Paper, paper, paper! Many law offices are overflowing with the stuff, and it causes a lot of issues. How do you physically store it all? How do you quickly locate the files when you need them later? How do you efficiently file papers at court and share them with clients or other parties?
A properly organized commitment to a paperless office will drastically reduce the amount of paper you have to keep in storage. In addition, it will enable you to find files more efficiently, reduce your printing and paper costs, and will protect you in the event of a disaster by ensuring you have secure back-ups of all of your documents. The benefits of going paperless, in other words, are enormous.
To realize all of the advantages, though, you first need the right tools: PDF software, a good scanner, a secure cloud storage and collaboration solution, and a reliable eFiling and eService provider (like One Legal). Second, you need to appreciate that “going paperless” means trying to use as little paper as possible and taking all steps to eliminate, it doesn’t (and won’t for the time being) mean eliminating paper from your office. Finally, you need to realize that there’s a little more to going paperless than just scanning everything and converting paper into digital files.
It’s the final point this article focuses on. Here, we elaborate the necessary workflows and processes for a successful paperless law office. Don’t worry. There are only three steps.
Step 1: Define a folder structure
First, you need to decide where you’re going to be storing all of your data: will you be storing it locally and backing it up yourself? Or will you be storing in the cloud? Before you do anything else, decide where files will be stored and how you’ll back them up (there’s a great overview of backup strategies over on “Lawyerist.com”).
Once you’re clear on precisely where files will be stored you need to establish a clear organizational structure. Will you store them by attorney? By client? By type of document? By type of case? Storage by client probably makes the most sense, but go with a structure that works for you.
Next, because a lengthy list of client folders could get quickly confusing, you’ll want to categorize those folders. You could do so alphabetically perhaps (a folder for all A clients, B clients, and so on), or break them into years (a folder for 2014, 2015, 2016, etc.) with the client folders inside these category folders.
Finally, you’ll want to bring some order to the files within each client folder. There are lots of options for this level, but one of the simplest approaches is to create folders for obvious categories: client correspondence, court filings, witness interviews, etc. You’ll want to keep the native file (in Word, Excel, etc.) and the PDF in the same folder. If you name the documents identically, they’ll appear side-by-side allowing you to quickly see which files have PDF versions and which do not.
Step 2: Decide on file naming conventions
Neatly organized folders are, of course, only useful if the files they house are also coherently categorized. It’s vital in a paperless office, especially absent pricey document management software that all electronic documents are named in a standard and logical manner.
To ensure this, you’ll need to spend a little time agreeing on a file-naming protocol for your firm and ensuring that all employees understand and follow it. Below is one possible naming scheme (if this doesn’t suit, there are some others discussed over on the ABA’s “Law Practice Today” website):
- Include the date (year, month, day) — this allows for easy chronological sorting, which is very useful when there are dozens of files in a folder.
- Add an abbreviation that describes what the document is — COMP for complaint; LTR for a letter; SUM for a summons, etc.
- Add a brief description of the document — Often a few descriptive words will help to identify the document quickly.
- Specify whether the document was sent or received — Quickly sorting in and outbound documents is simple if you append “SENT” or “RECEIVED” to file names.
- Add the initials of the staff member who created the document — Finally, track who on your staff created the document so that you know who to refer questions to.
Note that there’s no need for the client name or details of the matter at hand because these are included in the folders. The result will be something like this:
Step 3: Set workflows for incoming and outgoing documents
Going paperless is not as simple as setting up folders and naming conventions, unfortunately. The next step is to map out a proposed workflow for transferring paper documents to digital copies and dealing with the paper that’s left over.
Before you can begin implementing a paperless workflow, there are some questions to consider and answer, including:
- Do you want to digitize closed files?
- Do you want to scan and destroy outgoing paper filings, etc. or keep a hard copy?
- Will you scan all incoming documents or only certain documents?
- Will you digitize evidence and other records?
- Will you shred all documents once they’ve been scanned?
Depending on your answers to these questions, you’ll want to establish a protocol in your office for handling incoming and outgoing papers that clearly establishes when items are scanned, when they are retained (and where), and when they’re destroyed (making sure that, where necessary, your destruction process accords with your state bar’s ethics rules).
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