Almost every article you read about “going paperless” has the same disclaimer: paperless means less paper, not the elimination of paper all together. As lawyer, paper is a fact of life (a fact I toil to change). Switching from a paper-more law practice to a paperless law practice requires some effort and determination. It is not always easy to make the change — there will be some upfront work involved and troubleshooting as you perfect your system — but the goal is to gain long-term efficiencies. Thus, you need to take a long-term approach in implementing a paperless law practice.

Before you take the plunge into going paperless, you need to lay some groundwork. In a previous post, I went over the importance of having a standardized file naming convention. You should figure out a naming convention out before you scan a single document, otherwise you (or your staff) will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to rename all your newly digitalized files. Get it right the first time. Also, when going paperless, you should start from day zero, i.e., don’t try to go back and digitize all your old paper files. The exception may be to digitize active matters, but what’s been done is done — we’re looking forward, and don’t want to waste time correcting the past.

Once you have a file naming system figured out, the next step is to setup a paperless work flow for turning your paper documents into digital ones, and getting them filed where they need to be. Obviously, a document scanner is key here.

Document Scanner

In my office, I use a Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 to digitize all my paper documents. This compact document scanner is truly a workhorse. It has a small footprint and is not terribly expensive, so everyone can have their own scanner right on the desk. When you’re not using it, it folds up nearly and sits tucked away on the side waiting to be fed. The scanner automatically detects duplex (double-sided) documents, and you can use the automatic page orientation/rotation setting to better ensure all your pages are facing the same way (I just do this before I scan the documents though, and turn the feature off as it is not 100%). You can even turn on automatic OCR (optical character recognition) to make sure the contents of your documents are automatically searchable and that you can copy out text if needed. Hint: this makes preparing separate statements for discovery-related motions much easier than having to retype everything. My ScanSnap handles anything I throw at it, and I also use it to scan in receipts. For receipts, I use the same system described below — but in that case, I actually start with the basket of paper to be scanned, named, and organized.

Okay, great, you have a scanner and can get paper documents into your computer. But, simply scanning the documents is not the end of your quest to going paperless (or at least realizing the benefits of going paperless). To get closer to paperless nirvana, you need to implement an efficient and standardized work flow to get the documents from paper form to digital form, and —importantly— into their respective folders. Having a digital file is one thing, but having a digital file you can find is something altogether better.

Paperless Work Flow

My paperless work flow approach is based on my experience back in undergrad as a runner for a mid-size law firm. In this role, I spent a lot of time organizing client folders for the attorneys. The process, while paper-intensive, was pretty simple: each attorney would have a large basket of papers that needed to be filed. These baskets usually filled up daily. When the basket was sufficiently full, I would take these paper documents, organize them by client-matter-and date (newest on top), punch holes in the top, and file the papers away in their respective folder. Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? It was. What does that have to do with going paperless? A lot. Let me explain.

I like the idea of having a basket of documents to sort and file; a central repository of papers looking for their home. Since we’re going paperless, I have created the digital equivalent of this basket of papers to file. This allows me to realize some efficiencies of scale when it comes time to getting the documents filed. Thus, in my paperless workflow, I have a folder where all the freshly scanned documents are saved until they can be properly filed away. The folder is named “ScanSnap” and is backed up to the cloud. I’ll elaborate more on the benefits of a cloud-based practice in a later post, but it is important so that you have access to all your files anywhere in the world you have internet connection.

From time-to-time, when I have the time and/or realize my ScanSnap folder is getting overcrowded, I’ll go through it and sort out each file to its proper folder. There are some school’s of thought that would say this is less efficient: supposedly, you should only touch something once — any extra time spent on something that could have been done the first time is a waste. While I generally agree with that philosophy for some things, I do not think it’s practical for a mechanical process like filing.

As a one-man band, and if I don’t do something then it doesn’t get done. This means I don’t always have the capability to keep my files meticulously organized in real time. Every day is different, and on busy days the objective is churning out the work I need to have done based on a given deadline. On slower days, I can spend some time “catching up” on rote, but important, tasks like organizing files. My catchall folder of incoming documents allows me to do just that; stock pile a basket of “to-do” filing. But don’t you lose track of things? I haven’t yet.

This work flow is also efficient for me, because, often, If I’m scanning a document into digital form, I usually have to do something with it, e.g., sign and scan a paper that needs to be filed with the court; email an attachment; fax something; whatever. Using my bucket folder system, with proper naming conventions (I always take the time to name my files as soon as they are scanned), I can quickly get to the document and direct it wherever it has to go.

I imagine this system would work just as well for an office with several (or many) attorneys and a (or several) paralegal/secretary. The assumption is that everyone has their own document scanner. Even if there is just one folder, and the attorneys task their support with scanning them all in, if all these documents are being scanned into the same folder, then each staff member can quickly get to the documents they need (everyone knows where recently scanned documents live). You could even assign each attorney their own folder if you wanted to add a bit of initial organization. Then, when time permits, whoever is in charge of filing can organize the documents into to their respective folders. You could even make the end-of-the-day sorting a requirement in somebody’s job description. The point is, this basic bucket-folder system can be modified depending on the size and needs of your practice.