The Paperless Law Firm
A real option or a 40 year old pipe dream?
Blog: By Joanne Hunter, Head of Marketing, Select Legal Systems Limited
We have been talking about it for at least four decades and yet today there are many law firms still drowning in paper even though the technology to eliminate the stuff in its entirety has existed for quite some time.
The Invention of Paper
The invention of paper, which dates back to 140 BC in China during Emperor Wu’s reign, comes up on google as one of the top 10 inventions of all time. Who can argue with that? Books, maps, paper currency not to mention the part it’s played in how we run businesses for generations – would not have been possible without it. However, along with the era of information overload we all live in today comes an overwhelming amount of paper, despite the technology to become ‘paperless’ being available for many years and improving all the time.
We’ve been talking about it for at least 40 years!
The oldest article I have found on ‘the paperless office’ dates back 40 years to June 1975 and quotes the likes of George E. Pake, who was Head of the Xerox Research Centre at the time. George said, “In 1995 my office will be completely different; there will be a TV-display terminal with keyboard sitting on my desk. I will be able to call up documents from my files on the screen by pressing a button. I don’t know how much hard copy printed paper I will want in this world.”
His prediction wasn’t far off in many ways but even 20+ years on from his vision of the future, there are few businesses that can claim to be anywhere near ‘paperless’.
The legal profession
There are not many sectors that can argue to be as overloaded with paper as the legal profession. The very nature of recording and managing evidence, signatures and legal documentation breeds paper. Law firms also have the legacy of evidence and records from days gone by to contend with too. It’s OK saying everything since 1995 is on computer, but many traditional firms that have been around a long time have records going back much further which have to be stored and accessible.
According to Envirowise, a government-funded group that advises business on sustainability, the average office worker uses 50 sheets of paper a day in unnecessary printing. They also say that 80.6 Million tonnes of printing and writing paper enters the waste stream each year in the UK which accounts for 24% of total UK waste.
Have we gone backwards?
In some ways I believe we have gone backwards. At least in the days of George E. Pake, when paper was important, people looked after it. We had sophisticated processes for managing paper and robust filing systems. Today, because we really ought to be doing everything on computer, we have abandoned all those sensible procedures but we are still not taking full advantage of what technology offers.
Sometimes paper is best
Also sometimes paper is simply the best option. There are times when computer programmers get carried away with their plight to banish paper all together and they create sophisticated code to carry out straight-forward tasks that is simply not necessary. Even when a piece of paper will do nicely, they are so blinkered they just don’t see it.
Does this sound familiar? Young ‘Zack’ from IT, red-faced and sweating profusely as he grapples with cables and repeatedly hits ‘shift F5’ as a room full of impatient fee earners sit around sighing as the pressures of their case loads beckon? It turns out he is trying to put a 10 bullet point agenda up on a screen for less than ½ a dozen people to see. Of course a few sheets of A4 would have been much quicker and more effective in this scenario. So our efforts to banish paper all together can be counterproductive.
Today we have environmental issues to think about too
Back in 1975 the environmental argument for reducing paper hadn’t occurred to us when Xerox’s Mr Pake was so enthusiastic. Today of course we have the added guilt about the harm we are doing to our beloved planet. However, we continue to churn out tonnes of paper unnecessarily just because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done things’.
Envirowise also says recycling one tonne of paper can save 7,000 gallons of water. It also saves 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, and 4,000 kilowatts of energy. They say that approximately 70% of office waste is recyclable, but on average only 7.5% reaches a recycling facility.
We’re wasting so much money
If we could glance into the waste paper bins around our businesses and see £10 and £50 pound notes instead of A4 sheets or shreddings we’d soon reduce paper wastage in the business. We have become blasé because paper appears to be such a cheap commodity. People think nothing of printing something by mistake and binning it these days. An accurate costing exercise in most law firms would be an extremely scary exercise.
Fifteen tips for becoming the paperless law firm
- Appoint a passionate champion
Then task this person with running a paper audit covering every area of the firm to find out how much paper is being used and to question how necessary it is to go ‘hard copy’. Give your champion the backing he needs. Help him to sell it to the partners. Encourage the partners to sell it to the rest of the staff. Your champion may need a number of sub-champions in different departments to help him depending on the size of your firm or for departments that use more paper than most.
