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Walking papers

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In 2008, Quanticks was one of the first law firms to go completely paperless. Neil Quantick explains why he made the switch, how you can do the same, and the benefits it can bring

The idea of a paperless office isn’t new. It’s been talked about for decades. But, it’s only in recent years that it’s become a viable option for us all. In my view, being paperless will soon be a must for law firms. But, what’s changed to now make it so easy to achieve? And what steps are needed to take your own legal practice to a place that’s free of the white stuff?

The IT journey

What has changed, of course, is IT.

The devices we now utilise are powerful, user-friendly, and cheap. So much of our lives are now firmly ‘online’. We know it, and we like it. We’re comfortable with it.

But the central role that IT now plays in our day-to-day lives is a relatively recent phenomenon. I have my own IT milestones. You’ll no doubt have yours. Perhaps the most notable for me was arriving at university in 1989 to be told that all coursework must be submitted in word-processed format. Sir Tim Berners-Lee had only just (that year) invented the internet! PCs were a rarity, and learning to type was not an aspect of university life I had expected!

To me, that day in 1989 doesn’t honestly feel that long ago. But it really is only in the last few years that IT has invaded virtually every corner of our lives. It has become something that the majority of us are happy with – even lawyers! More recent advances have now removed any remaining hurdles to the realising paperless office dream.

What is a paperless office?

There seems to be a lot of talk of late about the ‘less paper’ office (ie reducing paper use), rather than the paperless environment (ie going the whole way and ditching paper). My view is that if you go at it half-cocked, you just won’t get there. You see, human nature is such that breaking with a lifetime’s habits is, at best, difficult. Leave a comfort blanket, by allowing whatever paper people want, and most will grab it. Your ‘less paper’ office runs the risk of having very little less paper than before!

The main paper we devour as lawyers is in those wonderful things we call files. But all they are is a record of something we have done: copies of emails, court bundles, attendance notes, documents and so on.

It’s not just files we use, of course. Imagine a typical lawyer’s office. It may well include some or all of: cabinets rammed full of paper files; a drawer full of business cards / contact details; perhaps a paper diary; a full pin board; sticky notes everywhere with ‘useful numbers’ on them; a tray of pending stuff; and a bookshelf full of terribly useful publications, most of them gathering dust.

So, to become a paperless office, all we have to do is sort all of that paper, and put every last bit of that same information on our network, in an organised fashion.

That might sound daunting, but it’s actually pretty easy – in principle, at least! And, you may well already be closer to that reality than you realise.

My firm’s journey to paperless

My firm started its paperless journey around 2008. Our aspiration was simple: to do away with all paper records, and, where possible, all paper ‘tools’ (notepads, files, reference sources and so on). Our first and only port of call for all office data was to be a computer.

Back then, economic times were tough, so I wanted to make sure we processed the work we did as efficiently and cost effectively as possible. My paperless dream was born.

Despite the doubters, we quickly made the switch. We were soon free of the white stuff. As a new firm, we were even able to scan all the paper files we had archived since the date we opened the practice in 2005.

We learned some lessons along the way about how to make paperless work for law firms. Below are some pearls of wisdom (hopefully) that may help if you’re looking to set off on your own paperless journey.

Tools

If you’re looking to make the change, you’ll need to make sure you have some tools in place before you start.

Two screens

Yes, you really do need two computer screens! You use one to read from (as you would with paper on your desk), and one to write on.

Most computers will easily accept the addition of a second screen.

Case management system

There is now enough generic software out there that you could go paperless without a dedicated practice management system.

However, our choice has always been to use an integrated legal case management system. We use Advanced Legal’s ALB system. Like most case management systems, everything is rolled into one: client files; individual diaries and to-do lists; central diary; document management; accounts; and so on. We have found ALB’s intuitive nature and flexibility an excellent partner to our paperless office.

Scanners

Like it or not, we do still unfortunately receive some paper. And, if you want to live the paperless dream, that needs to be digitised. Drum roll, and please enter – a decent scanner!

