Super Structure: The Paper-Based System Holding Up Your Paperless Office

Unless you’re in the newspaper business, love to make models of the universe out of paper mache  (in which case, unless you’re working on a science fair project, you’ve got bigger problems than I can fix), or like to lick stamps and send faxes, you’re wanting to be paperless.  Everybody is.  Paperless is the new black.  And, while the legal industry is not necessarily filled with innovators, it’s certainly populated by bandwagon jumpers.  And, the paperless office crusade, by this time, is a listing Conestoga.  Of course, there are actually are a number of advantages to the paperless office arrangement, which, no doubt, many of my fellow Small Firm Innovators will be writing about this month; so, if you’re going to jump on a bandwagon, this’d be a good one to choose (i.e.–Not the Pirates.)

Most of the holdouts that I run into are stubbing their toes in a couple of places:

  1. Want to go paperless, but don’t want to rely on a cloud backup;
  2. Like their paperful system quite well, thank you very much, because it works.

I’d like to address the latter hurdle for the remainder of this post.

There seems to be this conception, on some parts, that adopting a paperless office schemata, in opposition to and in spite of a papered office arrangement, is akin to the lawyer’s crossing the Rubicon, from the other side never to return.  There is this idea that the paperless office is the complete opposite of a papered office, and the switch means that what your office was was bad, and that what your office will be is good.  Consequently, this line of thinking goes, in order to create the paperless office, you’ve got to blow up everything you’ve done before, and start again.

Only, you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwaterThis is more like a Phoenix situation, in which the ashes of your papered office can rise again, to form parts of your paperless office, perhaps the most important parts.

If you have a system that you like, and that works for you, you can retain it.  Especially if you come around to viewing the construction of a paperless office as the creation of virtual file cabinets, which is, really, just what it is.  (Computer systems didn’t reinvent the office environment, after all; they merely took it online/on system.)

If you like the way you name your client folder files . . . If you like the way your files are kept in chronological order . . . If you like the way that your folders have subfolders . . . If you like looking at document headers, and knowing what the rest of the document contains . . . You can retain all of that.

Use the same naming system you applied to your paper files to organize your computer folder files . . . Tag your documents with a prefixed date, to keep them in chronological order . . . Create subfolders within your folders . . .  Use descriptive names for your documents that reflect the contents of those documents . . .

You can, quite easily, with a little thought applied, adopt your filing and naming conventions into your paperless office system; and those filing and naming conventions should be based on your papered system, if that papered systems has worked for you, and for your firm.  And, of course, you’ll still get all of those essential benefits that ride along with a paperless environment, including time savers, like global search functionality.  The retention of effective filing and naming conventions is not contrary to the paperless office model; it’s just good business sense.  I’ve written more on the use of naming conventions, including examples, at my LOMAP Blog, here.

Similarly, you should think about the implied costs involved in trashing the rest and remainder of your papered system.  It’s one thing to move to a paperless office with a short ‘tail’, as it were–with not a lot of paper documents behind you; but, if you’re coming at this late, and you’ve got a garageful of client files and/or a number of file cabinets attuned to a papered system, you should seriously consider whether it’s worth it to update your past to the present.  Is scanning all of those old documents, and processing those electronic facsimiles through your new workflow, really worth the effort, especially if you’re a solo, and have to do it all yourself, or if you have to hire someone to do it for you?  Is recreating all of those inactive folders and subfolders as computerized versions truly worth your time?

Depending upon just how much stuff you have, and depending upon just how much time and effort it will take you to convert it all to your paperless office system, the most reasonable solution may be to allow your papered office to live on, by a fashion, as a legacy system, such that your filing and finding system from the date you opened your firm to the date you established your paperless office is what it is, or, rather, is what it has always been.  And, if your filing and naming conventions are consistent between your papered (former) and paperless (future) office, you can transition back and forth between your legacy and your continuing systems with relative ease.

. . .

God, that felt good.  While I’m at it, dispelling myths, I should probably relay my hit list: Champy, I’m coming for you next.  Then, the Patterson Bigfoot.  And, then the Minotaur . . . Sorry, wrong Minotaur.  That’s the one . . .

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