Achieving the Paperless Law Firm

Author: Richard Shaw
Posted: April 28, 2016

We recently took some time out to catch up with Andrew West, a partner at leading Suffolk law firm, Gotelee Solicitors, for his opinion on the perceived benefits and practicalities of the paperless law firm.

His comments were very insightful, so over to Andrew…

The Benefits of Paper-free Document Management

“I think as a firm, achieving a paperless office is something we would always aspire to, but achieving a ‘paper-light’ office is more of a reality. Aside from the obvious environmental advantages, there are many business benefits:

  • Improved speed and efficiency in work processes
  • Improved client communication and service
  • Easily searchable electronic document archives
  • Ability to work remotely (more effectively) without the need for a physical file
  • Storage space and cost savings due to the reduction in paper archiving
  • Easier and enhanced disaster recovery following fire, theft or flooding
  • Heightened data security and risk management

Having access to information long after a physical file might have been destroyed – subject to our data protection obligations – is obviously a major advantage, too.”

The Perceived Risks

“Most of these challenges will come from human or computer error, and arguably, they pose no greater risk than what we’d face with a paper-based workflow. These are the risks as I perceive them:

  • Issues with the scanning process
  • Documents saved to the wrong file or not saved at all
  • Corrupted data
  • Security issues
  • The system going down

As I said, most of these would be just as big a threat if we were working with paper files and document bundles – the permanent or partial loss of a file, or any papers within it, arguably presents greater risk, with the security offered by back ups of electronic data.

In an age of digital dictation and e-mail, if the system is down, whether the source file is paper, electronic or a mixture of both, you’re still somewhat stranded.

A stable IT platform is still an absolute requirement.”

The Practicalities of Going Paper-Light

“The majority of what we do at Gotelee Solicitors could be converted from paper-based processes to an electronic document management system.

The main obstacle is getting over the legal profession’s love of paper!

A paper file is often perceived as being more useful in situations where a fee earner is otherwise engaged away from their office computer (e.g. when working from home or commuting via train or attending court). Physical files are also considered easier to present to clients, especially where a signature is required – although, electronic signatures are likely to become more prevalent.

Skim reading to glean background information (and highlighting relevant sections) is arguably easier with a paper-based file, but again, as technology improves and user behaviour evolves, this ‘concern’ is likely to diminish over time.

In industry terms, we’re still in the transitional stage of converting from book-based knowledge to fully embracing online resources. The jury is out with some of our partners on the use of online reference materials, but for new talent coming through the door, it’s the expectation that everything, including know-how resources and client files/documents, will be online and accessible via their tablet, phone or laptop.

Full buy-in to the paper-free or paper-light concept could be a hard sell, as the cost of the initial conversion might seem expensive. I have no doubt that the benefits and cost-savings, as well as the flexibility of working in a paper-light environment, would soon shine through, but a solid business case would need to be put forward in the first instance.”

Resistance to Change?

“I anticipate that any resistance to the implementation of electronic document management would be borne more out of a mindset built on paper, rather than issues with the solution itself. But by analogy, who’d want to go back to sending urgent communications by fax? I think I last received a fax about 12 years ago!

Receiving and reviewing ‘post’ is becoming a thing of the past, too; with the vast majority of communications and documents sent by e-mail. Most firms have electronic case management systems, where case file data is stored, and workflows create efficiencies, so it would be a natural progression for all remaining documents to be scanned and saved to a server or into the cloud.

As a firm committed to reducing its carbon footprint, I believe Gotelee Solicitors could achieve a paper-light office within a fairly short timeframe.

It’s definitely something we’ll be exploring further.”

If you’d like to know more about secure document management for law firms, please get in touch with our expert consultants today.

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