Going Paperless: A Contrary View

It is no secret that I am a big fan of having a paperless practice. Let me pause for one second to make sure that everyone understands that when I refer to a paperless practice, I am not claiming that there is no paper in my office. Unfortunately there is. However, what it means, at least to me, is that, to the extent possible, I work exclusively with electronic versions of documents, that I convert all documents I receive to electronic copies, and that I do not print documents to paper unless I have to.

I also know that not everyone has jumped on the paperless bandwagon. I recently read a blog post at Paralegalese in which the author asserts that she does not believe that a paperless office is possible. She explains:

Perhaps the first reason I have a hard time envisioning a paperless office is that my own office is very paper-full. We print everything, from the e-filed orders to drafts of motions for review. We make copies of everything that leaves the office. When I am researching case laws, I print out the cases to highlight the pertinent parts. We print emails from clients to place in their files for quick future reference.

Now, I understand that everything we choose to print could actually be saved to file, and we could scan all of our paper documents into the system. But that is impractical for a law firm with one lawyer and one paralegal and, at any given time, fewer than 100 active client matters. I would spend much of my day scanning documents. Some days would be completely shot.

I understand her thoughts on this and they are not different from the thoughts I hear from others. In fact, she goes on to point out two other arguments that I often hear:

First, I must print out research material for the sake of my poor eyes. It is unhealthy to stare at a computer screen for hours of reading. I also have to highlight the relevant parts. Second, since we keep copies of everything that leaves the office, we keep copies of all signed letters. It seems impractical to print a letter, sign it, then rescan it into the system before sending it off. At least, in our office it is.

And if time and effort cannot be saved, then going paperless to save paper seems silly, too. In my office, we would still hit the print button. But without a file in which to save the newly printed paper, we would shred it when we were done.

Each of these arguments could be addressed in turn (for my thoughts about legal research see this article). However, I think the larger issue to be addressed is one of mindset. Going to a paperless office requires someone to be willing to let go of that physical document. It means spending a few dollars to get good quality, large monitors so you can easily read documents on a computer screen without having to print them out. It means learning how to use Adobe Acrobat so that you can highlight and annotate your research on the screen and not on a piece of paper. It means learning that it is ok to not print a copy of every order entered electronically or printing a fax received on your virtual fax number. And for heaven’s sake, it means not printing every email that you receive.

In addition to the post by the author, I encourage you to read the comments, Many of them are insightful and make going points about changing workflow habits, as well as the fact that going paperless improves productivity.

4 thoughts on “Going Paperless: A Contrary View

  1. As the author of the blog post you reference, I have to add my two cents.

    I completely understand the possible benefits of a paperless office, though in some situations, the initial and ongoing costs can outweigh the benefits. When you are talking about solo practice guys in small communities the cash flow to invest in big monitors and backup storage does not always exist. We have looked into it at my firm.

    The fact of the matter is, a paperless office is not one-size-fits-all. Big dual monitors would be great. A big network server to save all our data would be great. Backup storage to an off-location server would be fantastic. Until our little firm grows large enough and profitable enough to justify those added expenses, we have to deal in paper.

    While you suggest that the contrary view point is just a mindset, your examples of how to overcome it include extra expenditures. Changing a mind is easy. Tackling the extra costs that come with the mind change is a bit trickier.

    Finally, my point has not been that paperless is a bad thing, just that it is not always feasible or practical in certain situations. I was surprised at how many people vehemently denied that it is ever impractical. A message to your readers, when checking out the comments at my post, please note that several are written by people who are financially invested in paperless-style office management. All of them are thoughtful, I trust, but everything must be taken in context.

    Thank you again for mentioning my little blog.

  2. Thank you for your reference to my little blog. The post you refer to has received several comments from many very passionate people. I have to note that I do not believe paperless is for everyone. Some small offices cannot afford the initial costs of setting up a paperless office, such as the big monitors and nightly backup service. Each situation is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the paper issue.

    (This is my second attempt to post a comment, as the first attempt resulted in an error.)

  3. Thanks for commenting Melissa. I agree that going paperless requires a change in mindset. However. I disagree as to the costs involved.

    You mentioned the expense of storage and monitors. Without doing any comparison shopping, I found a 1TB drive on amazon for $90 (internal) (http://tinyurl.com/yabvvan) or $105 (external) (http://tinyurl.com/yac4dsh). You don’t need a network server. Sure, they are nice, but for a small office you can run a peer to peer network just fine, with one computer sharing single large drive. Online backup can be had for as inexpensive as $55 a year. Plus you can get a 22″ monitor for less than $175.

    The biggest cost is one you didn’t mention: a good scanner. For example, a Scan Snap will run you around $400.

    Still, to go all in on a paperless system, you are talking an investment of less than $800.

  4. It looks like some of the issues you are encountering when you file could be solved by using software to keep track of your files. You can try The Paper Tiger Filing system to help you better keep track of your files. Give it a try! We are BBB A-Rated business and are always looking for ways to help people file!

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