Can a law firm ever be “paperless”?

Throughout my visits to many law firms throughout the country, I am often asked by lawyers, paralegals and staff questions like, “how can we go paperless”?  Of course, that question is asked as I peruse the room I am standing in and see mountains of paper everywhere I look.  And, of course, there are always a few people who insist that law firms MUST be the paper monsters that they are; it is the nature of the law firm beast.   In fact, recently, one associate dismissed me as a lunatic for even suggesting that she truly didn’t need to print that 80 page document she was about to print…only to edit it on paper and then edit it again in her word processor.    In all frankness, you simply don’t need to print documents in paper form anymore.   Further, I would reasonably surmise that 95% of the paper stored in your office is simply a copy of an original anyway.  Why not just keep it electronically instead of in paper form?   I’d guess that less than 5% of paper documents may actually be an original that you should keep (if even that much).

I think that the ultimate goal of “paperless” is not completely eliminating paper, but rather, making significant strides in reducing your firms reliance on paper.   Thus the goal shouldn’t necessarily be “PAPERLESS,” but rather, LESS PAPER. 

First and foremost, figure out where you are now and where you want to go.   How will you begin to eliminate paper and paper waste?  Where can you and your firm avoid printing and begin embracing the idea of PDF production rather than directing output to a printer filled with paper?  How will you know you’ve reached your goals if you dont’ first set forth your goal and how you plan to get there?

Then, find your “less paper” champions at your firm and huddle together to agree on a strategy and how the firm’s newly adopted “less paper” policy will be enforced.  This core team could even be used as a test group to show the others (and perhaps, the naysayers) that yes, you can reduce your paper production significantly, save time, save money and save the environment.

Once you agree on a strategy and a team to help you, make sure that you have a good, solid and reliable backup for the documents that you don’t print.  And, quite frankly, even the ones you do print.  I could go off on a tremendous tangent about properly backing up your data, but let me stay focused on less paper and just say…BACKUP, BACKUP, BACKUP (and test your backup weekly).

Next, plan to get some training from an expert on PDF production and document management.  PDF (which stands for portable document format) is the less paper office’s best friend.  And, if you’re thinking, I have Acrobat(R) Reader…stop reading this blog right now and go purchase a REAL PDF production software like Adobe Acrobat, PDFDocs or the like.  The money you save on paper, toner, printer supplies, etc.(multiplied by the number of printers in your office) will more than pay for the PDF production software (ie….not PDF reader freebie software…because reader software only does what it is named to do ….read..not produce…).  And let me be the first to confirm that ANYTHING you can do to paper, you can do to a PDF (except burn it, tear it or spill something on it).

Lastly, it’s one thing to go “less paper”, but you need a plan to store the non paper document and find it easily later.  Thus, part of the less paper policy is to properly plan how you will store your documents and media and how you can find it again.  Document Management Software (like Worldox(R), Net Documents(R), Autonomy, etc) are the key to managing the less paper practice.  I’ll blog about Document Management Software in the near future (because I’m a firm believer in it), but for now, I strongly suggest budgeting for it as it is the absolute key to managing the documents that you aren’t going to print and put in a paper file.  (Did I mention that paper burns, is easily torn, and doesn’t hold up to liquids well?)

There is more to be said on this topic.  But, this is a blog. (You can continue reading on this topic by clicking here.)   Let me conclude here by stating, ever so clearly that you CAN and SHOULD use less paper.  You’ll save money, you’ll save time, you’ll have a more efficient staff, and you’ll  be happier that you can access your documents and media anywhere you can access the internet.

Lastly, if this topic interests you, consider coming to the ABA Tech Show in Chicago on April 11-13 where you’ll learn more about the paperless practice, document management and other hot legal technology topics.

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