When John Cento left a law firm to strike out on his own in 2013, he was a man on a mission.
“My goal, and the thing I accomplished, was to get my whole office down to my backpack,” said Cento, of Cento Law LLC in Indianapolis, where he represents consumers in credit-reporting lawsuits across the country. His decision meant almost never again having to print, file, track or hunt for another piece of paper.
Cento’s highly mobile practice is almost exclusively in federal court, where electronic filing has been the norm for years. For practitioners like him, he said, “There’s no reason you can’t get rid of that paper.”
The paperless office has been an aspirational goal for many businesses including law firms for years. Advocates point to studies that say going paperless can increase efficiency by 25 to 50 percent and slash a law firm’s budget for paper, printers, printer cartridges and other traditional paperbound office supplies.
Cento recalled his days at a firm where in one case 18 Bankers Boxes of documents were toted to multiple locations for depositions. He was struck by how few of those documents were even referred to and how wasteful it seemed. “That will make an impression,” he said. “When you’re by yourself, you just need to be as efficient as you can be.”
Since starting his practice, he hasn’t bought a single notepad or pen. “Altogether, I’ve bought maybe one box of paper. … I have not a single paper file. Not one. I haven’t had for years now,” he said.
Getting to a paperless law office can be a challenge, though.
“In practice, it’s not as easy as it sounds,” said Nick Plopper, managing partner at Plopper & Partners LLP in Carmel. The firm focuses on business consulting, international business and civil litigation, and some of its matters stretch back decades. But the firm is moving in a paperless direction.
“We’re too small to really take every file that exists and digitize it,” Plopper said. “As new matters arise, we can pretty much keep everything digital.”
“It was absolutely my vision of what I wanted my firm to be,” Indianapolis lawyer Eric Pavlack said of the commitment to go paperless when he started his own firm a few years back. “Especially because we have a small practice and need to be in a lot of places at once, having access to all my records and being able to work remotely was really important.” Pavlack’s practice largely involves class actions, business disputes and some personal injury work.
The greatest requirement to go paperless is willingness to break old habits, lawyers said. “It’s completely a mindset thing,” Cento said, and Pavlack agreed.
“I think it’s a combination of educating yourself about what’s available and being open-minded about embracing it,” Pavlack said.
Naperville, Illinois, attorney Bryan Sims has made presentations on going paperless to the Lake County Bar Association, American Bar Association groups and others, and he blogs about it on theconnectedlawyer.com. “I’ve been preaching for a while, and there are, I think, every day more and more attorneys who are moving in that direction or at least say they are.”
When Sims opened his own firm in 2010, he knew paperless was the way to go. But he still couldn’t break the need to print a document and hold it in his hands to read and edit. So he took baby steps.
He imposed some rules. He would only print documents that exceeded a certain number of pages, for instance. He proceeded to only printing out final drafts.
“By training myself that way, I learned to work solely on the computer,” he said. “It was a long process for me over a period of time, but I just started doing it slowly.”
Like Indiana, Illinois trial courts are only now introducing e-filing, so Sims said it’s impossible to be totally paperless. But like other paperless practitioners, when he gets a file-stamped copy of a document, he scans it, stores the digital copy on his computer and tosses the paper.
What it takes
A high-quality, high-volume scanner is essential, because while you may choose to go paperless, much of the rest of the legal world hasn’t. “I can’t stop certain law firms in this city from sending me paper,” Cento noted.
Douglas D. Small of Foley & Small in South Bend was an early adopter of paperless technology. After starting the personal injury firm in 1995, a dozen years into his career, Small bought his first high-speed scanner and case management software. “It just makes it much easier to practice law,” he said. His firm now has a scanner that can digitize more than 100 pages a minute.
Top-of-the-line high-speed scanners that can rip through more than 200 pages a minute can be a significant investment — some models rival the cost of a new luxury car. But devices capable of scanning about 25-50 pages a minute can be had for a few hundred dollars. Pavlack said upfront technology costs to go paperless “will pay off in the long run in increased efficiency.”
In his office, Cento has a desktop computer and a couple of iPads with digital pencils he describes as the best writing tools he’s used. He imports documents to his iPad, where he can edit them, make handwritten notes with Notability software, or search for particular terms in the document.
With a suite of transcript, document review and trial prep software, Cento said he can tag, search and sort documents and organize reports quickly. He said in a recent case, five lawyers performed collaborative document review that involved more than 40,000 documents, but not a single sheet of paper.
Cento typically uses the Cloud-based file-sharing system Dropbox for collaboration and to store and share exhibits and documents. He said depositions are his most challenging aspect of trying to run a paperless office.
“When you show up at that deposition and do not have paper printed out for the witness and the opposing counsel, they freak out,” he said, even though they have the same access to documents through digital devices. “Yet every single court reporter tells me, what you’re doing is the right thing to do.”
Try as he might to persuade his colleagues, Cento, 45, said there’s still resistance. He said he recently wrote a motion for summary judgment with an older co-counsel who is comfortable with a iPads and the digital workspace yet “still absolutely could not get around printing it.”
‘Operating in the 21st century’
Plopper said there’s no question of the lure of going paperless. “If you do this diligently, you can save so much time locating documents,” he said. “That’s something lawyers spend a lot of time doing, looking for things. That’s not really billable.”
Several firms such as Foley & Small also use their paperless technology as a selling point. Its website mentions this advantage that Small said not only increases efficiency but allows lawyers to prepare better presentations by incorporating photos, diagrams and other evidence into documents.
“The main thing we’re trying to convey is, we’re operating in the 21st century,” Small said. “We’re up with technology and all the benefits that can bring.”•