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July 24, 2020

Reorganizing the Digital Law Office

Although the concept of the paperless law office has been around for many years, a more appropriate organizational metaphor is that of the electronically organized law office, because the root causes of continuing lawyer inefficiency are fundamentally archaic attorney attitudes (e.g., that staff should do even minor clerical chores) and an organizational approach that, unlike our own clients, continues to rely largely upon legacy paper records despite their attendant inefficiency and inflexibility. Moving to the next level of law office efficiency requires abandoning paper files as our basic organizational approach and instead embracing electronic documents as our primary or even sole files.

In a sense, making the transition to an electronic filing system is less difficult than you might imagine, given that Evidence Rules 1001(3) and 1003 already make explicit provisions for the use of printouts, electronic records, and duplicates. And, given that modern digital photocopiers are nothing more than a limited functionality combination of scanner, storage, and laser printer, there is no fundamental technological difference between a photocopied duplicate and a document that is scanned, stored on your hard disk in a locked format such as Adobe Acrobat, and later printed as needed. Of course, you will need to retain original documents to the extent that might be necessary for recording, to prove your case under Evidence Rules 1002 and 1003, or for other similar reasons. You may need to show that any scanned documents have not been altered, something that is reasonably clear using a file format such as Acrobat PDF. However, beyond that point, there is little reason to rely upon a paper file as your primary office organizational paradigm. Indeed, there is little reason to retain much of the paper file at all.

At this point, I personally image any documents provided by the client and then return those documents immediately to the client. Similarly, rather than making photocopies of all materials for a client, I image incoming materials, such as disclosures, and then send to the client the copies received from the opposing party, with a stamped notation that we have electronically imaged the enclosed documents and that the client should retain the paper copies. Client copies of documents prepared by our offices are simply laser prints of whatever we have prepared, scanned into our electronic imaging case file, and then sent to the opposing party. When a subset of records, such as medical records, must be produced to the opposing party, I find that it’s faster to personally review and print the pertinent record sections rather than manually go through a file, mark documents to be copied, provide instructions to clerical staff, and then check to ensure that everything was done correctly and that no privileged materials were inadvertently disclosed.

Making the decision to change your office procedure attitudes and paradigms, and then initially and consistently following them, is the critical part. Transitioning to a digital law office initially requires a little more effort and discipline by both the attorney and the client. However, within months, you’ll never consider going back to the old, more costly paper paradigm. Why, for example, should you pay someone to file a document in the first place, pull it out whenever you need a particular part of a file, refile the document, make photocopies, reorganize the paper file from time to time, and then repeat this process throughout a case?

Ultimately, the basic law office organization and management problem is finding and exchanging the information contained in paper records, which are more difficult to search and perhaps improperly filed and refiled by inexperienced staff. In that context, using your computer systems as the primary means of electronically organizing your office simplifies the use of paper files. For example, scanned PDF documents are readily organized by date on your computer system and, indeed, the same document can be stored in several different file locations to ensure that it is not overlooked. Restructuring a large electronic case file takes perhaps an hour or two, not a few days as with a paper file and, when done by an associate attorney rather than a secretary, is fully and appropriately billable. If you elect to retain a paper file throughout the litigation, filing that paper is much simpler when you can first search a digital file. Because it’s fast and easy to first find the electronic version and ascertain its date, you can simply file any retained paper documents by date without sorting them into different categories such as pleadings and correspondence. This approach saves time compared to the filing, retrieving, and sometimes losing paper documents that are filed by category. Clerical staff requirements are reduced commensurately. My experience indicates that this capability confers a tremendous litigation advantage to the electronically organized side, particularly when you need to be able to adapt instantly in a trial to new or impeachable evidence.

Most often, reviewing any documents or information on your computer system will be sufficient for in-office use. When you do need a hard copy, such as attachments to a letter or pleading or for exhibits, you can print out any documents as needed and then discard the paper copies when they’re no longer necessary. You can simply load the case file on to your notebook computer or take it with you on one or two CDs.

Rather than elaborately planning a transition to a digital filing system, just start doing it with new documents as they’re produced and received. As with computer CPUs and data caches, the most recent information is that which will be used most frequently. Within a few months, you’ll be seeing significant benefits, particularly if you start imaging the most important existing paper materials from current cases as time permits. Assuming that you have a fast scanner and fast laser printer in your office, you’ll find it faster and more efficient to print and sign a document, such as a letter or pleading, on the spot and then immediately scan the executed copy into your filing system before taking it out to your clerical staff to fax, mail, or file with the court. Doing so is an important step that takes perhaps an additional minute of the attorney’s time while substantially reducing inefficiency, staff overhead costs, and possible oversight.

The suggestions here are just a first start that seems to work in small offices. The beauty of the electronically organized office is that it is easy, fast, and inexpensive to change its overall structure and organizational paradigm whenever that’s appropriate.

There are several secondary benefits to moving to a digital filing system. Scanning and printing out paper copies is often less than the direct cost of making photocopies of the same documents, and your equipment purchase and maintenance costs will likewise be lower. It’s much easier to exchange documents with clients, co-counsel, and opposing counsel as PDF attachments to e-mail messages. By burning a CD of the case file, you can take your entire case file with you at home or when traveling on a disc or two loaded on your notebook computer rather than lugging around cases of paper documents for the airlines to smash or lose. If you forget to bring something critical, or if documents arrive while you’re on the road, your office staff can image them into PDF and send them to you as e-mail attachments or, if you have remote access to your network, directly download them. Should another attorney take over the case, you can retain a complete copy of the file without any stress at all. As you transition to a digital filing system, your dead-file storage space requirements and costs will drop dramatically. Finally, assuming that you back-up your computer systems regularly, your practice will be much less vulnerable to the disruption that would otherwise occur in the event of a fire, flood, or another natural disaster.

It’s critical that you be consistent, particularly when naming documents. Even if you store everything in a single, unsubdivided folder, you can find what you need quickly on a list display of all related documents start with the same first word. For example, all discovery should use “discovery” as a first word. A motion for accounting might have its component documents named “accounting – motion,” “accounting – memo,” “accounting – affidavit in support,” etc. However, you can scan all related documents into a single PDF file, such as “accounting motion – complete” and avoid that potential problem entirely. Alternatively, using Acrobat’s capability to combine several PDF files into a single document accomplishes the same end. This same ability allows you to scan all related documents once, simply print them out as needed to attach to a hard copy of a letter or pleading, and then only scan the executed letter or pleading itself, along with any fax transmission confirmation sheet. Then, combine all of the PDF files into a single document that includes the letter or pleading, all attachments, and the fax confirmation sheet. This is a neat and fast solution that minimizes any chance that related documents would become separated and lost.

An electronically organized office and litigation practice give you very substantial operational and financial advantages. The cost savings, when coupled with appropriate changes in the attorney’s attitudes and work habits, will likely repay within months the costs of upgrading to faster computers, scanners, and laser printers. You’ll be able to practice more effectively, particularly in a litigation setting. Remember to keep your electronic office organization as simple as possible and treat legacy paper printouts as transient materials to be used and discarded as needed.

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