Said one forward-thinking lawyer to another: “Let’s just go paperless. We can free up all that space in the file room and quit paying so much for outside file storage.”
“What a great idea!” said the other. “We’ve already got those big, expensive printer-scanner-document senders in the hallways on every floor. So, let’s send out a memo! Effective Monday, we’re going paperless. We’re going to scan everything. Tell the mailroom people to start scanning all the mail instead of delivering it to everyone.”
Thus begins the perfect storm of a paperless law firm makeover absolutely destined to fail.
Why? Because a “paperless” office doesn’t really mean paperless; it means new processes and procedures. Those ambitious attorneys’ plan is bound to collapse because they’re going paperless for the wrong reasons, with the wrong equipment, without proper planning, without feedback, without buy-in from the other lawyers and staff who will be affected by the changes, without budgeting for new equipment and training, and without any professional assistance.
Make no mistake: Law firms need to convert to paperless office processes and digital file management. Lawyers need to incorporate digital workflows for several reasons, the two most important (and perhaps obvious) being:
1. Disaster preparation. Law firm backup procedures should protect the firm’s information and allow it to reconstitute its operations in the event of a digital or physical disaster.
Those law firms that continue to exclusively rely on paper files will find their backup may not include a number of items, such as attorney file notes, hand-delivered documents or correspondence from opposing counsel. In the event of a fire or flood, items contained only on paper may be lost with little hope of recovery.
2. Speed. Digital workflows allow you to operate much more quickly and effectively. Not only can you find all of your notes on a particular client file without having to flip through pages of paper in a traditional file, but others who are assisting you (or perhaps stepping in for you in the event of an emergency) can also quickly review them.
Practice-management software allows a lawyer to quickly open a client file on the computer when a client calls without having to track down the physical paper file folder.
But in the drive to save the trees, be careful that you don’t lose your co-workers. Switching to a paperless office too quickly will result in the exact opposite scenario of the one you intended; in other words, everything will slow down. As with any new system, if people in the office don’t know how it works, the entire office will grind to a crawl, if not a halt, as the new way is botched and fumbled about.
The problem is in the perception. For some reason, many people think going paperless is painless. Certainly it’s nothing like taking on a new practice, for which the firm is well aware of how meticulously its members must dive into the learning curve. Going paperless? Pfft — let’s have it done by Friday.
Take the mailroom, where it all starts. I feel that for most law firms, especially those with more than one lawyer, it is better for the mail to be immediately processed, scanned and filed in the system’s practice-management software before it is handed off to the attorney.
Despite the fact that the attorney likely will have a better eye to identify mail-stack emergencies than the typical mailroom worker, good staff training will eventually make the process faster than simply piling unsorted mail on a lawyer’s desk — the key words being “good training.”
That scenario underscores the most important part of converting to a digital workflow: building written documentation for how the process operates. That also means there will be compromises between different points of view, and every law firm cannot incorporate the same digital workflow. The procedures will differ based on everything from personal preferences to the types of legal matters handled by the lawyers.
The mailroom and reception area have traditionally been thought to be low-level positions within the firm hierarchy, and as a result have sometimes received inadequate training. Digital workflow mandates that a smart and well-trained employee opens and processes the mail, no matter what the particulars of your system.
The necessity of standardization and documentation for procedures is one reason why it seems that I mention Atul Ga-wande’s bestseller “The Checklist Manifesto” at least once a year.
– By Jim Calloway, director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program.