Paperless offices – tearing up customs

The idea of a paperless office is not new – it has been around for decades. But it is not something that many lawyers have bought into. I am guessing that most people reading this article are already saying something along the lines of ‘it can’t work!’ Well, it can, and the benefits might make even the harshest IT critics sit up and think.

The theoretical benefits are not difficult to fathom. In a paperless office one has access to every bit of data within the practice at the push of a button. There is efficient document and information management, and hence huge administrative cost savings. Remote working is unrestricted, and there is automatic time recording as lawyers go about their daily business. Diary integration is easier in a paperless office, and owners can find out what is going on in every corner of the business.

So, the theory seems good but what about the practical reality? And why have so few practices made the switch?

The switch

At Quanticks we started the move to paperless working three years ago. By way of background, we are not a large firm – we have five solicitors, a trainee solicitor and a trainee legal executive. We advice on property, wills, probate, family and employment law. The move was the result of a much wider review. We wanted to make sure we were providing the best possible service we could, in a way our clients wanted, which was as cost-efficient as possible. I should imagine this is a basic aspiration for most businesses – whether they are selling legal services, or toy building blocks.

We are now 100% paper-free, other than signed-and-sealed documents, or court bundles. We will, of course, send out paper if a client does not like email. But we do not keep any paper records – just electronic copies. We do not even have notepads any more, or even Post-it notes.

The first step was introducing a good practice and case management system. We chose Peapod’s LOLA, which we have been very pleased with. We love its simplicity and flexibility. Everything is rolled into one: individual diaries and to-do lists; central diary; document management; accounts; and a simple client relationship management (CRM) system. We have invested a huge amount of time populating documents, letters and emails to ensure a consistent house style. You only get out of case management systems what you put in to them.

The next step was to bring in high-speed scanning, thereby putting the paper correspondence we receive daily on to the system. Now our solicitors do not see hard post. Instead, everything is scanned and allocated to each client matter, and a virtual pile of post appears on their screen as soon as scanning is complete.

We also ditched dictation. Everyone is a competent typist; there is not a secretary insight.

We ran paper files and records alongside the electronic files for 12 months or so. The idea was to iron out as many teething issues as we could before the paper finally went. In the event, though, not that many issues arose.

In our experience, without having the right systems and hardware in place, the switch to a paperless office would be impossible. Aside from the outlay on case management and scanning, our only other expense has been on extra computer screens. We all work with two monitors on our desks – parts of the office look more like a space station than a law firm.

Not everyone is comfortable with change. In fact, even the most open-minded of us take some comfort from familiarity. Making the switch to paperless working is a huge change. Fortunately, I have a fabulous team who are very forward-thinking, and open to new ideas. So, while the project has been a massive change, it is one that had ‘buy in’. Our mindset is to find solutions for issues that crop up, and not to let issues get in the way of progress.

We did not always have that ‘buy in’. And we suffered staff casualties along the way. Do I wish I had buckled under the pressure and kept things the way they were? Not on your life. Was I right to keep pushing? Yes – change is difficult, but progress can only happen when we challenge ourselves and commit to making that change.

The benefits

Was it all worth it? Well, the benefits are so huge it is actually difficult to put it into words.

First, although it is not the most significant point, we are saving a fortune on stationery. It is not just the paper, but all of the paraphernalia that goes with keeping paper records – files, wallets, staples, pens, pencils, correspondence clips, and so on. Our monthly outlay on stationery has more than halved.

Before I go any further, I suggest you dig out your firm’s accounts for last year – paper of course – and try this. Strip out half of your stationery costs, all of your archiving costs, all of your secretarial salaries, and calculate the reduced rent thanks to needing to house many fewer staff owing to a reduced administrative burden. And, remember, all of that has been saved without any reduction in income. Is it starting to sound more attractive now?

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. The ecological benefit here is not to be sniffed at either.

Remote working is a breeze, of course. If we were in any doubt about the worth of electronic files, the recent snow has proved their value. While we could not all get into the office, it did not matter one bit. Those who were at home simply logged in, and the entire office was at their fingertips as if they were sitting at their desks.

What if your computers go down, I hear you cry? Well, with an off-site backup taken every 24 hours, we are only ever one day away from being back up and running. Have a fire in a paper-based office and many files are gone for good.

The contrast

Imagine a typical lawyers’ office. It will no doubt include: cabinets rammed full of paper files; a draw full of business cards/contact details; perhaps a paper diary; a pinboard full of information; Post-it notes everywhere with ‘useful numbers’; a tray of pending stuff; and a bookshelf full of useful publications, most of them gathering dust.

Now take all of that paper and put the same information in an organised fashion on your server. And do it for every employee within the firm. Hey presto, you have the same data but:

  • that same lawyer can work anywhere – in or out of the office;
  • the whole firm has access to everyone’s useful numbers/files/ contacts;
  • the owners of the business can see who is on top of things, and who isn’t;
  • archiving becomes (literally) the click of a button (and no worries about binning things after seven years – keep the electronic files forever!); and
  • huge savings in stationery costs/ archiving.

It is only once you have made the switch that you realise quite how crazy some of the things we do are when we work with paper. How many of us would ordinarily print off emails to put on a correspondence clip?

Only today a partner of a local firm asked that we print off some documents we had emailed to him and send them to him in the DX. We politely suggested he print them off if he could not read them on his computer screen. In fairness, he realised the error of his ways.

Why don’t more law firms become ‘paperless’? This question fascinates me, and I think I have the answer. The view of other firms about our change has been extraordinary. The reaction tends to be something along the lines of ‘don’t be ridiculous, it can’t possibly work’. Interesting that, I think, if you have not tried it yourself.

Forgive my strong view, but here I fear is evidence of a profession that is rooted in the past, and is happy to do things the way they have always been done. The world is changing, it is changing fast, and we must change with it.

There are, of course, other interesting developments in the technological sphere, such as reading news over the internet, ebooks, and televisions with internet access. We are quickly becoming much more comfortable with reading from screens. It is the same words on a white background, so there is nothing to be scared of.

Finally, I really hope that our experience will inspire some fellow lawyers to send paper packing. If they get it right, they will wonder why they did not do it years ago.