The Decision to Join the Digital Age
Historically, lawyers have had an aversion to change, relying on methods passed down from generation to generation. There is safety in familiarity. However, the 21st century has brought to the legal field a swath of new technologies that have revolutionized the practice and business of law, as well as a consciousness about our profession’s carbon footprint and it’s contribution to climate change. The confluence of these two events has created both the necessity and the opportunity to shift the practice of law from “paper-heavy” to nearly “paperless.”
As a Millennial and recent law school graduate, I was shocked to discover the extent to which lawyers, and courts, were dependent on paper. In law school, my legal research class was almost exclusively dedicated to Internet and digital research, professor handouts were frequently emailed, and even our final exams were administered through computer software and wirelessly uploaded to our professor upon completion. In practice, however, whole rooms were dedicated to storing volumes of discovery, correspondence was copied at least three times, and several iterations of pleading drafts consistently circulated throughout the office. Amazingly, all of this paper was generated for a firm of only two lawyers.
With the addition of two associates and other staff, our firm’s decision to go paperless was borne of necessity. The expansion exposed the limits of a paper-heavy firm by filling up office space, stretching the overhead budget, and proving unworkable to accommodate the schedules of four busy lawyers. As such, the partners decided it was time to jump head-on into the digital age.
The process of changing to a paperless landscape was fraught with worry; old habits die hard. With so many software and hardware options, it was difficult to weigh our choices in light of each attorney’s personal preference, interfacing with personal devices, cost, efficiency, reliability, and specific industry requirements. Once a decision was made on a particular product, transferring several years worth of emails, work-product documents, client files and contact information engendered many sleepless nights that were only withstood by the use of backups…lots of backups.
Converting volumes of paper files also required manpower and the payroll that comes with additional labor. Several months of scanning and labeling documents was an arduous and tedious task that was an unforeseen byproduct of shifting to a paperless platform. We also needed to create a long list of ad hoc policies for managing our increasingly large digital media library including rules for where to save files, naming procedures, and standard operating procedures for all incoming and outgoing correspondence and pleadings. Creating policies and synchronizing staff activities was a daily task.
The first and most important technological investment was a powerful digital scanner that could quickly transform file cabinets filled with paper into a few megabytes of data, and a server large enough to accommodate years of attorney work-product. Next, we invested in purchased software including legal research and utility software specifically tailored for family law practice. We also adopted Google Calendar as a free, cloud-based application to help synchronize our personal and professional calendars in addition to assisting our firm conduct pro bono work, coordinating volunteer mediator schedules for the superior court’s free mediation program.
Each hardware and software choice was based on certain need-based requirements specific to our firm and practice. For example, we chose Adobe Acrobat as a utility for viewing and editing our scanned documents because the software also included the ability to bate-stamp discovery responses and trial notebook exhibits. Other digital choices included a consideration of dual functionality given the attorneys’ preference for Mac products for personal devices and Windows-based products for office use.
At Pines Laurent, LLP, we have found that in addition to reducing cost and clutter, digitizing all papers (except for original pleadings, evidence, and signature documents) allows for a much more efficient and innovative environment with the ability to easily reference information with speedy, advanced server searches. Although going paperless requires an initial capital investment, it pays for itself over time.
Having an electronic version of every document and piece of evidence has been very helpful in our organization of case materials. Each digital file can be cataloged appropriately and we can even include specific case information such as the case number, document type, sender, and date received directly into the title of each document. In doing so, when we draft a pleading or meet with a client, we can almost immediately reference a specific document or piece of evidence. This allows for cost-effective and efficient document storage, in addition to improved client communication and service.
We have also found that going paperless has decreased our office costs and allows our associates to work efficiently, rather than wasting time searching for paper files. Going paperless even benefits our clients because, as a smaller firm, we can effectively compete with larger law firms by decreasing overhead (reduced costs and labor) to an extent where substantial profitability can be achieved with minimal outside resources.
The only real disadvantage of a paperless law firm is our inability to properly function if our computer fails or our server is inaccessible. As such, we emphasize regular data backups and the use of cloud-based applications in order to continue to work on another device if something were to happen to our main computer or network.
Featured image: “Back view of businesswoman holding papers in hands” from Shutterstock.