Like death and taxes, change is inevitable. The office has been in a constant state of change since Bob Cratchit worked for Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens'' 1843 Victorian workplace. The legal workplace has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. The last 10 years have seen staggering change come to the workplace as digital and electronic media of all kinds have taken over our daily lives at home and at work. There are those who embrace change, those who accept it, and those who resist it.
Over 90 per cent of documents are now being created only electronically, and will never be printed on paper. The notion that a record needs to be on paper in order to be permanent has all but evaporated. Family law lawyers need to rethink how their files are created and stored. The electronic office is a fact. Resistance is futile: you will be assimilated.
The notion of an electronic environment, or even an electronic file, is still largely absent for the family law lawyer. This means family law lawyers, generally, are printing, saving, and storing on paper all of the documents they produce (letters, faxes, pleadings, even e-mails), which also means they are paying their highly trained and high-priced administrative staff to spend time filing paper and searching for paper.
It is possible to have an entirely paperless office environment, but this article examines an office environment with less paper, not one with no paper.
Going paperless is legal. Identify how you currently treat and handle paper in your practice, and decide how you want to do it. The key question is: where does the real file live? As paper? Electronically? Or some combination of both? The real file in our firm lives in the hard drive and is traceable and searchable in Windows Explorer, accessible from the desktops in the office or remotely.
Decide where the whole file lives. In other words, is the file stored in one electronic location or in several? In our firm, the real file is stored in one place only, electronically, and in one location electronically (that is, e-mails are not stored in Outlook, but are saved in folders with other correspondence and documents).
Moving away from paper to an entirely electronic file is a very large change in law firm culture. This is a change management project: have reasonable expectations about what you can accomplish and how.
Staff (lawyers and administrative staff) will be very unsettled by this change. It is a transition that requires planning, consultation, and training in order to ensure buy-in. Achieving firm-wide buy-in to the project is critical. Strive for consensus and involve all the players (lawyers and staff) at the earliest stages. This is one technological leap that is much easier to do in a solo or small firm than in a large firm.
Once you have made the decision, determine your framework: to what end? On what time table? Do this on a go-forward basis only, otherwise it's too much to undertake. Pick a start date and after that date, everything is scanned into the hard drive, properly named and stored only electronically.
The two essential issues in the electronic environment are: scan each new piece of paper (letter, fax, pleading) as soon as it arrives so there is no pile of material waiting somewhere to be scanned. And back up religiously (more about backup later).
What to do with the electronic data? Make decisions about how you organize the documents in the folders. When our firm first did this in 2000, the whole firm (then three lawyers and four secretaries) sat in the kitchen and together designed a naming protocol for the scanned documents and all electronic material, which was really a folder structure protocol. Decide how to structure your folders (client name, then letters, pleadings, offers to settle, financial documents, etc.).
Our firm uses a "date first" naming protocol (2006 05 22 "title of document") so that documents appear in chronological order in Windows Explorer (to replicate the way a paper file would look).
What to do with the paper? Throw it out, recycle it, now. Do not save it, at all. Permanently getting rid of the paper is the biggest challenge in going paperless, for both lawyers and staff. Do not save letters or e-mail on paper: the whole idea here is to get rid of the paper.
The client's financial material: scan it in and give it back to the client. At first our firm was saving paper, in chronological order (not alphabetically by client), not in the paper file, but on a separate brad, initially saving it for 6 months, then 3 months, then one month, then one week. Now it goes out the same day. Send it to your client or recycle it.
There may be some material that you want to keep on paper as well as electronically. You may want to keep a bound paper version of drafts of agreements for negligence and complaint defence purposes. Our firm keeps a paper version of the pleadings in a bound volume for convenience, as well as the electronic version.
You will learn in time that very little needs to be on paper. Keep everything electronically: remember that the real file lives on the computer, not on paper. Paper is the exception: electronic is the rule.
Backup is the sine qua non of the paperless office. Back up every day without fail. The most trusted (and reliable) staff person should take the backup tape off site with them each day. Then, if there is a system disaster, the most that is lost is one day's work. This is not a high-maintenance task. And backup tapes should be stored off-site permanently (for a year or so) on a quarterly basis. There are other options for backing up as well.
What has our firm's experience been? All the staff were initially very anxious about getting rid of the paper. One senior and trusted lawyer in the firm disclosed (six months into the project) a plan to store the paper secretly at home. No one ever asks, "Where is the Taylor file?" The secretaries don't spend time filing paper or searching for paper.
There has never been a moment our firm regretted this change. The backup tapes have not yet been needed. Any material that is needed on paper is simply printed (as little as possible, though). The staff spend their time on other more valuable work.
Everybody wins. It's time to do this. Resistance is futile.
Carole Curtis is a family law lawyer in a three-lawyer firm in Toronto. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org