One of the most common objections to going paperless is from people who say they don’t want to read documents on a screen. That turns out to be a valid concern, but probably not because paper is inherently superior to screens. And as far as going paperless is concerned, it is a red herring.

Paper v. Screen

Scientific American took a look at the studies comparing paper to screens and e-readers and concluded that “[w]hen it comes to intensively reading long pieces of plain text, paper and ink may still have the advantage.” Interestingly, the reason boils down to attitude. We don’t take screens as seriously, so we scan rather than read deeply. Plus, computers are basically distraction machines, which means our reading is often interrupted by other activities. According to Scientific American, “people reading on screens take a lot of shortcuts—they spend more time browsing, scanning and hunting for keywords compared with people reading on paper, and are more likely to read a document once, and only once.”

Specifically, people who read on paper are more likely to engage in metacognitive learning regulation. That’s what psychologists call the process of reading, re-reading, and interpreting information in a document. So when you need to understand something thoroughly (like a contract or a summary judgment memorandum), paper is the way to go. When you are reading quickly, it doesn’t really matter whether you read on paper or on a screen.

Your age may matter, too. The attitude that makes people take screens less seriously could very well be the result of experience. Today’s young people start using screens so early that they might grow up with a different attitude about reading on screen.

Going Paperless Still Makes Sense

None of this means you should avoid going paperless.

Going paperless just means having a digital copy of every document. It means moving The File from your file cabinets to your file server, but you can still keep your file cabinets if you want to. At a minimum, you probably have to hold onto original copies of some documents. It would be wasteful to shred documents you may use again as exhibits. And if you prefer to hold onto some documents so you can read them on paper, go ahead.

The advantages of going paperless are numerous, and there is no rule that says you cannot hold onto paper copies or print documents. The important thing is to think through your firm’s paperless workflow so that it accommodates your needs and preferences — one of which should be keeping paper copies of documents you need to read and understand thoroughly.

Featured image: “Businessman reading a document” from Shutterstock.

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