Donna C. Purcell, Q.C. & Sophie Qin, “It’s 2022, Time to Finally Go Paperless: Transitioning to a Paperless Office” (2022) #133 ACTLA’s the Barrister at 23-26.
Going on three years of social distancing, remote conferencing has become somewhat of a norm among the legal profession. This has often been accompanied with increased digitization across law firms and the court system. With so many of us having been forced to take that first leap thanks to the pandemic, perhaps now more than ever, law firms should consider going all the way with digitization and creating a paperless practice. In this article, I will analyse the ways in which a complete digital transformation will make things better for law firms and their employees, and some of the ways your firm can overcome the barriers towards full digital transformation. I first created remote office capacity over two decades ago to juggle law practice, family and community and am not sure I would have been as successful without adapting available technology to my advantage. In December of 2019 we decided to become fully paperless (perhaps a premonition given the pandemic around the corner. Since July 2022, I have “leapt” into a fully cloud based practice to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by digital transformation.
1. More Space More Money
The benefits of going fully digital are numerous, but I will start by examining them from a financial perspective. Unlike paper files, digital records take up no physical space and there is no cost to replicate and transfer. By getting rid of creating the paper (I am not yet shredding any evidence or copies of evidence sent to me), your firm can save on office space, which could either allow you to expand without increasing rental costs, or simply permit you to move your practice without worrying about access to transit or courier services. If you’re so inclined, your firm can even take advantage of remote conferencing and digital filing systems to get rid of the physical office completely.
Shifting to a paperless system will also eliminate the overhead costs of printing and photocopying, and the exponentially faster rate of transfer for electronic documents reduces filing time, which can help both with meeting deadlines and prompt communication. Additionally, programs like Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat offer you alternative ways of marking up and comparing documents digitally. With added tools like word recognition (OCR), it can be easy to convert paper scans into digital documents, making them and their text searchable and easily edited. Secure digital signing technologies (eg. DocuSign, Clio’s HelloSign) also enable you more flexibility in coordinating agreements. By applying these technologies, you can significantly increase the efficiency of your firm, saving both you and your client’s time and money. We find that most entities where we request records will accept electronic signatures.
Reducing the amount of paper and ink and related appliances in use can also significantly boost your firm’s environmental footprint, something that can aid with branding and outreach. The legal profession is often accused of being stuck in the past, but with more firms trying to move past the use of paper, we can show that the legal profession, just as much as everyone else, is working towards a better, more carbon neutral future.
2. Less Drudgery More Flexibility
From a more human perspective, reducing the amount of paper in use at your firm will also reduce the amount of mundane and repetitive work that lawyers and staff will have to engage in, such as photocopying, mailing, and trying to decipher other people’s handwriting. By freeing them to do more of the engaging and creative parts of their work, eliminating paper can be a way to boost worker productivity by maintaining their interest.
Putting matter files fully onto the cloud also allows lawyers and staff more remote work choices, reducing commuting time and improving their quality of life by giving them more flexibility in managing their work life balance, a common struggle in the legal profession. Many young lawyers enter the profession at the same time as they are starting new families. By going paperless and increasing your firm’s remote work capabilities, you increase your firm’s capacity to accommodate these and other needs of your staff. Happy staff are loyal staff, so improving the working conditions via digitization can assist in decreasing the costs and lowered productivity associated with training new staff.
Going paperless does not have to mean your firm will no longer work together in the same space though. The point of going paperless is to take advantage of the flexibility it offers, so that your team can better coordinate a work environment that works best for all.
3. Building Efficiencies in the System
For a busy litigation practice, the less “touches” to a record, the more efficiencies. We have established a process whereby the records come in through mail (and are scanned, via photocopier or our handy desktop scanners) or electronically, we immediately save it under our naming system, and use Adobe Pro to OCR (optical character recognition, court requires this as well, so they can edit). Then we apply Bates numbering (automatic numbering) and save it in an Affidavit of Records electronic folder (and add it the Affidavit of Records document). We also making a working copy that we can highlight and comment on the document. We also extricate key portions, for instance the x-ray reports, etc. Work smarter, not harder.
4. Clients’ Expectations
Digitization may also become part of your client’s expectations as they reduce their carbon footprint and look for ease of receiving services. I recall my accountant wanting me to print and sign tax documents in the first month of the pandemic. Historically I would just adapt to their non-paperless old habits. It might take a few days as I had to organize being by a printer, signing, scanning and returning (which means delegation given my lack of manual ability to use much of the office technology, and staff had been sent to work from home). They quickly learned to adapt and now I can sign from wherever whenever on any device. I like that. Our clients are busy or at a distance and like simplicity and flexibility. Or not… we consider ourselves a hybrid firm to ensure those clients that do not like technology or do not use it can be accommodated. I met a proud self-proclaimed luddite who refused to attend a meeting via Zoom for instance.