Most office printers will, of course, have a scanning function, and your own needs will be dictated by volumes of post / paper documents, location of staff and so on. We have one admin person who deals with most of our scanning needs, and odds and sods are easy to deal with on an ad hoc basis by whoever needs it doing (yes, even a solicitor).!

Challenges

Not everyone believes in the benefits of paperless. You’ll face some doubters and some challenges.

Original documents

Whatever work types you cover, it’s likely that there will be a small number of paper documents that are totally ‘original’ – that is, original and irreplaceable.

Those truly original documents we have at our practice are scanned, but we do then retain them in a central store.

But be disciplined! It’s very easy to keep stuff you don’t really need. When you boil it down, most of the paper we stare at each day is simply copies of documents that could be reproduced a thousand times without any legal significance. If it’s not truly ‘original’, it doesn’t need to be kept – scan it and shred it!

Staff buy-in

Not everyone is comfortable with change. In fact, even the most open-minded of us will often take some comfort from familiarity.

Making the switch to paperless working seems like a huge change. Staff buy-in is likely to be your biggest challenge. You will be told it cannot possibly work. And you will be given 101 problems, with few, if any, solutions. My approach was to turn that on its head: I tasked the team to find a solution for every ‘problem’. It worked.

Security

The doubters often tell us paperless advocates that security is our big problem. Of course it isn’t! If you run a paper-based law firm, one brick and a crow bar later and any old Tom, Dick or Harry has access to your entire office (including the senior partner’s malt whisky). Worse still, a fire or flood can put you well and truly out of action.

However, store your office in a reputable Cloud environment, with all appropriate security measures in place, and I would suggest that you are in a rather more security-friendly position. If nothing else, gaining unpermitted access to all of that critical data takes rather more than the desire, and a brick and crow bar!

Size matters

This goes something like ‘our firm is so much bigger than yours, Neil – paperless just couldn’t possibly work for us’. I’ve heard it countless times. But it’s another myth. The reality is, I suggest, that the increased size of a firm is likely only to amplify the very considerable benefits of a paperless environment.

The benefits

Obviously, we save a fortune on stationery. It is not just the paper, but all the paraphernalia that goes with keeping paper records: files, wallets, staples, pens, pencils, correspondence clips, and so on.

I like to work in an ordered way, so the office looking great is a big deal for me – it has never looked tidier. We are open plan, and there is not a file, or a single bit of paper, in sight.

Going paperless has helped us offer more flexible working methods and opportunities to our people. We have three offices in south-east Surrey (Reigate, Dorking and Caterham). Everyone simply hot-desks – whichever office they are based at on that day, they just pitch up at any workstation, and off they go.

Another huge benefit is the simplicity of archiving. Because all documents are stored electronically through a matter’s lifetime, archiving is simply a case of moving your ‘file’ to the appropriate electronic store. Need it again in the future? Push a button, and there it is. Data storage is now so cheap that keeping your files in this format is easy and cost-effective. The huge administrative burden and cost of running paper archive stores can be gone forever!

The downsides

I can honestly say that any bad bits are a drop in the ocean of benefits that the paperless office brings.

Admittedly, getting staff buy-in as the transition happens (see above) can be pretty painful, but it’s a process you only need to go through once.

What if your computers go down, I hear you cry? Well, yes, fair enough! If our internet connection or office wi-fi is down, we do have a slight issue. But how often is wi-fi really down these days?

That’s really all the downsides I can think of. I can assure you that the huge time and cost benefits outweigh those minor points many times over.

Why it matters

I said at the outset that, in my view, going paperless will become a must for law firms. But why will it? Well, it’s only once you’ve made the switch that you realise quite how crazy some of the things we do are when we work with paper. We duplicate a whole bunch of stuff we already do on computer, constantly producing and chasing paper around unnecessarily all day, every day.

Paper is a huge cost to a law firm that we simply no longer need. It slows us down. And we can take it out of our businesses with virtually no adverse effect. Make the move. You won’t regret it.

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