Read Important Things on Paper, Not on Your Computer Screen

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.


  1. Avatar static says:

    “The advantages of going paperless are numerous, and there is no rule that says you cannot hold onto paper copies or print documents.”So when you say “paperless,” you don’t mean “paperless,” but paperful plus digital copies as well? Because I always thought “paperless” meant “paperless,” but clearly I’ve always been wrong. Thanks for clearing that up.You do realize that I’m leaving comments because these posts look so pathetic without any, right? Tummy rubs all around.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      I guess you’ve always been wrong. It’s a common mistake, though.

      You’re still mistaken, I think. “Paperful plus digital copies” sounds backwards. If you go paperless, the digital copies become the capital-F File, and the paper must be optional except for any paper you are required to keep. If your paper file remains The File, you aren’t really paperless.

      • Avatar Rick Rawls says:

        I think it is an important distinction to separate the edit/review of a file or document and the how/what of storing the capital-F File when discussing “paperless”. Certainly the benefits of a “paperless” or digitally based file extend beyond the cost of printing a copy so one may digest or mark up.

      • Avatar Paul Pinkerton says:

        I think it’s a bit helpful to describe what the article points to as similar to a library book filing system. Certain books don’t fit on the shelf that their number says they should, so they go into the oversize, but retain their original sequence number. Similarly, if the FILE is digital, certain documents may also have a paper copy that is worth keeping for the reasons cited – cost or need to produce it as a physical object, etc… It goes into your physical file.

        There is a point that the article makes that is worth noting as potentially incorrect: “there is no rule that says you cannot hold onto paper copies or print documents.” In SOME circumstances there is. For instance, with official financial records in some jurisdictions, the rules about the validity of e-copies if paper originals are kept. It’s worth checking out the rules in the area you practice regarding the types of document you are dealing with before wholly accepting the article’s statement.

        I do tend to concur with the article that I read differently on different media. However, I CAN override my default behaviour and read in the necessary context to suit my needed outcomes.

        I think there would be significant benefit had if there were more accessible training on reading using e-devices, essentially helping to use the built-in tools, identify our own preferences and retrain ourselves sometimes.

        • Avatar Sam Glover says:

          The point I was trying to make is that you are allowed to hold onto paper copies or print documents if you want to or if you are required to. I think you’ve read that sentence wrong, but maybe the double negative is confusing.

  2. Avatar Lisa Solomon says:

    I’ve written and presented extensively about the transition to paperless courts. According to Robert Dubose, author of Legal Writing for the Rewired Brain, based on his interviews of appellate judges across the country:

    (1) In 2010, most judges read briefs exclusively on paper, but by 2012, a minority of
    judges were reading exclusively on paper

    (2) In courts that use e-filing and electronic document management, a majority of
    judges read briefs on computer screens

    (3) Judges who read on iPads are more likely to do so when they are out of the office;
    when they’re in the office, they’re most likely to read on paper or computer

    And today the Fourth Circuit issued an order reducing the number of paper copies of briefs and appendices that must be filed in certain cases (most significantly, appointed counsel cases):

    Based on my research in this area and my own personal experience, I disagree with your contention that “when you need to understand something thoroughly (like a contract or a summary judgment memorandum), paper is the way to go.” The key, in my opinion, is to approach the document on the screen with the same mindset you have when picking up a printed document. That means limiting interruptions (for example, disable notifications that may pop up in your field of vision while you’re reading) and, if you would annotate a paper version of the document as you’re reading, annotate the pdf version. I say this not as some young whippersnapper, but as a lawyer who’s been practicing for 20 years.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      If attitude is the primary reason reading paper is better, it should be possible for someone to change their attitude. Maybe cases and legal briefs are serious enough to get us to override our defaults.

      Not for me, though. If I need to focus on an important document, I generally print it out and go somewhere with no screens to read it.