Clients may not want to pick up records nor incur courier costs nor want to store the paperwork.
One thing to remember is that e-mail is insecure so a move toward using a secure document portal is important. A client portal that is password protected is also possible via some legal software. Cybersecurity and privacy are important factors for a law firm to keep in mind.
5. Remote Work Revolution
I do not know how I would have juggled work and volunteerism and two competitive dance daughters travelling the continent without my remote office capability. I believe many more of our members will not abandon this career through the efficiency and flexibility offered by remote work. Many lawyers are demanding these options for various reasons.
Tsedal Neely from Harvard Business School has authored Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere, 2021, that I recommend as a good read, including tips on managing remote teams. The advantages are extensive. My first advantage about a decade ago was having a staff member move with her husband a distance that was too far to drive. As I was remote, I offered her that option. We have celebrated over a decade together. Pre-pandemic I saw here every two weeks. Now I just see her at social events. I can also use virtual assistants for overflow versus hiring a whole new staff member, keep my overhead contained. It opens a global pool of talent potentially.
5. Digital Advocacy
I have declared myself a “legal tech evangelist” as I believe we can retain more talent and improve access to justice exponentially with the technological tools we have before us and that are being developed. Currently, other jurisdictions are leading the way. As Alberta positions itself to compete on the world stage in the technology and innovation sector and tries to make good on its promise to diversify the economy, it is important that we have a justice system and legal profession that is “state of the art”. Digital ID’s and signatures and streamlined processes will assist many of the backlogs we have. Alberta has the talent and assets to lead in this sector but the profession has to ensure it is advocating for the legislative tools and technological resources we need so we are not left behind.
6. One Day at a Time
Of course, when so much of your files are stored as paper, it can be daunting to envision converting all that backlog into digital files. That’s fair. But chances are, thanks to the pandemic, your firm has already made moves to digitize many aspects of your practice. The key then is to focus on how to expand these approaches into other areas of your practice and to stick with the changes. You don’t have to become paperless overnight. If you are photocopying a file, just scan it instead and save it digitally and you will not need to copy it again for your various experts or for a brief. For records, the Adobe Pro software allows for the adding of Bates page numbering.
Setting up a new digital office will require establishing new workflows and organization standards. This is something your firm is going to want to figure out early on, so your digital library and processes stay consistent and easy to manage. The point of going digital is to make things easier on your firm, so try to aim for the easiest, most simplistic solutions for your organization. Don’t get too caught up with all the shiny new software out there. Identify clearly what your firm’s needs are and focus on only integrating technology that serves your purposes. You want to limit your technology stack as much as possible so that it’s easy to ensure everything stays compatible and you’re not trying to learn how to use too many different systems. Change management is most important to keep your team on board. Instructional videos and office learning modules are helpful as everyone learns at different speeds, especially when trying to survive a busy office practice.
It’s important to keep in mind though, that even if a process or technology does not work out initially, abandoning a software does not have to mean abandoning your digitization efforts completely. Keep trying new things and tweaking new processes till they work for you. Again, you are not expected to go paperless overnight. Making mistakes is fine, in fact, perhaps mandatory to the learning process. The important thing to remember is to be resilient and persist and be positive and grateful to those around you joining on the journey.
Some of you might be concerned about the fragility of digital documents considering potential problems like solar flares and power outages. That is completely reasonable. You can keep some paper backups if you need. Just do not let them become the main medium in use. You can also back up to more than just one cloud storage.
The courts are also digitizing, so it is just a matter now of keeping up or being left behind. As time goes on, the pressure to fully move away from paper filing will only build, so it is better to get started sooner than later so you won’t get stuck at the bottom of the curve. For similar reasons, as you work on building your digital practice, it’s important to keep an eye out for new technology developments and to keep urging the profession to move along with you. The rate of digitization by the courts will have some determinative effect on how fast you can go paperless after all, so it’s important to keep track of their transformation and to try to push for changes.
At the end of the day, your firm will only digitize as far as you and your team are willing to push it, so the onus is on you to make that decision and to stick with it. Technology is just a tool, and the ability to use it to realize your firm’s true capabilities will still depend on your ingenuity and persistence. But for those of you willing to push towards the future, the sky’s the limit.
By Donna C. Purcell, Q.C., ACTLA Past President, and Legal Tech Evangelist (with the assistance of Sophie Qin, Legal Innovation Intern)