Converting to a paperless office has been an ongoing trend in the legal industry for the better part of a decade. However, if any attorneys out there were expecting to be able to ride this one out as just another “fad” that will fade with time, I have some bad news for you: the paperless office is here to stay. Indeed, not only is it here to stay, it will be the norm for all law practices. In short, there’s no escaping the need to turn your office paperless.
Practice Management Tools
If you have somehow managed to last this long without making the transition—either partially or completely—it’s easier than ever to do so. The reason for this is the existence of practice management tools, which are effectively all-in-one services for your paperless law practice.
Practice management platforms ideally offer tools such as a document management system, time and billing services, calendaring, and a client communication system. Some may even have the capability to interface with an associated legal research service. Learning to use the tool is often simple enough, considering that these services strive to make their interfaces as easy to use as possible.
If you do have questions, you aren’t left on to your own devices in figuring them out. These services typically offer training opportunities for law firms to get up to speed with their respective product.
Regardless of which tool your firm settles on, a practice management tool should be used. As anyone who went paperless before the advent of these tools can attest, practice management platforms save untold amounts of time, money, and headaches by having all of the heavy lifting of creating an electronic practice management system done before you even start.
Learn more about Firm Central practice management here.
Changes To Your Routine
For as much work is saved with a practice management tool, they can’t do everything for you. That is, the transition to a paperless office entails more than just subscribing to a practice management platform. It also requires changes to the way that your practice operates. While your firm will still operate very similarly on a fundamental level, the transition to paperless necessitates changes to many aspects of your practice’s day-to-day operations.
For one, all documents received must be converted to an electronic format. And while it may be necessary to maintain certain documents in paper form, your firm’s primary file organization system will be electronic in nature. This means that every paper filing, correspondence, note, or any other document received by your firm must be scanned, likely using some form of optical character recognition, then appropriately tagged and filed. That sentence alone has a lot to unpack regarding requirements for your paperless office routine. First, your firm must have scanning capabilities. And considering the large volume of documents that you may have to scan on a regular basis, a scanner with an automatic paper feeding function is highly recommended.
Next, your electronic documents should have “optical character recognition,” or “OCR.” OCR is a function found in many scanners allowing it to recognize the text in the documents that it scans, which is then transferred to the document created by the scanner itself. Many courts now require electronic filings to be text searchable, effectively making OCR a necessity in many jurisdictions. OCR offers substantial advantages for organization within your firm, too. Scanning a document with OCR also allows you to perform text searches within the document itself, which has obvious benefits not only for document review, but also for tagging and organizational purposes.
“Tagging” refers to attaching certain markers to electronic documents for organizational purposes. A wide range of tags can be employed , such as client name, matter type, jurisdiction, and document type, to ensure someone can know what the file is without needing to open it. These file descriptions must be added to documents as soon as they are uploaded to the practice management platform to ensure that no files are lost. Doing so, however, will dramatically decrease the amount of time required to find a specific file.
There’s no question that all of these changes together can be daunting, and they may take some adjustment for many in your firm.
Training Members Of Your Firm
Speaking of which, although it may go without saying, your firm’s employees will almost certainly require training on both the new practice management tool used by your firm, and the new paperless routine in your office itself. Although, as mentioned earlier, the provider of your practice management software likely offers training in some form to bring your firm employees up to speed on using the platform, the same cannot be said for the changes made to your firm’s office routines.
First, to keep the transition and training as organized as possible, it’s highly recommended to assign a “paperless expert” in your firm to be the coordinator and point of contact for these changes. This individual should have extensive knowledge of the new practice management system being adopted by your firm, considerable expertise in the technology being adopted, and a full understanding of the blueprint of the final design that your paperless office will take. The expert should develop training courses for other members of your firm that will allow them to become fully comfortable with the paperless office environment, and be available for any questions that other employees may have. Having such a person on staff will maximize the successful deployment of the paperless transition, and hopefully keep the errors and misunderstandings to a minimum.
The Benefits Of Going Paperless
So far, transitioning to a paperless office sounds like more trouble than it’s worth. So why do it? Aside from the fact that it may be an unavoidable inevitability, the benefits actually do outweigh the costs—and by a large margin.
Though they are certainly too numerous to comprehensively list here, the benefits of having remote access to essentially your entire firm—and being able to set permission levels for certain individuals—should be apparent, to say the least. However, in case you still need specifics, an electronic file management system makes it easier than ever to locate a specific document, no matter where you are, and share it with a client on request.
Centralized time and billing allows better and more centralized time-keeping—making sure that your firm is able to properly bill for all the work that it does. Instead of rifling through a mountain of papers, having all of your firm’s matters stored electronically makes coordination across the firm much simpler, and minimizes the chances of a document slipping through the cracks, figuratively and literally.
Finally, the electronic file storage offered by practice management platforms provides layers of resiliency that makes a catastrophic loss of data effectively a statistical impossibility. In short, you don’t have to worry about a disaster destroying all of your firm’s files.
If you haven’t made the complete transition to paperless yet, it’s not going to get much easier to do so than it is now. And although it may be a bit of a headache to make the initial change, you will reap immediate rewards once “paperless” is a reality at your firm.
Learn more about the benefits of going paperless and a virtual law office here!