- Put incentives in place to get people on board
E.g. the department that reduces its paper use by the biggest percentage without adversely affecting efficiency, within 3 months, gets an extra days holiday.
Use your case management system to create paper-saving procedures and re-engineer your processes and put measures in to implement them and communicate them quickly.
- Make the most of your Practice Management System
Get your champion to explore with your software supplier all the ‘paper-saving’ functionality they have so carefully built into your case and practice management system. Your staff may not be taking full advantage of your IT systems. Publish these paper saving tips (electronically’ of course) and share with staff. Also book some additional training with your software supplier to remind staff of all the paper-saving features the software has.
- Make it visible
Publish paper-saving ideas that come forward from staff in your ‘electronic’ company newsletter and reward staff.
- Get your message right
Make sure staff know that paper is not banished altogether. Don’t become counterproductive because people are scared to use paper. Common sense prevails.
- Make it less convenient to print
Reduce the number of printers in your office by consolidating smaller, low-end machine with printers capable of higher print volumes at a central location. Without printers on their desks, employees are less likely to print frivolously.
- Involve your suppliers
Ask your suppliers, including banks and telecoms suppliers to reduce the amount of paper they send to your business. Bills can be paid online securely and efficiently nowadays and your accounts department should have the functionality in the legal accounts software they use to handle this. If some suppliers still insist on paper, your practice management system should support the use of scanners to enable you to store scanned documents in the relevant areas of your system.
Make sure all your printers are set to duplex. Half the amount of paper you use overnight.
- Inhouse recycling
If documents are printed one-sided and they are non-confidential – make sure employees gather them in a central place and re-use them for internal documents. Score through the obsolete side and re-use the blank side.
Encourage your teams to generate the documents they need to share in PDF format, which can be reviewed on a laptop, tablet or smartphone.
- Electronic signatures
Do away with the physical signing of printed documents, particularly internal ones. Even for external contracts, the need for a signature has roots more in historical precedence than actual legal requirement. There are a number of reputable apps to choose from today for electronic signatures, that ensure your contracts and documents are as legally valid as signed hard-copy ones. Ask your practice management software supplier if they support any of these.
- Promote the use of online tools
Promote the use of online tools such as Google Docs or Evernote for producing internal documents. The latter supports the sharing of entire notebooks or individual notes, which is handy for disseminating both static and dynamic materials such as an employee handbook or meeting notes. These tools make it easy to share documents electronically and lower the temptation to make photocopies or print them. Of course digitised notes offer the convenience of being searchable and occupy no physical space when stored as binary bits on your storage drive.
- Dual or multi-monitor setup
Consider a dual or multi-monitor setup. One common reason that workers print documents is the need to cross-reference them with another document. For those who need it you can reduce wasteful printing by setting up a multi-monitor workstation. Giving a fee earner two (or three) screens provides more digital viewing space and offers a productivity boost at the same time. The cost of monitors is coming down all the time and it’s a cost you only pay once. Compared with excessive printing long term it could well be worth it. For some areas of law, your fee earners are going to need this.
Your faxes should be coming directly into your inbox electronically. There is absolutely no need in this day and age for paper fax machines. If you are still using paper faxes, speak to your software provider ASAP.
Successfully reducing the use of paper isn’t a one-time event it is a series of continuous efforts to move away from paper and establish a culture that frowns upon waste.
Adopting the right tools can go a long way toward creating an environment to support the paperless office. Re-architecting business processes to reduce paper usage making the best of your practice management system is key.
Select Legal Systems is a leading supplier of case and practice management software and their flagship product, LAWFUSION, offers everything from legal accounts and time recording to case management and marketing software for law firms. All LAWFUSION modules have many efficiency-enhancing, time-saving and paper-saving features to help you achieve a paperless law firm. E.g. LAWFUSION Court Bundle Generator Software
If you would like to discuss LAWFUSION and the many paper-saving features it has to offer your firm please contact a member of the Select Legal team on 01482 567601 or contact us online.