Less Paper vs. Paperless Offices: Improving Your Law Firm's Efficiency
Any attorney or law firm administrator who has been in the business for any period of time will probably tell you that law firms used to run on paper — an astonishing amount of paper, in the form of memos, case filings, motions, pleadings, timesheets, invoices, new client intake forms, expense reports, check requests, financial reporting, notes and so much more.
While that's shifted over the past couple of decades with email systems, electronic filing systems and document management systems assisting firms with delivering paper electronically most firms still handle and file a surprising amount of paper every day. Think about it. Does your firm still use paper for any of these tasks? Does your firm consider this efficient?
- New client or matter intake forms
- Conflict search results reporting
- Expense report forms
- Check request forms
- Copies of client invoices
- Change of address forms
- Rate change request forms
- Billing write-off approval forms
- Time entries manual tracking methods
- Invoices to clients through regular mail with postage
- Billing drafts and pen and paper billing editing
- Outstanding invoices and delinquent accounts receivable follow up
- Financial reporting
- Image backup of accounts payable invoices, expense receipts and client filing invoices
More than likely, you answered yes to at more than a few of these, and you’d love to be able to generate less paper in the office. But is “less paper” the same as creating a “paperless” office with the built in efficiencies that come with it?
What's the Difference between Less Paper and Paperless?
"Less paper" and "paperless" sound pretty similar — are we just arguing semantics here? Actually, we're not. Less paper is just that: less paper. You're still using paper, but you're reducing the amount of paper that is stored. Going paperless on the other hand is about making your firm’s workflows paperless as well — you actually do the work electronically without creating paper in the first place. In a “less paper” office, you may generate a pre-bill (draft invoice) digitally, but it’s soon printed and passed back-and-forth for editing and revisions. Then someone must duplicate the edits in the billing system to create the edited version, save it, print it again and do a final check for accuracy. Having a digital file of this pre-bill (draft invoice) has created less paper that must be stored, but the process is still offline and time consuming.
Using less paper by eliminating stored physical files is a great place to start and will create some definite cost savings and efficiencies, helping reduce the environmental impact of using paper in the process. But firms that take it a step further by going paperless will do all of that and create a more efficient and well-organized office.
The Benefits of a Going Paperless
First, firms that commit to going paperless will realize greater efficiencies almost immediately. Law firms that still rely heavily on paper can spend an enormous amount of time over the course of a year making and keeping paper files, keeping those files organized, retrieving files to review and photocopying or scanning records for clients or opposing counsel, not to mention the internal papers generated like new client intake, expense reimbursements, client check requests and copies of client invoices that are ongoing daily processes happening in law firms.
Going paperless addresses and resolves those inefficiencies. For firms with overflowing file storage rooms, or lost productivity scanning and storing these documents manually, this can result in marked and significant improvements in the way attorneys and staff work because there is a single source of truth that everyone can rely on for accurate and up-to-date information. Collaboration among personnel in different locations becomes easier in a paperless environment, and sharing records requires only a few mouse clicks — no need to wait for a courier to arrive with photocopies. The built-in efficiencies to reduce duplicative work within the firm to accomplish these paper dependent processes immediately allow the firm to realize gained productivity for the firm and with their clients.
Those efficiencies also mean firms are able to position themselves to be more competitive in the long run to better land new business and better serve clients. And, at the end of the day, that's what attorneys and law firms are here to do. Making a client wait while you pull their paper file, or a call to accounting to reproduce an invoice, expense or filing receipt backup in today's digital world can make your firm look unintentionally outdated. Going paperless means you'll be able to retrieve the right information or document on your screen in moments. Your technology should allow for storage and retrieval easily and immediate without the need to keep network folders or paper copies that are inefficient and difficult to search and find things.
Last, but certainly not least, going paperless results in cost savings for the firm. A recent Telegraph article about the merits of moving to a paperless office put the annual cost to U.S. businesses of filing, storing and retrieving paper records between $25 billion and $35 billion. Besides reducing expenses for paper, ink and toner, and things like printer maintenance and repair, law firm personnel can find more productive uses for their time. And, don't forget about that overflowing file room — you'll be able to recover that space and use it more productively too.
Developing Paperless Workflows Firmwide
Ultimately when you decide to make the switch to a paperless office, you’ll need to put some thought and effort into implementing not only a document management system but also a financial accounting system that can help you create workflows online so you’re not creating and generating a digital document only to print it out for lawyers and staff to use. But creating paperless workflows is doable and worth the time investment!
One of the first steps in the process for firms is taking a critical look at everyday firm workflows, and redefining what those will look like in a paperless world. Your firm's workflows need to be designed to help your firm function more efficiently, so begin with the workflows that will save you the most time and energy by going paperless: client intake and conflicts, accounts payable, billing, client invoice and accounts receivable management could be a great place for your firms to start.
Because every firm is a little bit different, your firm's workflows (the process you implement) might not look like your competitor's workflows, and that's okay. Paperless efficiencies give you the flexibility and adaptability you need to grow your firm.
Here are a few areas you should also think about while you’re developing a paperless workflow:
Backlog of Existing Paper Files
For starters, take a close look at the paper documents you are currently using and storing. Which of those documents do you need to keep? Which can be shredded, and which should be returned to your clients? What is your electronic imaging plan?
Paper Entering the Office
What will you do with new paper that comes into the office? Will you maintain all incoming records in a paperless fashion using workflow technologies or document management systems, or just some of them? Consider all of the types of paper documents that come into your office, including client and general firm documents.
When all's said and done, you want your paperless system to be useful for everyone, So, it's worth spending some time up front designing a process that will actually accomplish that goal.
Consider how to best organize and store your electronic files for easy access both from inside and outside the office. You will most likely need a combination of technology solutions to best manage this with document management and financial management systems.
Also, review who should have access to electronic records. This will generally be the same people who had access to the paper records, but it's worth re-evaluating that as you consider your workflows.
This ABA article provides some examples of paperless office workflows and lists additional questions firms should consider when choosing to move to a paperless environment.
The Clear Winner Is...
When it comes to the battle of Less Paper v. Paperless, there's a clear winner. Choosing to move your law office to a paperless environment can result in process efficiencies, better client service and cost savings. Be sure to approach the decision deliberately, so your paperless office will do what you need it to do in both the short term and in the years to come.