      • Avatar Lisa Solomon says:

        What you’re saying, Sam, is that the presence of the screens is what’s distracting to you, even if you’re reading the document on paper. The solution, therefore, is to: (1) exercise self-control, assisted by (2) turning off notifications that will interrupt you even if you’re exercising self-control (i.e., by not affirmatively switching apps away from your pdf reader).

        • Avatar Sam Glover says:

          Distraction is part of it, but that’s not why I print things out. I print things out because it is much easier for me to focus on both big-picture things and small details. I find it easier to spot gaps in logic, misplaced sentences, and en dashes that should be em dashes.

          I get away from screens because I think it’s healthy to get away from them now and then, especially when I really don’t want to be distracted and I don’t want to bother monkeying around with notification settings on all of my machines.

          In other words, I find my attitude impossible to change when it comes to reading and editing some things on paper. Then again, I don’t print out the vast majority of the things I read. Most of my reading and writing and editing is all screen, and I’m fine with that.

          • Avatar Paul McGuire says:

            I do on occasion read a physical copy of certain documents but mostly that is if I already have a paper copy with me in the file. If we actually had proper 10 inch e-readers though I would read on that every time. Sadly, it seems the only version coming out is ridiculously overpriced and relies on a proprietary document storage system. Reading on e-ink pages really does make all the difference.

            I have a Kindle E-reader and it is so much easier to read than any other screen. The problem is formatting is lost in translation so if I am e-mailing a case to the Kindle it causes more problems than it solves.

  3. Avatar James Miller says:

    I find we’d all hate paper a little less if we would stop formatting legal documents as if they were typed on a typewriter. Page counts would drop and readability would improve whether on paper, PDF, or other electronic format.

    I actually saw a double-spaced courier divorce decree the other day; what was 40 pages should have been maybe 15. That’s fine for editing in my opinion but not for submitting to the court.

    I prefer to edit complex documents (that I didn’t write) in paper, double-spaced and with a monospace font. The monospace font is the most helpful as it lets you see errors more easily. If you don’t believe me, try swapping your brief to a monospaced font every now and then and read it on screen. Makes a huge difference to me.

    • Avatar Paul McGuire says:

      A great point. Attorneys really need to focus on good typography. In California I can’t believe that attorneys still frequently write motions with certain lines surrounding the words even though they aren’t required simply because if you remove the lines you have to increase the margin and that means less space to write within a page limit.

      It is certainly easier to see errors on monospace fonts but I have gotten to the point where I can generally see errors on ordinary fonts such as extra spaces or missing periods.

    • Avatar Lisa Solomon says:

      James, have you read Typography for Lawyers by Matthew Butterick? He also recommends spacing that’s a lot tighter than the default double-spacing that most lawyers use.

  4. Avatar Simpleman says:

    My experience is similar to Sam’s. I do litigation, and have
    found that if I have a 200 or 300 page document to review, it’s significantly
    faster and easier for me to review it in paper form, than it is to do the
    same thing with a PDF copy of the document. I can’t explain why exactly, but it
    has something to do with the way the document appears on a computer screen, and
    I tend to get tired or bored faster if it’s on the screen. Also I can identify and skip irrelevant pages a little bit faster on paper. I’ve played with
    display settings but still find the paper easier. I end up just making my
    little notes and putting stickies on the paper and creating an index like an
    old-school lawyer. I feel “guilty” about such a dinosaur-like procedure, when I’m
    very tech-oriented otherwise, but this just works better.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      The way to make yourself feel better is to scan it with your notes when you are done. I do that all the time.

    • Avatar Lisa Solomon says:

      I have found that many people who prefer to read long documents on paper aren’t taking advantage of many of the features of pdf readers that can make reading on screen more efficient than reading on paper. For example, if a long document comes to you in pdf format, it may already have internal bookmarks that you can use to quickly navigate to specific parts of the document, so make sure you have your settings set to automatically display the bookmarks panel. If your document doesn’t already have internal bookmarks, you can add them yourself (or have a paralegal add them).

