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O'Neil: Litigating in a paperless environment

November 18, 2015
Oâ??Neil O’Neil

By J. Cody O’Neil

If you walked down the hallway of the average law firm in the year 2000, what would you see? Paper, and a lot of it! Every attorney’s office had stacks upon stacks of paper. There were redwells organized in an undecipherable fashion on the floor, and beside those redwells were more stacks of paper. As each attorney arrived at the office, they brought a large wheeled-briefcase. Sitting on top of that briefcase were the redwells that would not fit in it.

The administrative staff would be sending out productions, which contained hundreds of documents. Every work product needed drafting, printing, editing, re-drafting and re-printing before it was ready for final signature.

And forget about the paralegals’ offices, where the records collection, review and organization process began. If you entered those offices, you would have gotten lost.

So what has changed in the last 15 years? Take a walk down the hallways of our current day Krieg DeVault LLP, and you’ll see offices that are … organized. We have worked hard to eliminate the production of paper and have opted for electronic file management systems that allow us to do so. This has presented many changes.

The most obvious change, as mentioned above, is the lack of paper. Every Friday at 5 p.m., I remove my laptop from its docking station and put it in my bag. I now have electronic access to every file. Our system gives us the ability to work on any case, anywhere, at any time. The large wheeled-briefcases of the past are no longer required.

I recently assisted a partner in preparing a case for deposition on a quiet Sunday evening. That partner works over 130 miles away from me. If I had brought that physical file home with me, I would have been the only person with access to that case. When a law firm is paperless, many hands can work on the same matter simultaneously. No travel necessary!

Everyone is trying to save money in this economy, including our clients. The ability to work without paper gives us the opportunity to work efficiently for our clients. Instead of searching through hundreds of paper documents, I’m using simple search functions to locate the documents I need. I can search one file for a specific document, or I can search our entire firm’s database for a template. If you think that is impressive, consider the time you can save during discovery.

As a society, we have advanced toward being paperless. There are now cases that may require the review of hundreds of thousands of electronic documents as potentially relevant to a litigation. Can you imagine the cost of printing those documents, let alone reviewing them? This is where a good discovery management system really shines. Using search formulas, you can decipher the relevant from the irrelevant. When you turn 100,000 documents into 3,200 before starting your review, your client will certainly be pleased. Those documents can be marked as either privileged, confidential, work-product, or to be produced. The production can then be handled electronically, and not one tree is harmed during the process.

The reality is, the more trees we keep in good health, the better health we keep for ourselves. I, one of Krieg DeVault’s litigation paralegals, prefer to have my work reviewed electronically by my supervising attorneys/partners. I then review the suggested changes and finalize my work product. Our talented administrative assistants can then utilize electronic headers and signatures, and email a final work product without ever printing a single sheet of paper.

Through the use of electronic docketing, calendars and task reminders, we have eliminated the need for paper calendars and, dare I say it, sticky notes. Your own computer can tell you when something is due.

Are you considering going paperless? Here are some practical tips for litigating without paper:

• Set up electronic folders in your document management system for each case/matter that you have. This will include subfolders such as correspondence, court filings, attorney notes, etc. Different practice areas will likely have different folder structures.

• Establish naming/profiling instructions for each type of document. The profiling requirements should allow a person to easily search and sort documents. For example, “Letter to Bob” will not suffice. Instead, include the date, sender, recipient, and subject matter of the letter. For example, “2015-10-15 [Outgoing Mail] - Letter from Sue Smith to Bob Jones enclosing First Set of Interrogatories to Plaintiff.” Different types of documents will have different profiling requirements.

• Instruct your staff on scanning and profiling all types of documents. The staff should be primarily responsible for naming and saving all documents in the appropriate folders.

• Save everything in the electronic folders that you have established. This will include all incoming and outgoing: mail, email, filings, notes, agreements, etc. Once you have electronic files established, stop saving hard copies (except for signed copies of critical documents such as loans, wills and settlement agreements).

• Review everything electronically. Documents can be tagged and notes can be taken in your electronic review software. This allows for easy sorting of records after the review is finished.

We are continuing to find ways to use less paper, both as a firm and as a society. I admit, it’s not always a perfect practice. I still receive many documents in hard-copy format. It is in my office that those paper documents begin their journey into the electronic realm, but then again, I’m a paralegal, and you decided not to go into my office.

Maybe we are striving to save the world, one document at a time. Maybe we are just working to be more efficient and more budget-conscious. Regardless, going paperless has simplified our processes, and in doing so, has saved some sanity. In my opinion, a little sanity while litigating is something we can all benefit from.•

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J. Cody O’Neil is a paralegal with Krieg DeVault LLP. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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