Speaking and the Paperless Office

Recently I have spoken on the topic of moving to a paperless office. This is a subject that I believe strongly in. Thus, I was quite happy to speak on this issue, with Todd Flaming, at the ISBA’s Solo and Small Firm Conference. Shortly after that, I received an invitation to speak on this topic for the Lake County Bar Association (Lake County Indiana).  I had a great time at both presentations and really enjoyed sharing my thoughts on practicing paperlessly.
As I pointed out during my presentations. This does not mean that I have no paper in my office. However, it does mean that I try to minimize it as much as possible. Additionally, it means that I have electronic copies of all of my documents on all of my files. This ensures that I can practice law from wherever I choose to do so.
I am sure that I will write more on this topic later. However, if this is a topic that interests your organization, please contact me and see of we can work out details for me to speak to you about moving to a paperless office.

This is Why I Have a Paperless Practice

Ocean Shores Washington

Pacific Ocean at Ocean Shores WA

This is what I am looking at right now as I am writing this post. It is the Pacific Ocean at Ocean Shores, Washington. I am here with my wife who has is attending multi-day business conference.

Because I have a paperless practice, I can work while she is attending the conference. This means that, while here, I have, among other things, prepared motions, worked on discovery, worked out issues relating to a protective order, and issued citations to discover assets.

If I did not have access to all of my documents, I would not have been able to much of what I have been able to accomplish. This is especially true when it comes to the protective order issue. Because I have access to all of the documents in all of my cases, however, this means that I was able to do anything here that I could have done in my office (except print mailing labels for the documents that I had to mail out).

In fact, the citations to discover assets were one of the cooler things that I have done. I was on Google Reader and saw in my RSS feed that a company I had a judgment against was participating in a social networking deal. I recognized this as a potential source to collect my judgment. I was able to log into the clerk’s site to obtain the forms I needed. I prepared the forms and filed them electronically. Once the citations were issued, I then emailed them to my process server for service.

Because of efiling (thank you DuPage County), I was able to take care of all of this, despite the distance between myself and the courthouse.

I know that there are attorneys who look at disdain at my use of a laptop and smartphone to stay connected when I am out of the office. I have been asked before whether these make me feel tied down and like I can’t get away. I explain that they do just the opposite. If I sat at my office desk for 60 hours a week, then I would not want to be connected when I am out of the office.

However, I much prefer to not be chained to my desk. With my laptop and smartphone, I can practice from anywhere, whether my office or a beach in Washington. This means that, instead of staying at home and forgoing a trip with my wife, I can accompany my wife and still get work done while I am gone. The way I look at it, my devices and connectivity free me to practice law the way that I want.

This does not mean, however, that I am always connected. I don’t think that this is healthy either. If I am on vacation, I minimize my work in order to enjoy my vacation. However, when I am with my wife on a business trip, I need to find something to do while she is doing her work. From my perspective, I think it’s best that I do some work and make some money.

I think I am going to go take a walk on the beach before I do some more work.

Backups Equal Peace of Mind

Despite the fact that most people depend greatly on their computers, it seems that very few people have a good backup system in place that would allow them to continue working in the event that their hard drive fails. The thing that I have discovered is that having a good backup solution gives me peace of mind.

I certainly don’t want my hard drive to fail nor do I want something to happen to me computer. However, I sleep just fine at night knowing that if something does happen to my computer or hard drive, I have easy access to all of my data and I can be back up and running in short order.

In my mind, a good backup system has two important features:

  • It is multi-layered
  • It is automatic

The layering protects you from your points of failure and the automatic protects you from you. The key thing to remember is that no one likes backups. Thus, no one will run backups on the schedule you are supposed to. Software, however, allows you to schedule your backups so they run automatically. Thus, you don’t even need to think about them.

