How to Transition to a Paperless Law Office
How to Transition to a Paperless Law Office
Why should you switch to a paperless law office?
There are many advantages to going paperless, especially for law firms. Let’s start at the beginning: when you first retain a client. Using a retainer with an electronic signature saves you at least one step you won’t have to scan the document for recordkeeping, plus you can automatically send copies to all parties once they are signed.
In fact, if you set up your paperless systems correctly, you can even automate a welcome email packet to the client containing FAQs and information on their case and the firm, send an invoice for an initial retainer amount or flat fee, and even automatically send an intake form and request for documents. I personally have all of this automated so that once a phone consultation is complete, I can send over a retainer agreement that is e-signed, followed by the invoice and intake form (which has a document upload capability), all with only a couple of clicks from me, leaving me more time for consultations, legal work, and chasing around a rambunctious toddler.
The benefits are even bigger once you have actually retained the client. Assuming you have scanned all the documents into your case management software as text-searchable PDFs, it will only take you seconds to search through a client’s file to find the information you’re looking for.
For me, I might be looking for a date of marriage, date of the divorce filing, date of separation while drafting a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO), or something as simple as the address of a vacation property when I am drafting a trust.
This doesn’t sound like a big deal, does it? Wait until you are in the room with opposing counsel, and pull out a fact or document in seconds because you’re paperless.
Or if you do flat-fee work, this means you get that work done in half the time. Even the little things like when a client calls on a random Thursday with a question about her files are made easier by being able to quickly type in a query into my computer, rather than shuffle through my filing cabinets.
And of course, the more time you save, the less you bill to the client. Sure, that means less revenue for you, but it also means the client is happier. Long term, this client-centered approach means better reviews, more referrals, and more business for your firm.
Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the massive advantage of being able to work from anywhere, at any time. Running a paperless practice is simpler than you think, and it’s clearer than ever that the flexibility going paperless affords you is indispensable.
Steps to taking your law firm paperless
The first thing you will have to do, before thinking about software or scanners, is to buy in entirely. You need to commit 100% to eliminate paper, as do the rest of your law firm Luddite lawyers, apprehensive assistants, everyone. A paperless system will require significant work upfront, as well as some extra training time for everyone, but it does pay off in the long run.
Once you are ready, here are the steps you will have to take:
Switch to a paperless client intake system
Paperless begins before the client even sign a retainer. A brilliant way to handle all of the pre-legal stages of the case is to start with a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) platform. There are a handful of lawyer-specific CRMs out there, with two in particular that integrate with GetLEGAL Software.
Most of these CRMs have similar paperless features to get your clients retained quickly, with as little paper as possible: They offer the ability to set up paperless retainer agreements, intake forms, billing, and e-signatures.
Create a system for ensuring files stay paperless
Once a client has retained you, you will want instant access to their entire file with only a few clicks. You’ll need a few tools to get this job done (more on specific recommendations to follow):
A cloud-based storage system, such as Dropbox, OneDrive, or even GetLEGAL’s own storage.
Software to convert your scans to text-searchable PDFs.
A brilliant scanner (or three).
Staying organized with dozens or hundreds of cases is tough with paper, and at first, it’ll feel even more difficult with electronic files. (We promise, it’s easier once you get in the habit.)
Employees come and go. As your law office grows bigger, you’ll add more assistants and more voices to the document handling processes. If you want a paperless system to stick, it is imperative that you outline that system in writing. This should answer questions like:
What should be done with paper files dropped off by clients?
Are there any exceptions to the digitize everything rules?
How are files named and organized on your cloud storage server?
Who is responsible for making sure this all gets done?
Digitize your existing paper files
Finally, there is the issue of your backlog. Unless you are a brand-new law firm, you probably have plenty of dusty old files, as well as a smattering of open files covering your desk. Common sense should tell you to start with the files that you will actually need access to (current files) and to have the digitization done at a time where you can spare the paper copies (pay someone to come in over the weekend). If you pay a service to digitize everything, you can get this done in a day or two. As an alternative, consider asking your staff for help.
Once you have scanned everything in, it is important to live amongst your digital files—build the habit of referring to the digital copies and adding notes there, rather than breaking out the old paper copies and asking your assistant to digitize even more paper later. In fact, order everyone at your law firm to close off the paper boxes and not touch them, absent any emergency where someone forgot to scan something. After a while, once you have lived a paperless lifestyle for a few months, you’ll realize that you don’t need those old paper copies anymore.
Paperless procedures and protocols
As we mentioned above, you need to have procedures in place for all your law office’s paperless documents. These paperless procedures and protocols will ensure that no files get lost and that everything continues to be accessible with a few clicks in a search query.
Every firm is different. A 50-person firm, with individual legal assistants for every attorney, is going to operate differently than a one-man band shop, like my own. With that being said, here is a sample outline you can use to develop your own procedures:
Start digital wherever possible
Use electronic retainers and e-signatures, and save all legal work to the server in both Word and PDF format.
Scan any paper as it comes in
To keep your law firm paperless, make it a policy to immediately scan any new paper documents as they come in, and return the paper copies to the client. Store the scanned files in the actual client folders on the server, not in a big folder called “SCANS.”
Make sure you’re making text-searchable PDFs
Most modern scanning software will include an option to make the scanned PDF text searchable, but if not, use OCR software like Adobe Acrobat or ABBYY Fine Reader to convert it to a text-searchable PDF.
4. Only keep documents that are required by local law to be in paper form
This might include deeds, wills, or other key documents with ink signatures. Even then, scan a copy into your system as a backup and for quick searches.
Keep your law firm’s paperless files organized
For file naming, it’s a matter of preference, but many smart people do: date, description, initials of the responsible party (Example: “2022-04-08 Letter to OC re: QDRO WCP”).
Consider your directory structures as well. If you’re using GetLEGAL’s file storage, there is already a folder for each client. Litigators might be best served by creating subfolders for pleadings, discovery, correspondence, etc., but do what works best for your practice.
Okay, this is easier said than done, especially for meetings, but if you get into the habit of using a tablet or laptop to pull up your files from the server and to take your notes where the file lives (on your laptop or tablet, rather than paper), you’ll save yourself a lot of time when it comes to searching your notes later.
Generally, avoid creating more paper