      One benefit of annotating a pdf is that the document itself is searchable. Your typed annotations will also be searchable (I’m not familiar enough with the handwriting recognition capabilities of varioud pdf programs to comment on whether handwritten annotations would also be searchable). Sam, it seems that your suggested approach is the worst of all possible worlds because scanning a document with handwritten notes results in a document that is not searchable (unless you use OCR, but: (1) why use a workflow that adds that step? and (2) how accurate will the OCR result be if the page is full of handwritten notes?).

      Finally, as for your comment that you get bored faster, that’s a mindset issue: your brain is used to you jumping around a lot when you’re reading from a screen, so you’re craving that kind of stimulation. I suppose it’s like an alcoholic going to a bar and trying not to drink….

      • Avatar Sam Glover says:

        Your preference is clearly for reading on screen, which makes it better for you. That’s what the studies referenced in this article show pretty convincingly: when it comes to reading documents, people’s attitudes and preference materially affect their ability to comprehend information in those documents. It’s not about bookmarks in PDF files; it’s about attitudes. Those attitudes (mindsets) may be character flaws in your mind, but accommodating them makes us more effective, if less efficient.

        Maybe printing documents, marking them up and then scanning them is inefficient. So what? Efficiency is not the be-all and end-all of good lawyering. (Neither is OCR, since I rarely need to search scanned documents, and almost never need to search my notes.) Or good anything, for that matter. I can be a better lawyer, board member, blogger, student, etc., because I print some documents out to read them.

        You seem to want to prove that reading on screen is objectively better. It’s not. There is no objective Truth, here. That is the entire point of the body of research surveyed by Scientific American. Instead, it looks like the truth is that whether or not someone ought to read a document on paper is entirely subjective to that person’s experience with and attitude towards paper and screens.

        • Avatar Lisa Solomon says:

          Sam, I don’t think one’s preference for reading on paper vs. on screen is a character flaw, and I’m not trying to prove that reading on screen is objectively better for everyone than reading on paper. Rather, my purpose is to help educate people about the options. Greater knowledge about the benefits of any tool may lead people to change their attitude about using that tool (or at least to give it a shot). Of course, some lawyers may not have thought much about this issue, and would benefit from being exposed to multiple viewpoints about it so they can reach their own conclusions.

          Oh, another benefit of reading and annotating a pdf on screen is the ability to share easily your annotations with multiple collaborators (either inside or outside the firm) at the same time. Yes, that can be done by sharing a scanned, hand- annotated document, but that may not work well if your handwriting isn’t particularly legible.

  5. Interesting article since it opens up to many questions: How old were the psycologists who gave this competent opinion? Secondly, being an attorney of the old continent, I remember old latin reminescens saying: ” Qui scribit bis legit” meaning “Who writes read twice”. Well, No I wonder if Romans valued a written thing on a phisical support need to be re-read eventually and at this point paper isn’t a real advantage. But may them want us suggesting that the same contract or the same summary judgement memorandum need to be read 4 times?
    Moreover, nobody seems to read anything anymore in the court’s professions, thanks to the mountains of courts’ decisions given on paper, so if we scan more than read we might be able to focus on implortant details in a reasonable time.

  6. Avatar gc says:

    All my customer file are scanned and stored in the cloud by folder.

    Also I have created a pdf database that allows to search articles and books by tag, subjects, name, authors, ect.

    Both, customers folder and database are always syncronized on dropbox and since I got familiar with pdf annotating/editing app of my tablet I do the 90% of my job from it.

    I prefer reading and working on pdf rather than paper and I studied heavy books from a 8 inch tablet and the difference with paper and real customer file is that I can really access immediately all my job everytime and everywhere.

  7. Avatar MAJ says:

    I found perhaps the most important quote from the article, “The important thing is to think through your firm’s paperless workflow so that it accommodates your needs and preferences…” I would add, “do what makes sense for you, what makes you most effective; not what everyone else is doing.”
    This holds true for most things, in personal and business aspects of life.

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