Below I will describe the backup system that I use. I describe it here not because it is the perfect or ideal solution, but rather as a model of what a backup system looks like. Keep in mind that I am working from a hard drive on a computer (in my case a laptop), with no server. Also, the focus here is on data backups rather than mirroring my system drive. With that being said, my system is as follows:

There are three main hardware components to my backup system. I have my laptop where all of my data lives. I have an external drive at my office that I back up to. (In my case I lease server space from my landlord, but an external hard drive would work just the same). I also have a desktop at my home that have a large capacity drive.

For the software component, I use a product called SyncBack. I find the software works well, is easy to use, and is inexpensive. In all honesty, I would like to find something like Time Machine. However, I have not yet found anything that runs on Windows that can do what Time Machine does.

My system works as follows. I create a profile to backup documents both at home and at my office. I set the program to automatically run the profile at the time that I will most likely be at the location. Then SyncBack automatically backs up my documents to both my office location (when I am in the office) and to my home desktop (when I am at home).

Additionally, my home machine automatically backs up all of its data with an internet back up service.

Using this system, I have multiple back ups in multiple locations. If disaster were to strike my office, I have a copy of my data at home. If disaster were to strike my home, I have a copy of my data at my office. If disaster were to strike both my office and my home, I have a copy of my data on the internet.

Since I have gone to a system like this, I have had to recover from (at least) two hard drive crashes and move my files to a new computer. I achieved all of this without any difficulty and without worrying that my data had been lost.

One caveat that I must mention is that the point of a backup system is to recover your data in the event of a data loss. Thus, you need to regularly make sure that your backups are properly saving your data and that they are not becoming corrupted. A corrupted back up is the same as having no back up.

Becoming Paperless: The Process

I have said before that becoming paperless is a mindset. It is not about the technology, though you will need technology to accomplish it. Further, it is not about getting rid of paper in your life. If you are an attorney, there will still be paper in your life. Instead, it is about deciding that you no longer want to be a slave to the paper. It is about deciding that you will handle your documents electronically, rather than as paper.

As I look back on my career, I now see the first baby step that I took toward becoming paperless. I had been practicing for a few years and, like most other attorneys that I knew, I took a copy of the court file with me to each court appearance. Further, unless the case file was exceptionally large, I took a copy of the entire file. One day, while my back was hurting from lugging case files around, I asked myself why I was carrying the entire file. I quickly realized that I had no good reason.

From that day forth, when I went to court, I took with me only the documents that I thought might be necessary for that court appearance. Often, that is only a copy of the last order entered in the case. In doing this, I quickly learned the joy of freedom over my paper. I also realized that I have never once ended up in court wishing that I had my entire case file rather than the documents that I selected to bring with me.

That realization is similar to the same sense of freedom that I had once I decided to create a paperless office. I realized that I could control the paper, not the other way around.

Becoming paperless does take some time, however, it is not rocket science. Anyone who can manage law school and the bar exam can handle converting their office to a paperless office.

Recently, Ernie the Attorney posted a great primer on The 3 Phases of Becoming Paperless. In his post, Ernie takes you through the three phases of becoming paperless: (1) Optimize your digital skills in general; (2) Keep digital information in digital form; and (3) Learn to digitize information.

I cannot argue with anything Ernie says in this post. Instead, what I will say is that the new year is often the time that people make resolutions. This is my suggestion to you: If you do not currently run a paperless office, go read Ernie’s post, find out where you are in his three phases, and commit to taking the next step. Change takes some time. However, don’t be afraid of taking that first step. Except for firing a toxic employee, I can’t think of a single thing that you can do to improve the efficiency of your office more than converting your office to a paperless office.

I believe this and I live this. If you are thinking about going paperless and you still aren’t sure where to start or what to do, shoot me an email or give me a call. I will be happy to answer your questions.

Going Paperless: Another View

Moving my practice to a paperless practice was one of the best things I have ever done. The efficiency has paid off for me many times over. Not only does it allow me to practice from wherever I happen to be, it also allows me to practice without large amounts of overhead in staff salaries.

