The paperless office: Modernizing your software without losing your mind
Modernizing your practice is no longer something to ignore or wait for “someday”—courts are already going digital. Why be behind government bureaucracy? Some courts (Franklin County is a good example) have adopted policies that eliminate paper of any kind, except in unusual or extreme cases (and, even then, requiring scanning at the clerk’s office!) Suburban counties are following suit—Delaware and Fairfield are good examples here in central Ohio (providing for both e-filing and online docketing). Digital filing will ultimately expand to the remaining county courts as technology progresses. Adopting paperless or digital practices for your files will put you in front of the wave.
And your own clients might force you into it! As more clients rely on electronic means to transmit or maintain their own records and files, your office will have to address how to use and maintain those records.
The particular software you invest in or decide to use will ultimately depend on your goal/process/solution for each area. The important thing to remember that (with a few notable exceptions) there isn't a perfect one-size-fits-all software package for a paperless system. Some of these will work better for one office than they do another.
Though going paperless can mean using electronic documents in various formats, by far the most commonly used one is the portable document format (PDF). The near uniformity of adoption and use of the PDF standard means that you will need software which can read, create and edit PDFs with ease—and that means Adobe Acrobat. There are other pieces of software which will do the same things, but Acrobat is the gold standard.
Adobe now offers access to Acrobat on a subscription basis, either monthly or annually, which allows the installation of the same software over multiple devices. The installed software is maintained and regularly updated via the internet, so that the end user has the most current version available. It allows the full manipulation
of PDF documents, including creating, editing, and reformatting PDFs. It also allows for digital signatures on documents; provides the ability to add Bates numbering or exhibit stamps; lets users redact sensitive information; and permits multiple documents to be combined into a single PDF (or for large PDFs to be split into multiple individual documents.) Indexing/saving
How do you find what you scanned?
- File management/indexing—pre-installed OEM options (Finder, Windows Explorer) to locate locally-saved files.
- Practice management systems (PCLaw, Rocket Matter, Firm Central, Clio, etc.).
- File architecture—how is your file organized? File names/folder trees?
Scanning the paper you receive is only one part of your new digital paperless practice. How do you generate new documents?
- MS Office, OpenOffice, etc.—allows creation/saving in multiple formats—including as PDF!
- Document generation software (OhioDocs, etc.).
If you're using email, you're already using a "paperless" solution. Because email has largely replaced paper correspondence, your approach to how you retain and organize email shouldn't be any different. Depending on the email software you use, there may be built-in organizational tools that will help you save, organize and curate your electronic correspondence. Inbox Zero
An approach to disposing of your email in the same way you're going to dispose of paper correspondence—by processing it, getting it out of your inbox and then storing it.
Keeping a centralized calendar (as opposed to a paper one) may help to streamline some or all of these processes. A centralized calendar should be accessible, with the ability to sync across multiple devices, and (ideally) will always be up to date. Task management and internal communications
Do you separate "correspondence" with the outside from "internal communications" to your staff? Consider find a task management or communication/chat system that permits that ongoing contact, but prevents emails with internal communications being sent from your office inadvertently. As with storage, billing options vary
Cloud-based online billing service versus local software-driven invoicing. The more important factor to consider is whether the billing system allows you to send bills electronically, and how collection happens. Online payment systems (LawPay
, Square, Apple Pay, etc.) may allow your clients to pay you even when you're not in the office to run a credit card, streamlining your billing process even further.
Going paperless means you're not tied to the physical file at your office, and if you're not tied to the physical file, you're not tied to the physical office, either—your work can be done anywhere! In such a case, your internet solution has to be just as much of a priority, in and out of office.
- Service into office—what's the uptime on your connection? Is it reliable, fast and stable?
- Service outside of office – how do your devices connect to the internet? How do you obtain your file outside of the office? Mobile service? Are there options when there's no internet service/Wi-Fi available?
When thinking about the software necessary to access your file outside of the office, consider usability and readability of the documents you're going to be working with. Will you be reading the file or writing to it?
Training your office to adopt new systems will always be difficult but important. Buy-in is key—a system is no good if your staff won’t use it. But be prepared to be flexible—this won’t be the system for the next 20 years! There’s always something that will change in the future. Don’t assume that a piece of technology or process will be the last change you ever make—as technology improves, your use of it will as well. Being nimble keeps you from getting locked into a system.