Establish Paperless Protocols (Free Book Excerpt)

Adapted and excerpted from Paperless in One Hour for Lawyers by Sheila Blackford and Donna S. M. Neff, published by the ABA Law Practice Division. For more paperless advice from these expert authors, order the book today!

If you’re transitioning to a paperless office, or seeking to reduce the amount of paper you handle, establishing precise protocols will increase your efficiency and eliminate confusion during this process. Creating protocols for handling your law office’s important paper and electronic documents will also help you improve your business practices.

Converting Documents to PDF

You will need to develop a protocol for converting paper documents and electronic documents from other formats to PDF. Develop a written process that, at a minimum, outlines when a document will be converted to PDF, who will do it, and what will be done with the original.

You should always convert documents to PDF when they arrive at your office so you won’t be overwhelmed by the volume to be converted and abandon your plan to become paperless. Although the whole office team should be comfortable converting documents to PDF, appoint one or two people to have the primary responsibility—usually these are the staff who handle all incoming documents. Other team members will need to know how to scan, name, and store various documents they work with, including e-mails, in PDF.

Create and use a colored stamp to indicate that a document has been scanned so anyone looking at an original can quickly determine whether it has been scanned.

Ensuring Quality Control

It is important to have a quality control system to ensure scanning is done accurately. While most scanners are remarkably reliable and accurate, none are perfect, and there are no do-overs once a paper document has been shredded. A frequent problem is missing or skewed pages from operator or machine error. A quality control system can catch these errors and the document can be re-scanned to rectify them.

In Donna’s firm, their centralized scanner attaches the scanned document to an e-mail that is sent to the staff person who will be working with the document. To reduce errors, the person doing the scanning must include the total page count of the document being scanned in the subject line of the e-mail so the recipient can verify that all pages were included.

Other firms have a team member assigned to verify scanned documents by comparing them with the originals. This is a fast process of sitting in front of a monitor and quickly ascertaining that all pages have been captured and are readable and that the scanned document is named properly. Anyone who has been involved in quality checking document coding will be helpful in working out a quality control checklist and protocol for scanning.

Storing Before Shredding

Store paper copies for a specific length of time to verify the accuracy and quality of their scanned digital format. Donna uses a Day Box to temporarily store paper documents and has an official policy that the contents will be shredded six months after the day the box was used. This provides considerable peace of mind for everyone, especially for those who were hesitant to give up paper.

Your protocol should have a consistent period of time to hold on to original documents after they have been scanned. It would be prudent to retain the originals for at least thirty days. A system similar to the one Donna uses would be very helpful as a safeguard against accidentally destroying a document before it has been properly preserved.

Creating a File-Naming System

Every electronic document, once scanned or converted to PDF, must be named in a standardized, consistent manner. You’ll want to devise a file-naming system that makes sense for the number of staff in your firm, and the documents worked on. The filename should contain just enough details so any team member knows what a document is without having to open it.

Document management systems you buy as installed software or subscribe to as a cloud-based SaaS usually have a standardized file-naming convention built into them, which serves as a great starting point for your office’s own system. However, depending upon what DMS you adopt, file-naming protocols may be helpful.

Organizing Document Storage

For your firm to benefit from going paperless, you need to network all of its computers; in other words, all files should be stored on a central server that everyone can access. Most law firms set up their electronic filing cabinets to mimic their traditional filing cabinets. Your protocol should specify how your files, folders, and subfolders will be named and organized.

It is best to always open a new matter file for returning clients. If you organize by client and matters, it will be easier to manage your document retention and destruction procedures (if you don’t create a super client file spanning several years and several different matters). If you set matters up as subfolders under a single client folder, you will want to designate the destruction date on each matter subfolder and indicate this on your file inventory.

When deciding how many subfolders you need, aim for only a screen’s worth of files in any subfolder. If the list will exceed a screen, consider whether an additional subfolder is needed. The extra scrolling time you avoid may not seem like a lot, but when multiplied by the number of times a day you encounter it and by the number of staff in your firm, the lost time adds up quickly.

When naming subfolders, pay attention to how they will be sorted. For example, beginning all correspondence folders with “Corr” will allow them to be grouped together when displayed in the index.

Use Templates to Ensure Consistency

Once the folder structure is determined, create a “folder template,” or a set of standard folders and subfolders, for each type of matter handled by your firm; this saves time and ensures consistent naming. Keep your folder templates where they can be easily found and copied.

To protect a template file from being accidentally changed, make it read-only. To make a Word document read-only, open the file and follow these steps:

1. Click File, then Save (or Save As if previously saved).

2. Click Tools (near the bottom of the screen to the left of Save).

3. Click General Options.

4. Click to put a check in the box beside Read-only recommended.

5. Click OK.

6. Save the file.

Backing Up and Test Restoring

A paperless office should have multilayered, reliable, and frequent backups, including incremental and full backups, and on-site and off-site backups. Technology is a wonderful tool, but nothing is fail-safe. The integrity of your backup system should be checked by regularly performing a test restore to ensure your data is preserved in a usable form and restorable with minimum delay and difficulty.

The best way to determine how often you should back up your data is by asking yourself what you can afford to lose. At a minimum, you will want to back up more than once a day; many systems (both on- and offsite) will provide for more frequent or continuous backups. Your system should allow for this.