A recent post at Lawyerist.com highlights 5 reasons that the author is glad that he went paperless. In reviewing his post, I have to agree with what he says. The reasons he gives are:

  • I hate filing
  • I don’t like carrying around a lot of stuff
  • I save time searching
  • I like to share
  • I have castrophe paranoia.

Read his post for an explanation of each. However, if I were to pick just one of his five that I agree with the most, it would be number 2. I too hate carrying a bunch of things, however, I like having access to all of my information. Being paperless allows me to achieve both goals. As the author explains:

Most lawyers regularly go home with a stack of files. That’s a lot of lifting and carrying for a desk job. If you handle even moderately-complex matters, bringing the file home may require a hand cart or a couple of junior associates.

Not me. I don’t even carry a briefcase most days. My files are digital, and I sync them up in the cloud so I can access them from any computer—my laptop at home, or even my smartphone.

This goes for court, depositions, and other meetings, too. All I need to bring is a laptop, phone, or iPad, and I can get to my entire firm filing cabinet.

I can’t remember the last time that I carried more than just a few pages to court with me. Most of the time, I don’t even have that. I just take my computer.

What Going Paperless Means to Me

One of the problems that I have when describing my paperless practice to others is the fact that my practice is not really paperless. I use plenty of paper. In fact, a couple of days ago, I mailed out close to 100 pages of paper in court filings and courtesy copies. Because of this, I have, at times, had trouble explaining exactly what I am talking about.

Fortunately for me, I have found the answer I have been looking for. I recently checked out the About Page on the Going Paperless blog by Molly DiBianca. In that About Page, she explains:

Although there seems to be a whole lot of chatter about what exactly a “paperless office” is, exactly, I’d suggest it’s not so complicated.  Certainly, I still use paper.  And plenty of it, truth be told.  The “paperless” part is not that paper is not used–it’s that paper is irrelevant.  In a paperless office (at least as I’ve defined it), there is no reliance on a paper file. Everything (and I mean everything) is filed electronically using a document-management system.

This system didn’t come together overnight. It took practice and tweaking.  It also took dedication to build the trust in the system that is necessary before abandoning paper files altogether.  But it does work and, honestly, it’s really easy to use.

I think this encapsulates the idea of a paperless office perfectly. Yes, I have and go through plenty of paper in my office. However, that is because the systems of third parties make me do so. For me, however, the paper is irrelevant.

The more I think about the concept of a paperless office, the more I am starting to believe that it is a state of mind much more than a process. Sure, you have to implement proper processes to make sure that it is working properly. However, a paperless office must first start in your mind.

You must convince yourself that you do not need the paper version of a document to work with it. Once you start down this path, I believe that you will quickly discover that it is, in fact, more efficient to work with an electronic copy of a document than with a paper copy. However, you will never reach that discovery if you do not first shift your state of mind to an understanding that you need not rely on the paper files.

Renumbering Your PDFs

I work with PDFs a lot. I can’t tell you the last time I pulled a paper file to look at a document in it. Instead, I look only at my electronic copy of a file. Navigating in a PDF, however is not always the easiest thing to do, especially if the creator did not include bookmarks or other reference points.

An additional problem can arise when you are working with a document that has different styles of page numbers. An example is a brief, that may include pages i through x for the prefatory matters and Arabic numbers after that.

At her blog Going Paperless, Molly DiBianca, provides a useful, easy to follow, step-by-step tutorial on how to remumber your pages in a PDF.

The process she describes is easy to do and it is post I definitely recommend that you check out.

New Jersey and Virtual Offices

I know that I am late to this party, but I have been watching the debate over the joint opinion from New Jersey’s Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics and Committee on Attorney Advertising (note that this link is to a PDF copy of the opinion). I have read the opinion and, in all honesty, it doesn’t make much sense to me. I understand the idea behind having a “bona fide” office. However, I find the arguments advanced in the opinion to be very unpersuasive.

