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Thursday, November 8th, 2012 technology  research  practice

A Practice Tip

  • Practice

There is much interest in taking a law firm paperless today and for good reason.  Moving to the digital or paperless practice of law offers many benefits and cost-savings in addition to being *green*.

We find that when starting to talk about going paperless, the discussion typically becomes mired in details such as: ­e-document formats (Adobe Acrobat PDF/A — the archival PDF format), the media on which the electronic documents are to be stored (locally? backed up onto a remote device? on the cloud?), scanners, remote access, security  and the like. Some firms want to discuss using  electronic storage only for their closed files, eliminating the expensive cost of storing paper files for years.  Other firms want to have all open and closed files in electronic form accessible on iPads, smartphones as well as desktop computers. Still other firms are concerned about cultural issues around going paperless and the change management process that would entail.

This post looks at just one issue in the whole range of possible issues -  one that is fundamental to taking a law firm paperless yet is often overlooked. In the paper world, there are file folders and filing cabinets, both of which help keep the documents organized. The file folder has its brads (places to attach correspondence, pleadings, etc. in date order) and the filing cabinet keeps the file folders organized.

When a law firm goes paperless, however, there typically isn’t the appreciation for the electronic equivalent of the file folder and filing cabinet. Records — which could be pleadings, correspondence, emails, etc. — are usually found in numerous different places on the network. Emails may be stored in Outlook folders, while documents, such as pleadings, research memos and correspondence, may be in saved in various Windows folders. Worse yet, Outlook stores sent emails in “Sent Items” while incoming emails are typically filed in other folders.

Unfortunately, each software application used in an office stores its data in different folders scattered across the network. As the number of electronic files grows, the ability to gather all these disparate bits of information together into a “client file” gets harder and harder. This is only compounded if the firm stores part of its data ‘in the cloud’.

With paper files, the firm would typically print out all this information and store it in the file folder. In that situation, the way in which each application and user names and stores the records on the network and hard drives is largely irrelevant since “the file” still exists in paper. But as the firm moves to a truly paperless office, the disorganized nature of electronic record-keeping starts to become a problem. It is now harder to reproduce “the file” and the collection of folders or sub-folders that would otherwise be found in the steel filing cabinet.

Some firms use indexing and desktop search engines, such as Windows Search or X1 or Copernic, to find documents on the network, but this is not a workable equivalent to a good document management application. Other firms claim that their “standardized file-naming and storage convention” is good enough. Unfortunately, this convention only works as long as everyone, at all times, complies. Once someone decides “just this time” to not follow the convention, the system starts to break down. (The second law of thermodynamics basically says that any system, over time, goes from an organized to a disorganized state without the continual addition of energy to keep it organized — otherwise known as increasing the system’s entropy.)

So what should a firm do? The solution is document management software. This software is the equivalent of the steel filing cabinet, organizing all “records” — be they documents, emails, pleadings, etc. — into the electronic equivalent of the paper folder. Document management software keeps each folder distinct from the others, offering the organizational ability of the filing cabinet.

Once you draw together all the bits of information that comprises the ‘client file’ into one place, then you can avoid entropy and keep your files well-organized and accessible. You can find information quicker and with less effort.

With document management software, a document must be “profiled” before it can be saved on the network. Profiling entails keying in some information about the document: nature, author, form (pleading, email, etc.), client, matter and more. This “metadata” allows the document management software to know how to categorize the document properly. Emails, pleadings, correspondence, memos, etc. are all organized by client, matter, lawyer and date created.

Document management software also allows searching (including Boolean searches) by keyword, type of document, client name and other criteria. It offers version control, tracking and audit (who created what version) and other activities around document creation, modification and the like. Best of all, it offers the ability to draw together in one place on the network all the disparate records that would otherwise be affixed to the brad of a paper file. Remote access is enabled, and most programs allow “briefcasing” or mirroring the documents on a laptop with synchronization once you reconnect to the network.

Entropy is avoided since the user must profile the document before it can be saved. This is how the document management software achieves its goal: it imposes order on chaos.

By making a document management system the foundation of your paperless office, you can achieve the degree of rigour, organization and systemization that will allow you to develop your business even as people change and clients come and go.  Furthermore, you will have built your paperless practice on a strong and sustainable base.

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