The safest course is to have multiple backup redundancies. Back up your data on your computer hard drive because software applications can freeze up, resulting in lost data. Back up your data on your firm’s server because it is a more powerful storage center. Back up on something away from your physical office, especially secure Internet or cloud-based storage, in case of a natural disaster.

Part of your law firm’s disaster plan should be to have your data backed up and accessible to you when you reach safety. The devastation of powerful storms such as Katrina and, more recently, Sandy caused many law firms to use safe, secure storage on the Internet; if a firm’s infrastructure is lost or inaccessible, the data can still be accessed through a secure Internet connection from anywhere. The post-disaster stories of lawyers accessing their law firm’s data from the Internet once they relocated to safe areas illustrate that the cloud can be a valuable component of a backup plan. Lawyers who had this accessibility resumed their practices sooner.

If your firm has only your stand-alone computer, you’ll want to back up to an external storage device that plugs into one of your computer’s USB ports and use a secure cloud-based storage system as well.

Why all these layers? If something happens to the first layer, you can still get back your data from the second, and so on. Although they are rare, we have all heard the horror stories of people needing their backup only to find it has gone awry in some fashion. Don’t tempt the odds. We’d much rather have a backup we never need than need one and not have it available.

Managing the Size of Data Storage

As you accumulate more and more electronic files, backups can become unnecessarily huge, which slows down the process and requires additional space, costing time and money. Here are some suggestions to reduce file size and maximize the capacity of data storage:

  • Set the scanner to a lower resolution, such as 200 or 300 dpi.
  • Set the Adobe Acrobat function to reduce file size.
  • Set the scanner to black-and-white scanning.

Closing and Storing Files

For paper client files, a good file closure process goes through the complete file, looking for and removing

  • original documents belonging to the client,
  • sample documents from other matters, and
  • duplicate copies.

You should review a digital file prior to storage with the same level of care you would use for a paper file. Focus on storing the file in a manner that will best preserve it for the length of time it must be saved. Essentially, you are archiving your file. As discussed elsewhere, the safest format in which to store digital files is PDF (or PDF/A), which is the international standard. If you don’t think this is important, consider that opening a document stored in its native format, such as Microsoft Word 98, would require having a computer capable of reading or running Microsoft Word 98. Using PDF will save you headaches should you need access to a digital file or document.

Creating a File Retention Schedule

Your jurisdiction or governing body will have guidelines for how long client files should be retained. Some files may need to be kept for set periods of time based on your jurisdiction’s equivalent to ABA Model Rule 1.15 (Safekeeping Property). This rule requires preservation of client property for five years from the date the matter is closed. Most jurisdictions define client property as including not only all client trust account records but also the actual client file. Others conclude that if you provide your client with a full copy of the client file, then what you hold in the office is the law firm’s property.

Do your due diligence and check your jurisdiction’s rules. Does your jurisdiction require that the law firm maintain a complete paper file for the duration of the client matter? If so, then your protocol will need to be paperless upon completion. How long should you preserve a digital version of the client file? Arguably, for the same length of time you would preserve the paper version. How long this needs to be will depend upon various factors, such as ethical, legal, and professional considerations and economic and practical issues.

Find out if your jurisdiction has a statute of ultimate repose on a legal malpractice claim. This is the outer limitation on when a malpractice claim can be brought. It makes sense to hold on to your client file for the duration of this period in case you need it to defend yourself. If you don’t have insurance, be even more careful to preserve the client file. Check for any guidelines or policies from your state bar or law society and your malpractice insurer, if you have one.

Finally, it is now considered best practice to disclose to clients that your office is paperless and to explain what your firm’s storage protocols are. In addition, you should disclose that if a client requests a copy of the client file, or a portion of it, you will provide the information electronically. If you don’t do so, the rules in your jurisdiction may require you to print the file.

Destroying Electronic Records

Storage space for digital files is affordable; however, adopt a unified business practice of safeguarding both paper and digital files for the required time period and then safely destroying them. Remember that when you delete an electronic document, it is still there. To destroy digital data on a local storage device, use a software program such as Darik’s Boot and Nuke, which completely obliterates the data. Before storing digital data on a third-party site, find out how destruction can be completed. At some point, your law practice will come to an end due to retirement, incapacity, death, or some other reason. While you may be required to preserve your client data (in whatever form), you still need to set a specified time for it to be destroyed or wiped from any remote server.

Developing Knowledge Management

Give some thought as to how you will organize your resource and research materials, which may contain a vast amount of documents, including e-books and e-publications. You might want to copy and scan the tables of contents from your physical books and include them in your knowledge management system as well.

Training Your Staff

This seems like it would be obvious, but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Ongoing training of staff members ensures your future team is as much onboard as your original team. You should also spot-check client files to determine whether your staff is following procedures and complying with protocols.

Well-trained staff should never have to guess how to name a document or where to save it. If this happens, it usually means a protocol needs updating or isn’t clear enough. Guessing could result in the document becoming lost amidst all of the other files.

 Reviewing and Revising for Efficiency

Review and revise your paperless protocols as your firm changes or as processes appear to be working less efficiently than planned. Initially, you will likely want to conduct reviews of your protocols at thirty, sixty, and ninety days. Once you are satisfied with your system, an annual review will keep it running at peak performance.

When developing protocols, take advantage of all available resources. Your state bar association or law society will likely be able to assist you in developing policies for the closure, retention, and destruction of client files, including paper and digital documents, and may have a practice management adviser to answer your specific questions.

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