Paperless Law Office, Part I – Benefits of Going Paperless

This post is the first in a series describing how I use technology to keep my law practice lean and efficient.  Today, I will discuss some of the advantages of having a paperless law practice.

Before the Paperless Law Office

The stereotypical image of a lawyer shows him or her stooped over a desk, nose buried in a massive tome, surrounded by stacks of papers.  If the lawyer is particularly well organized, each of those stacks of papers might correspond to a different case, or perhaps multiple stacks per case.  In actuality, however, papers from different cases often end up in a single stack.  Thus, to find a particular document, the lawyer has to first locate the right stack, then the right set of documents within that stack, and finally the right document within that set of documents.  I have seen highly seasoned lawyers scrambling through their offices to find a document that was in their hands just a few minutes earlier.  It’s not a pretty sight, especially when the missing document is the original (and perhaps only) copy.  Then, after locating the right document, the lawyer still has to scour the document by eye to locate the particular information sought.  It’s a logistical mess, made even worse when multiple lawyers are working on a case – but it remains common practice today.  Ultimately, it’s the client who pays for all of this inefficiency, at the lawyer’s hourly rate.

Scanning and OCR: The Linchpins of any Paperless Law Office

Not in my office.  Instead of the inefficient process described above, I have a Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M duplex scanner on my desk that quickly reduces piles of documents to easily accessible digital files.  Scanned files can then be processed using optical character recognition (OCR) – this can even be done automatically as part of the scanning process – to make them easily searchable, with a very high degree of accuracy.  Using Adobe Acrobat, I can search through multiple files simultaneously to locate all instances of a particular phrase in an entire case file.  And those stacks of paper?  Gone – either returned to the client or banished to a file cabinet as backup, in all likelihood never to be used again.

The Undeniable Benefits of Paperless Legal Practice

In family law, the benefits of scanning and OCR are readily apparent.  Many cases involve large volumes of financial information, from bank statements to tax returns.  In more contested cases, I might also end up with phone records, property appraisals, and more.  The hope is to uncover information helpful to the client’s case, such as a party’s spending habits or sources of income – but first, I have to find that information, which could be buried in literally hundreds of pages of documents.  If I do not receive the documents in digital format to begin with, scanning and OCR can make the job far more efficient.

For example, suppose I receive a year’s worth of credit card statements in paper format and want to determine how much the cardholder spends per year at their favorite clothing store, Banana Republic.  The traditional method would be to sit down with the credit card statements and go through them, page by page, taking note whenever I see a payment to Banana Republic.  This is obviously a tedious and error-prone process, which quickly becomes expensive for the client.  Instead, I can feed the statements through my scanner and perform OCR on them.  (While the process completes, I might even do other work, like place a phone call or send an email.)  Then, I can use Adobe Acrobat to search for all instances of the word “banana” in the set of statements.  If I want to search for different purchases later on – for example, how much the cardholder spent at Starbucks – it’s just a matter of running a new search on the documents that were already scanned.  With the paper statements, I would need to go through page by page a second time – not something I would particularly care to do, and not something the client would particularly care to pay for.

As you can see, there are tremendous benefits to having a paperless law practice, which can result in significant efficiency gains and corresponding cost savings for the client – not to mention preserving the lawyer’s sanity by eliminating the need to manage large volumes of paper.  In my next blog post, I will describe the document workflow I use, from receiving a digital or paper document to sharing a copy of the document with a client through my online case management software.