Six Tips to Getting Started with a Paperless Office

It would be altogether too easy to write yet another article extolling the virtues of reducing the flow of paper in the practice of law and encouraging attorneys to either embrace a world of no paper (something probably unattainable for most) or a world of less paper (or paperLESS practice, as Ross Kodner of Milwaukee’s MicroLaw advocates). If you’re reading this, you already know you should be doing that. What you want to know is how to get started – how to get there – how to successfully make the leap. Here are six tips to jumpstart your transition.

1. Get a scanner.

Your photocopier doesn’t count. Neither does the multifunction (printer/scanner/fax) device sitting out by your administrative assistant. Why? Because if you have to go somewhere other than an arm’s length away from your desk or computer, you’ll put the papers in pile, genuinely meaning to go scan them. And they’ll stay there until the pile gets high enough to either fall or get in your way, in which case, you’ll put them away and promise yourself to try this again sometime. In this case, “sometime” never really comes.
Caveat: once you’ve been bitten by the scanning bug, those photocopiers that have network functionality will become your favorite scanners, because they are so fast. But in the beginning, their lack of proximity will be a source of inertia that impedes your start. So until you’re up and running, they don’t count. Warning: the multifunction devices that have scanners on them that are typically so slow at scanning that you’ll give up on trying to become paperless.

If you don’t already have a higher speed scanner at your desk, there is no valid excuse for not getting a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner (S1500 for Windows, S1500M for Macintosh). It scans at a rate of 20 or more pages per minute, and scans both sides of the page at the same time. Amazon will sell you one for $430 or so, and it will come with a full version of Adobe’s Acrobat software.

There are lots of alternatives to Acrobat for managing PDFs on both Windows and Macintosh. Some of them are very good. None of them are excellent. This is a piece of software that simply belongs in a law office. The chief complaint about Acrobat is that it costs about $400. So buying the ScanSnap is bargain: either the scanner or the Acrobat software is free. Take your pick and be happy. Even if your billing rate is $150 an hour, less than 3 hours of work will pay for something you will rapidly come to love.

2. Start easy. Start tomorrow.

Start with the next new matter you have. Tell yourself that everything that comes in to your office in this case will be scanned. Now that you have your scanner, it’s a piece of cake.

If you don’t have a new matter in the next day or so, choose a relatively new one, not one that’s been around for a while. Why? See Step

3. Skip that big beast of a file.

There’s no rule that says if you want to migrate to a largely digital practice that everything you already have must join you there overnight. There are no deadlines to be met for your transition. Once tomorrow comes and you’ve started, you can already start to enjoy the benefits of the digital practice of law. That will provide all the incentive you need to keep going. Don’t let (a) the specter of some ghastly large file and (b) the thought of taking the time organize it first stop you from making the leap. It will. I’ve seen it happen. That big, ugly file will talk you out of doing this, simply because it makes the task seem overwhelming.

No one says you have to do all (or any) of your existing files. You will, I guarantee, eventually reach the point that you’ll want to scan your existing files, because you’ll so. Just let it happen, and when you decide you want to scan the beastly, then (and only then) do it

4. Name things consistently.

There are lots of ways to name files with modern operating systems. I won’t bother debating the merits of the different approaches here, since they all have their merits. What you choose isn’t as important as the fact that you do choose something, stick with it, and make sure that your team knows and uses the same approach. So whether you’re going to tag files and put them in one giant directory (relying on the computer to find everything), use a folder hierarchy to replicate a paper file (Cases/Smith v. Jones/correspondence”) or name things with dates and client names (“111013 Letter to Smith re stock purchase agmt”), doesn’t really matter. So long as everyone else knows how to find things, just get started. You can always switch later.

Note that I’ve suggested that you start before the naming convention issue is decided. There’s a reason for that. If you’re in a larger office, there’s probably already a naming convention or a document management system in place. If you’re in a smaller office, and you allow yourself to spend time deciding on a naming convention, you will use your indecision and your ability to analyze the matter into paralysis to ensure you never get started.

5. Tell someone what you’ve done.

This is the successful dieter’s secret. Once you’ve told other people what you’ve committed to, you’ll feel a sense of obligation to continue. And you’ll get continual reinforcement from those you’ve told as they ask you about your progress or visit your office and comment on the absence of the paper piles you used to have.

6. Begin to take advantage of the benefits.

A digitized file is, with additional investments, available to you potentially everywhere. An iPad can store a staggering amount of scanned data that you sync on to it. If you invest in a smart phone and some sort of web-accessible storage, you can access your file wirelessly from other places. Until you’ve experienced the confidence and satisfaction that comes from needing something in your file when you’re elsewhere and bringing it right up on a screen, you can’t fully appreciate one of the great benefits of doing this. And nothing – I mean nothing – beats handing an iPad to the judge to show him or her a missing order or pleading.

Bonus tip:  Repeat often.

9 Responses to “Six Tips to Getting Started with a Paperless Office”

  1. Hi Mark, I enjoyed your article. A paperless office is also the first step to more effective document collaboration!

  2. @agilewords Good point. I saw an app for that at #ltny last year. It wasn’t trialpad, I don’t think, but it was pretty nifty and let you see versions and make changes/annotations along with the other party.

  3. Great article Mark! You should go into more detail about using the iPad to go paperless. There’s a lot of great tools there to optimize your law practice. Between saving documents in DropBox, filling out and signing forms with an app like SignMyPad, and taking notes with something like Evernote, you could probably write an entire article on using the iPad. With iOS5 and iCloud, keeping everything synchronized and updated is easier, helping your practice run smoothly.

  4. My practice is still largely state-court based and I need to mail serve copies of various papers. I agree with the ScanSnap recommendation for a scanner, is there any equally-good recommendation for a copier?

  5. my practice is still largely state-court based and I need to mail-serve hard copies. I agree with the recommendation for ScanSnap for a scanner, is there any good similar recommendation for a copier?

  6. One point I liked in the article was on beginning to take advantage of the benefits. To start getting, you must get started. Note that merely getting a scanner may not help much. You also need to extract text from the PDF files and index and organize your documents. This is what will make your electronic documents more workable than their paper counterparts. Document management software such as Globodox, KnowledgeTree etc. help organize documents so that you can search them in multiple ways. Tip: The key to going paperless is to combine the benefits of software with a reduction in paper consumption at source. So if you can generate fewer paper-based documents, your digitizing task will be made that much easier.

  7. @agilewords Been hunting around, and I think it was Nordic River, and its TextFlow product. They had a fantastic demo at #ltny last year. I think you just upload a Word or PDF document, then collaborate/edit/redline/whatever. I remember them showing the same document in a single screen, one the original and the other with changes highlighted so that you could see what had actually been changed, and by whom. It was so much easier to manage and read than Word’s Track Changes function. A vast improvement over editing capabilities in Google Docs, too.

  8. Our office started investing in these scanning and <a href=””>document shredding services</a>. We have envisioned a paperless office by the end of this year. I’m really excited about this.

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