Law firms are drowning in paper. Members of the legal profession generate a lot of physical documents and accumulate even more. While many might argue, and rightfully so, that a totally digital law firm is wishful thinking, it is certainly possible to be less reliant on paper.
When the sudden onset of COVID-19 forced firms into remote working scenarios, many had to cobble together hardware, software, and communications processes without much planning or training. Because firm members worked from numerous remote locations, many adopted a less-paper strategy. Now that things are somewhat returning to normal, many firms are realizing their digital processes need refining or, for some, a total overhaul.
BENEFITS OF GOING DIGITAL
Once firms take the leap to go digital, typically the only regret is that they didn’t do so sooner. What follows are some of the numerous benefits of going digital.
Lowering costs is a huge benefit of going digital. It’s also a persuasive talking point when seeking buy-in from partners and support staff. Who doesn’t want to save money?
Going digital means buying less paper. It saves on printer and copier costs (less wear and tear, less toner.) It also preserves staff time — no longer do people have to stand in front of the copier tediously duplicating documents.
Many firms keep client documents in manila or red-rope folders. Maintaining files digitally alleviates (or greatly reduces) the need to maintain a stock of costly folders. Another huge benefit of going digital is the reduced expense for file storage.
Imagine how much time you could save — and could bill instead — if you didn’t have to physically locate, review, and organize client files. Historically, when a client called, you told them you needed to pull their file and call them back, resulting in 15 minutes of administrative time that could have been billed. If you billed 15 minutes each day at $300 per hour, that’s an additional $19,500 per year in income. Now imagine you saved (and therefore billed) 15 minutes each from two phone calls per day; that’s an annual income increase of $39,000.
Having your files at your fingertips enables you to be much more efficient than you would be dealing with paper files. Eliminating the need to get up from your workspace and search for files saves precious time throughout the day. A digital office enables you to access your documents from anywhere, and it minimizes the risk of losing documents, which is more likely with physical files.
Better client service
Digital files mean quick access to client information. That instant access impresses clients, giving them the security and confidence that you are up to speed on their matter.
Getting a commitment from your team to move toward digital files is the key to starting your journey. To prepare for getting this commitment, you must first understand the steps needed to create your digital environment.
Goals should be specific and measurable. Do you want to eliminate client files altogether or just minimize paper use? Regardless, you must clearly identify what you hope to accomplish.
Once you have a sense of what you hope to achieve as you pursue your digital practice, determine how to get where you want to go. Review and analyze your current processes and workflows. How could you do things differently? Which areas need improvement? Which processes could be more efficient?
Involve your staff
You need your entire team to be involved. It’s no secret that when people have ownership in a change, they are much more likely to push for a successful outcome compared to when they are merely told what to do.
Your staff has valuable insight into what works and what doesn’t. Encourage their input at every step of the planning process. Resistance from even one person can lessen the chances of success. Some people are attached to paper and may not want to give it up because it’s tangible and familiar. Change often provokes anxiety.
Be a role model
Your firm’s digital leaders must be positive role models. These leaders should be in positions of authority within the firm and acknowledge that the transition may result in bumps and bruises along the way, but the outcome will be worth it.
Ensure complete compliance
Even if your digital implementation plan is in place and your firm is humming along like a well-oiled machine, it’s not the time to be complacent. It’s important to have a mechanism to measure the effectiveness of your new system and ensure everyone complies with your plan. There are many ways to accomplish this; it may be driven by your definition of “effective,” or by the goals you sought to achieve through less reliance on paper.
A method of measuring the effectiveness of your processes and staff compliance is establishing a team of individuals from your firm to meet regularly and provide feedback on what is working, what isn’t working, and which procedures or workflows may need revision to accomplish your desired results. Input from your team keeps the lines of communication open, ensures your processes and workflows are revised as needed, solidifies staff buy-in, and leads to better client service.
Prepare for negativity
It’s inevitable that at some juncture, change will be met with negativity. Some people thrive on constancy. Resistance to change is sometimes based in fear. There is often at least one person in a firm who adheres to the belief that processes and procedures should not change because “it’s always been done it that way.” Well-thought-out responses to perceived negative remarks equip you to deal with naysayers.
Eliminate file cabinets and physical files
Once you have implemented your digital process and are confident it’s working, get rid of file cabinets and physical files. The plan to go digital was based upon your goals to get rid of paper and lower overhead costs. Keeping paper files and storage units only entices those wedded to paper to deviate from the plan.
BUILD A CHAIN WITH NO WEAK LINKS
Too many firms approach their digital office as a work in progress, which is dangerous. What follows are the main considerations for those planning to take the digital leap, understanding that the biggest risks associated with going digital typically focus on retrieval issues and/or security issues.
While digitizing documents is a fairly easy process, finding them can be difficult. It is crucial to have a formalized policy on file naming conventions. In many firms, individual practice areas develop their own protocols. Many don’t have protocols. While a few people within a team might find saved files, an outsider would most likely be unable to do so — or at least not easily. When paper files and digital files are both maintained, the saved digital file need not be as accessible as it would in a completely digital world. Take away the paper and the need for digital access increases.
Another key component of a digital system is incorporating excellent search software to ensure keywords can immediately produce all digital documents consistent with the query. Document management software includes excellent search functionality along with its many other features.
Timing is everything
Emphasize the importance of ensuring everything associated with a particular matter is scanned properly and timely and saved digitally. If others associated with that matter believe all documents have been digitally saved but there are documents scattered around the office, it can be a recipe for disaster. Unknowingly relying on an incomplete file can lead to duplicating work and creating confusion and could easily result in a breach of the standard of practice, laying the groundwork for a malpractice action.
A digital policy must include document destruction guidelines with procedures that maintain the confidence of clients. Considerations to drafting this policy include document storage before and after scanning; notification on documents verifying they have been scanned and can be destroyed; and computer system backup procedures — always maintain documents until your system has been backed up, which should occur nightly.
Another digital risk factor is calendaring important dates and deadlines prior to digitizing and destroying documents. If a document with an important date or deadline has been digitized without being added to the calendaring system, it is unlikely that date will ever make it there. Conversely, when maintaining paper files, an individual might continually run across the document when working on a matter and realize an important date had not been captured. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” applies to a digital practice, making good date-capture processes imperative.
There are many security issues associated with going digital. Specifically, with remote and mobile lawyering, maintaining client confidences is not always easy. The common practice of keeping digital information on various devices results in instances where confidences might be compromised. Cloud-based storage and lost laptops, tablets, or smartphones — the list of possible breaches goes on. Unencrypted data, even if properly secured, could lead to a nightmare scenario.
Back it up
Consider system backup procedures. A system crash, fire, water damage, or any other event resulting in lost data sets the stage for not just one possible malpractice action, but several.
A digital practice can be a reality with proper planning and the right policies and procedures. Up next: We will discuss hardware and software considerations for your digital practice in the January Michigan Bar Journal.