Law firms will likely never be completely paperless (i.e., completely electronic). A good goal for firms, courts and attorneys is to use less paper and be more “paper-less.” This article presents four steps you can take to reduce the use of, and reliance on, paper in practice.
Step 1: Evaluate your inputs
Set aside a few minutes to evaluate your office. What are the sources of paper in your practice? Think through the types of paper you need (and want) to save for review electronically. Some types of paper (magazines, newspapers, CLE flyers) are not good candidates for scanning, but letters and court filings are.
What tools do you have available to you? Do you, or your firm, already have a scanner? If not, a quick search will lead you to a good scanner. Do you have a file-naming protocol to use when saving your files?
Now, think about the sources of electronic paper. For example, many already receive court filings electronically or as email attachments. How do you want to handle the review and management of those files?
Step 2: Do some research and development
Take a few minutes to research “file-naming conventions” on the Internet. File-naming conventions provide a foundation for how your electronic file is organized. Utilizing consistent naming protocols can help you manage your electronic files effectively.
It is important to make a checklist for how you will name your files to start building the habit each time you scan and save a file or save an electronic attachment.
I generally use a format like “20141014 D Smith Answer.pdf.” I use the date that the document was filed or received for reference. I use the “D” to represent the defendant, “P” for plaintiff, “C” for court, and so on. Smith is the defendant’s name. As the files add up during the course of a matter, I can sort the files by name and all the “D Smith” will be grouped together, organized by date.
There are many options, so pick one and be consistent. You can always improve it later.
Step 3: Scan US Mail to email
Think of your email inbox as control central. Most email programs have the ability to link an attachment to a document management or practice management system. Even if you do not use a document or practice management program, you can save the file to your computer’s file system.
Scan your U.S. Mail every day. Don’t forget your letter opener and staple remover. Doing this every day will help you develop the habit of digitizing paper for review and filing. Note: I’m not suggesting that you scan a 6”-stack of paper if that could be done more efficiently by someone else. Use your discretion.
A couple of additional benefits: If you scan your mail the day you receive it, the email date is the date of receipt. This can be helpful if you are not able to review the mail for a day or two. Also, scanning allows you to easily forward it if it needs to be delegated.
Step 4: Use a tablet to review paper electronically
Lawyers like paper. We like the tangible feel of marking out words and hand-writing edits. Sometimes, that is the most effective way to edit documents. Most of the time, however, that is not the most effective way to handle work. Simple letters and the like can easily be reviewed in Microsoft Word and the lawyer can make any necessary changes in the original file.
Documents in PDF form are easy to review and annotate with Adobe Reader or Acrobat. A tablet really shines with reviewing PDF files. How many times have you lugged Bankers Boxes of files to the conference room for review? With a paperless system, you can simply load the files onto a tablet, review and annotate as needed. If you really want the paper and pen experience, get a stylus and hand-write comments on the PDF documents.
Again, the benefit here is habit formation. Forcing yourself to review things on the computer or your tablet will help build the habit and workflows to make you a more effective lawyer.
Any new habit takes time and effort to create. Start small and force yourself to review more things electronically. Saving a page or two here and there can add up over the course of a year. With the proliferation of email and as the courts move toward e-filing, you’ll be glad you spent the time taking a few more steps toward a paper-less practice.•
Seth Wilson is a partner at Hume Smith Geddes Green & Simmons LLP in Indianapolis. In addition to practicing law, he helps manage the day-to-day technology operations of the firm, and frequently speaks and advises on legal technology issues. The opinions expressed are those of the author.