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Achieving the impossible paperless law firm during a pandemic

Take the emergency practices of this year and turn them into a formalized, sustainable, productive set of processes for your entire firm.

Many months into the work from home reality, the needs of a paperless law firm have shifted but are still as pressing now as they were in March. The global pandemic forced the hand of many legal professionals who found themselves suddenly working from home far from the file cabinets and folders on which they had long relied.

Now firms have a chance to take the hurried processes from earlier this year and establish sustainable ways to make paperless practices a thing of the present and future. Here are some steps to get started.

Query your team

As you move to formalize practices that support phasing out paper in your law firm, your team has likely already adopted certain procedures to manage things since the beginning of the pandemic.

Interview those who have been managing documents most closely and find out which tools they have used, what the current practices are, and what has been successful—and unsuccessful. Getting an idea of where your team is already at will help you understand what needs to be documented and decided and assessing what is already being done.

Look for pain points

The biggest opportunities for improvement will lie in where your systems currently break down or cause issues. When discussing with your team, listen particularly for places where delays happen or mistakes can occur. These will be important places to identify for improvements. And look back over the last few months to spot where rocky points might indicate other opportunities, even if these are no longer top of mind for your team.

Establish an order of operations

Where does a document begin its life? Who starts it, where is it saved, and what triggers its beginning? What steps does it take to reach its final stages and how many people interact with it at which levels? Determine the steps that go into creating various documents, formalize this process and put into place any security, verification, or quality assurances to ensure that the right number of checks, no more and no less, are being done on a regular basis.

Select and share approved tools

Are the tools used by your team ones that have been heavily vetted and carefully selected as the tool of choice for your firm? Does everyone use the same set of solutions or is it a choose your own adventure approach? Now could be a great time to assess and select and share the tools that are deemed best for your firm.

Consider options such as:

  • Word processor
  • PDF editing software
  • eFiling service provider
  • eDiscovery tool
  • Service of process provider

One of the greatest challenges for a paperless workflow is how to handle the times when working with paper that must be digitized or digital files that must have paper interaction. Consider how you will recommend handling:

  • Digital signatures
  • Converting paper to PDF
  • Sending faxes
  • Storing original documents

Define a folder structure and storage approach

Once you’ve selected the tools you’ll be using, determine how you’ll be storing these documents. How frequently will you be backing up your files? Who will have access and how will they find the documents they need to?

Be sure that you have a clear and well-known folder structure for easy categorization. Decide if you’ll be breaking up documents by client, by year, by county, or in some other way.

Then, choose how to order files within each client or case folder. One way to do this is to break up files into certain obvious categories, such as correspondence, filings, discovery, interviews, etc. Confirm that the native files (Word, Excel, etc.) and the PDF are both available in that same location and manage naming conventions in a way that easily connects the two.

Determine file naming conventions

Once your folders are in order, it’s time to ensure that every document has a consistency that makes it easy to find them within those nicely ordered folders. How often do you see documents come across your virtual desk with dates scattered throughout or missing altogether, case names and client names placed in different locations each time, and document types conspicuously missing?

Agree across the firm on a file naming protocol that will be consistent and simple to follow. Here is one possible naming scheme:

  • 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, in this example, there’s no need for the client name or details of the matter at hand because these are included in the folders. If you want to cover your bases, however, client and case details are another thing to consider how and where to include in the file name.

The result will be something like this:

Not sure that style will work for you? Check out the options discussed on the ABA’s Law Practice Today.

Set archival process for completed documents

What is the “close out” process for documents that you are no longer actively working with? Should conformed copies of documents also be saved in these same folders where relevant? Does each client folder need an “archived” sub-folder? Decide how you’ll need documents separated and set up the processes to that all employees are aware of what needs to happen.

Even before necessity was created by a deadly virus, the benefits of paperless law firms were well known. Now’s the time to ease the challenges of the past several months while setting up your firm to succeed in the next several years. Document and confirm all the loose practices that have worked for your firm so far and pave the way to a more certain way of managing digital documents in the future.

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