The Paperless Office: 5 Practical Tips for a 21st Century Law Firm

Published by Richard Hugo-Hamman

The Paperless Office: 5 Practical Tips for a 21st Century Law Firm

Some lawyers (you’d be surprised how many) have a simple system where every email they send and receive is printed out and placed carefully in a manila folder. What an incredible waste of time and money this is! How risky. How unnecessary.

I don’t run a law firm but I have visited many over the years and I can say yes, there are paperless law firms operating today. I have seen them and it really does work.

Changing from paper to paperless takes courage and the acceptance that properly stored electronic data is far more secure, safe and accessible than we ever thought possible. Our work habits have also changed dramatically so we need to ensure we have the right technology. The Smartphone (and tablet) is having as profound an impact on how we work as the PC did a generation ago.

The way forward is by using a system that integrates your matter, document and accounting requirements in a single application. And to ensure that it is easy to use wherever you are, a cloud based system is best.

Going paperless in 5 steps:

1. Incoming documents

Today most correspondence arrives electronically. It should be easy for you to associate every incoming document with the correct matter. If you can’t do this then, seriously… get a new system! The conundrum is what to do with incoming documents. From observation of clients, these are triaged (literally) and treated as follows:

  • Letters and other documents where the existence of the original is unimportant – scan to the matter and destroy the original;
  • Documents that are important but where you do not need to keep the original document for any reason – scan to the matter and immediately mail the original back to the person who sent it to you.
  • Documents where the original is important and you need to keep the original permanently– scan to a Safe Custody record and store the documents in an organised Safe Custody facility.
  • A good scanning system is critical to enable this to happen and you should be able to scan conveniently to a matter directly from a flatbed scanner next to you on your desk.

2. Outgoing documents

Every document in every form should have its original stored against the matter. If you do this you are almost halfway to achieving your objectives. With a good system whenever you create a piece of correspondence or other document, the new document will automatically be associated with the matter you are working on. If not, you should be able to easily add it to the matter. If you produce documents and then have to scan them in order to add them to your document management system, well… it is time for an upgrade.

3. Precedent letters and forms and complex documents

The old tendency to keep ‘a good one’ in the bottom drawer is probably embedded in our human nature as lawyers, but the problem is no-one else knows it is there.

Whether a simple letter, a complex family court form or a deed of trust, you should have these easily available, when needed. A good system will provide you with a stock of off the shelf forms and precedents, as well as a way to easily and economically incorporate your own precedents into the system. If there is only one place to store the document, then there is only one way to find them.

4. Invoices bills and reports

If you’re relying on your bookkeeper to produce your bills, then chances are you’re way behind the curve. With a good system you can easily find, view, create and email a bill, all without a bookkeeper or piece of paper in sight.

If you can, as you should be able to, create any report at any time for any time period, then there is clearly no need to keep reports in paper form at all. Some firms even keep copies of receipts ‘for the file’. But they needn’t bother. Your system should make it easy for you to provide a duplicate of a receipt or any other document.

5. Time Records and Contemporaneous Notes

Making your attendance records in a paper file or even on a specially created paper ‘timesheet’ is inefficient, often inaccurate, and the cost of these errors can be enormous. If you just record all attendances on your Smartphone or Desktop as and when they occur, accuracy goes through the roof and so will your Billings.

So in summary… Whether you use yellow ‘Post It’ notes optimistically attached to a letter in the file, or even have specially printed paper file notes, neither of these can match the accuracy and safety of an electronic note made directly into a matter record at the time. Time stamped, they are your ultimate record of your work.