September 18, 2020
The Paperless Law Office
Steve Best and Debbie Foster succinctly describe a paperless law office in their January 2009 Practice Today article, as “a philosophy to work with minimal paper and convert all forms of documentation into a digital form.” The following subsections highlight the benefits of going paperless.
A. Save Space and Reduce Clutter
If I said that the main reasons why I decided to go paperless were to benefit the environment and to increase efficiency, I would be lying. In fact, the main reason why I decided to go paperless was that my first office was located in a glorified cubby hole and I lacked the space to maintain physical files. Thus, I had to go paperless in order to comply with the Rules of Conduct.
Since I launched my firm in Fall 2009, I have worked on over 80 cases that have generated well over 2 GB of electronic information, mostly contained in Word or PDF files. This amount of data translates into roughly 140,000 to 160,000 text pages, or 70 to 80 banker’s boxes (at 2,000 pages per box), according to the Sigmund Technology Group, a firm that specializes in e-discovery and computer forensics. Even though my practice generates a huge amount of data, the only dedicated physical storage repository I use is a half-empty file cabinet.
I rarely give thought to how much physical space I save by virtue of running a paperless law office; it’s just how I operate. In February 2011, I inherited a civil rights case from one of the largest firms in the state that underscored how important maintaining a digital office is to saving space. The fact pattern in the case was not particularly complex, the discovery was not extensive, and motion practice did not produce many exhibits. Even though the litigants did not engage in protracted litigation, the size of the physical file was two full banker’s boxes. If I operated as a large firm and maintained such unwieldy physical files I would run out of storage space in a matter of months.
My workspace is not littered with bulky accordion files haphazardly strewn about on my desk and floor (i.e., unlike 80 percent of individual attorney law offices I have ventured into) because of my client files take up little or zero physical space. Some lawyers sunnily refer to their messy offices as “organized chaos,” but when my workspace is messy it is a good indicator that I am not operating efficiently or effectively. If you implement a paperless office you will dramatically reduce clutter and find that your workspace is a more conducive place for getting things done.
B. Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Even though saving the environment wasn’t the primary reason why I decided to go paperless, it makes me feel good to know that I probably use about 90 percent less paper than I would if I ran a non-paperless office.
C. Save Money
As David Morse noted in his September 2009 Practice Today article, going paperless enables lawyers to “save money on paper, letterhead, envelopes, exhibit tabs, postage, employee time copying and searching for documents, toner, printers, copiers, storage boxes, storage costs, and more.” I can’t accurately calculate how much money I save each month by running a paperless office because my office has been paperless since its inception, but I can confirm that my monthly paper and print costs are less than $20.
D. Improve Efficiency and Organization
When I worked at a Biglaw firm, people were always literally running around the office looking for client files or portions of files, including me. David Morse’s description of the scene at his law firm when a file went missing, as set forth in his aforementioned Practice Today article, is very similar to my experience working at a non-paperless office:
I don’t know about your firm, but everyday at mine, people were looking for files. While most files were put back in the large file storage laterals located throughout the office, it always seemed that the one file that one of my attorneys needed was missing. An all points bulletin was issued and everyone scrambled to find it. The file was always found, but not before losing time and greatly decreasing efficiency.
In contrast, I can access any document from any case (open or closed) from any device with an internet connection within seconds. I do not need to scramble and issue an “all-points bulletin” when I want to locate a file; I simply look on my hard drive. If for some reason I do not have my laptop or netbook handy, I will access the document via my smartphone or on another device with an internet connection.
Maintaining a paperless office reduces redundancy and promotes intuitive organization within client files. In contrast, redundancy and unwieldiness are hallmarks of client files in non-paperless offices. For example, in the case I inherited from a large, non-paperless firm, many of the documents contained in the physical file were duplicative and organized in a haphazard manner.
A paperless office negates the need to reinvent the wheel. Most law firms and lawyers are technologically savvy enough to maintain a database of frequently used electronic forms, including old pleadings, to use as templates in new cases. Indeed, the Biglaw firm I worked at used a fairly advanced document management program where lawyers could locate documents saved to the system via keyword search. For example, if I wanted to locate a template to draft a complaint in a trademark case I would type in the words “complaint” and “trademark” to access every trademark complaint saved in the firm’s system and view which attorney drafted the document.
When it came to legal research, however, I was constantly reinventing the wheel. Specifically, I would often find a highly relevant case or article for a research project I was working on and print a hard copy. I did not add the hard copy to the actual client file (generally located in the assigning partner’s office or storage lateral) because I rarely had access to the actual client file, as most of my assignments were discrete research projects; I did not actually “own” any cases.
I did not have enough storage space in my office at The Firm to retain hard copies of my research. Even if I had space, there was no logical place for me to store the materials because I lacked access to client files. Accordingly, I tossed the hard copies in the recycling bin. Invariably, a different partner would assign a similar project at a later date and I would need to spend considerable time and money (both billable to the client) searching for and printing the exact same materials I had already located in the earlier case.
In my digital office, I can locate research materials saved as digital files from an old case in seconds. I get way more work done than I did at my old firm in a shorter amount of time by working smarter, not harder.
I am routinely adverse to the largest firms in the Midwest in my cases. This means that in most of my cases I am going up against a partner, an associate or two, a paralegal, and at least one legal secretary. In other words, five against one. I have never felt overmatched because I run a lean, mean, highly organized, and efficient digital law office that enables me to keep up with the large firm motion for motion, document for the document, blow for blow.
E. Mobility, Portability, and Collaboration
Going paperless obviates the need for lawyers to cart around boxes of documents to court appearances, meetings, and mediations. When I need to access my client files on the go, I simply bring my netbook and my entire firm comes with me. When I changed office locations, I did not need to transport boxes upon boxes of client files to the new building; I simply put my computer in a backpack. Coach Herman Boone from Remember the Titans might (accurately) describe my practice as “mobile, agile, hostile.”
A paperless office also facilitates collaboration with clients, courts, co-counsel, and experts, as I will describe in greater detail in later sections of this chapter.