for paper picking.

The feeder is 9″ wide, so it can handle pages that are just a bit wider than standard US letter or A4 paper. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can scan teeny-tiny receipts, although you might have to move them around to make sure the scanner can tell there is a piece of paper in the feeder. You can also scan thicker documents, like drivers licenses and passports. Credit cards and drivers licenses go through this scanner just fine. Passports are a tight fit, but you can get them through.

One great improvement with the iX1500 is the addition of a full-color touchscreen interface to navigate the scanner’s menus and connectivity.

But it’s worth pointing out that if you are comparing the iX1500’s feature list to another scanner’s feature list, you are missing the point. The ScanSnap isn’t just a list of features, it is designed to make scanning easy, which is really important if you are going to use it all the time.

Bundled Software

What really makes the ScanSnap stand out is how easy it is to use. Manufacturers of competing scanners can’t seem to keep themselves from adding buttons, while the ScanSnap has a clean touchscreen interface. And unlike most of the competition, the ScanSnap scanning utility is simple, friendly, and easy to use. I think the ScanSnap management software is the most underrated feature of the ScanSnap line of scanners. Fujitsu didn’t just bundle its scanners with PaperPort (which was awful the last time I used it) or hack together an ugly-but-functional scanning utility. Fujitsu put in the time to design the user experience to make ScanSnaps easy to use without sacrificing functionality.

And it works really well.

Performance

The ScanSnap iX1500 is quick, reliable, and easy to use. Here it is in action:

Who Should Buy a ScanSnap iX1500?

If you are in the market for a desktop document scanner, the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1500 is the one you should buy. There is really no question about it.

There is only one exception to that recommendation: if you know you need TWAIN, you should look for another scanner, like one of those I have mentioned above. If you don’t know whether or not you need TWAIN, don’t worry about it. I’m pretty confident that you don’t.

Summary

The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1500 desktop scanner, the newest in the long line of ScanSnaps we love, is the scanner you should buy.

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

Originally published in 2013. Updated 2019. Republished on 2019-10-15.