For example, one of the arguments is:

A “virtual office” location is not a place where a client can meet with the attorney unannounced. An attorney is not routinely found at a “virtual office” location and would need to make arrangements to reserve the space. Accordingly, while “virtual office” locations may be listed on attorney or law firm letterhead, websites, or other advertisements, the communication must state that the location is “by appointment only.”

Strangely enough, although I have always maintained an office in a commercial building, I have never considered my office as a “place where a client can meet with the attorney unannounced.” Is this something that happens regularly in New Jersey that just does not happen in Illinois? I mean my doctor maintains a physical office (2 or 3 actually), but I have never just dropped in to see him unannounced. I am not quite sure what the concern is here.

Similarly, the opinion asserts that the receptionist in a virtual office space does not qualify as a responsible person:

A “virtual office” cannot be a bona fide office since the attorney generally is not present during normal business hours but will only be present when he or she has reserved the space. Moreover, the receptionist at a “virtual office” does not qualify as a “responsible person acting on the attorney’s behalf” who can “answer questions posed by the courts, clients or adversaries.” Presumably, the receptionist can redirect a telephone call to the attorney lessee of the “virtual office” much like an answering service, but would not be privy to legal matters being handled by the attorney and so would be unable to “act[] on the attorney’s behalf” in any matter.

The ACPE notes that, in general, an attorney should not permit the receptionist of a “virtual office” to field telephone calls to the attorney. Prospective clients calling an attorney or law firm assume that they are reaching an employee and may disclose confidential and sensitive information.

No offense, but this simply ridiculous. How is contracting with a receptionist to maintain information confidential any different from contracting with a secretary to maintain confidential information. I just don’t understand this argument. The person answering your telephone can handle your calls only to the extent that they have been properly trained to handle the calls. That is true whether the person answering the phone is an employee or a contracted receptionist.

Similarly, by the argument made here, I would conclude that if you are not regularly in the office, your office is no longer a bona fide office if your receptionist is sick or goes on vacation. Even if you hire a temp, the reality is that the temp will not be able to answer questions posed by” courts, clients, or adversaries.” Similarly, there is nothing that would prevent “clients calling an attorney or law firm assume that they are reaching an employee and may disclose confidential and sensitive information.”

Without question, attorneys have a duty to maintain confidentiality, protect client files, remain accessible,  and to ensure that they do not mislead their clients. However, this opinion does not ensure that any of these objectives are achieved. Instead, it simply ensures that good attorneys are limited in the options they can use to best serve themselves and their clients.

Saving Time by Going Paperless

As usual, Ernie the Attorney has it exactly right:

The advantages of being paperless are many, but it’s hard to appreciate them until you stop storing information in paper and learn to be comfortable with digital information.  Once you do, you’d never go back to dealing with paper.

This is the problem that I run into all of the time. People I talk to seem to understand the advantages of going paperless. They seem to accept the fact that having immediate access to a document is an advantage over keeping the paper document in a file somewhere. However, I think this knowledge is theoretical only. It’s as if the attorneys I speak to recognize the benefits of going paperless, they just don’t believe that it is something they can achieve.

Both Ernie and I, as well as many others can tell you that you can go paperless. If going paperless is something you are considering, accept the fact that it is possible. Plunge in and make the change. You will never regret it.

Some Great Web Site Advice

Amber Sparks provides some great website advice. In a recent post, she said:

I tell anyone I meet—are you selling something? Then get a goddamn website. It’s not hard to do. In fact, it can be free. And yes, if you are a writer you’re selling something. Even if it’s just an image. Even if it’s just access to your work. Even it’s just you. Please get a website, writers. It’s so sad when you don’t have a web presence. You’re not a mystery. You’re just… not there.

Although she was speaking mostly to writers, I think the advice applies equally well to attorneys.

I am constantly amazed at the number of attorneys I run into who have no web presence. My philosophy with respect to them is the same as my philosophy about attorneys who do not accept credit cards. Feel free to continue your ways. I will be more than happy to service your clients.

Hat tip to Evan Schaeffer at Beyond the Underground for tipping me off to Amber’s post.