How to Manage a Paperless Office
(with the software you already have)
As a Paralegal and IT Manager who is obsessed with doing things on the cheap and who has seen a firm go from 1% paperless to 99% paperless within a very short timeframe, I can’t wait to share some information I’ve picked up along the way–and give you the computer files you need to get on the paperless fast track.
You won’t just get the description of a method to keep track of your documents–I’ll give you the spreadsheets and macros to do it with. I won’t just tell you what filenames to give your emails when you save them–you’ll get an automated script for Outlook that will name them for you.
This post is not intended to recreate a lot of information that is already readily available, so it will move past some things very quickly and focus on the details of this specific system and the files I am providing. If you want more help on anything mentioned here, simply email me at email@example.com and I will nerd-out with you to any degree you wish.
This post is written from the perspective of a small law firm, but if you don’t fall into that category you can still use almost everything I am providing here.
Now on to the good stuff.
Everything You Need
(and probably already have)
The first thing you need is computer equipment. Desktops, laptops, cell phones, and tablets are great in any combination. You knew this, so we’ll move right along.
The second thing you need is a scanner. This is how your office becomes an island of paperlessness in an ocean of paper. Many documents come into your office electronically to begin with more, but there will always be some paper that finds its way to you. There are great articles detailing different types of scanning equipment, but this isn’t one of them. Decide how many scanners you want, what your budget is, and go forth and purchase! I will offer a couple of things to consider which may not be obvious:
- How fast does it scan each page? You are not saving your firm money by buying a slow scanner and paying your support staff to watch the pages inching through the machine at a snail’s pace.
- What quality does it scan images at? Better isn’t better. It may cost a premium to get high quality scanned images, and when you see how big the file sizes are (and what court e-filing systems can handle) you will be scanning in black and white at two or three hundred DPI (very low quality) almost all the time, anyway. Color output will come in handy on occasion, though, like when you encounter colorful highlighting that your black and white scanner sees as being black–effectively turning the highlighting into redaction.
The third thing you need is Microsoft Office. We will be using this in ways you haven’t before–in place of a document management system that would otherwise cost you thousands of dollars.
And, finally, you need PDF Software. You may already have or be most familiar with Adobe products. In our office we use similar software made by Nuance (it came free with our office copier/scanner). The better you know your PDF software the happier you will be–so spend a little time learning how to rotate pages, change the order of pages, zoom efficiently, etc. It will be well worth the time investment. If you wouldn’t employ support staff to hold a piece of paper for you and move it nearer or farther from your eyes as needed then you need to be able to competently use the zoom feature on your PDF software for the exact same reason.
(where does it all go?)
You put time into deciding how to organize your paper files, so now you need to put time into planning your electronic files, too. Wait. No you don’t! You can just download the ready-made client file structure where I’ve already done all the work for you. The link is at the end of this post.
You do need a folder to store all of your files in that everyone in your office has easy and simultaneous access to. This can be a shared folder on your server which you access over a local network or something in the cloud. Just make it’s really easy to get to with a shortcut, assigned drive letter, etc. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on this as you probably already have something like this set up.
If you make your own file structure, or modify the one I have provided, I will give you a couple of quick tips that you would only fully appreciate if you experienced not following them. Trust me.
Limit the number of root folders (root folders meaning folders that you see when you first open up a client’s file–which will be further subdivided by sub-folders). It can quickly become a time sink if you have to scroll down to find the folder you want.
Limit the levels of subfolders. If you have to click down through too many layers of folders within folders within folders it will quickly become tedious. If you are creating folders designed to hold a single file or two, you have over-organized! Unlike in the paper world, it is completely fine to have a folder with hundreds of thousands of pages of documents in it (if it is well organized).
Every single electronic file that comes into your office should be immediately recognized as one of these types and filed correspondingly.
- Correspondence (letters, emails, etc.)
- Pleadings (the broader usage of the term here meaning “everything filed with the Court”)
- Attorney Work Product (notes, hearing prep, etc.)
- Documents (bank statements, real property titles, police reports, etc.)
- Drafts (pleadings, correspondence, etc. that are in the works)
- Administrative (things regarding your firm rather than a specific client. Invoices, office policies, templates for pleadings, general legal research, etc.)
Finding What You Need
Now everything that comes into your office immediately has a home in your electronic filing system. You just need to be able to locate it all. We’ll go one step further and let you sift and sort through them with ease to bring all the files you want to see at any given time right into view.
The key to keeping track of your files (without expensive document management software) is naming them well. If you do not strictly follow naming guidelines, you will not like the mess you end up with.
These naming guidelines may seem overly detailed at a glance, but when you are looking through a folder containing a thousand pieces of correspondence and you can find the specific letter you are looking for in a moment, you will be happy you were so carefully consistent. Plus, in practice it’s much simpler than the detailed procedure looks at a glance.
If you’re saying to yourself, “There is no way that every time I send an email I am going to save it as a file and record the date it was sent, the time it was sent, the fact that it was an email as opposed to a letter, who sent it, to whom it was sent, and what it was regarding” then you just said all of that to yourself for nothing–because I have prepared a script for Outlook that will manage all of that for you (link at the end of the post).
If you name your files well, that is all you really need to do to keep track of everything. However, I have found that an extra layer of organization is appropriate for documents and pleadings, so I use Excel spreadsheets. I have included ready-to-go Excel templates at the end of this post. Using these spreadsheets gives you a way to go beyond just finding one document you need quickly by allowing you to sort and filter all of your documents quickly, make notes about them, communicate about them within the office, etc. With the spreadsheets provided you can generate a list of, say, all of the disclosures provided by a specific party regarding real property sorted by property address and then by date of disclosure in a ten seconds flat. Using these spreadsheets should be pretty intuitive, but I will give you an important tip: only sort your data using the little arrows on the header row (just trust me on this).
Employing office policies like the examples you can download at the end of this post are absolutely recommended. Consistency is important which means concrete rules about how to name files, where to keep them and how to index them. Assuming everyone in your office will fall into an orderly pattern without a guideline to follow will be your first step on the path to chaos.
I have provided our office policies in their entirety as examples that can be used for your firm exactly as they are or with minimal modification, so I won’t go over every detail, but I will mention a few things so I can explain the underlying reasoning that may otherwise not be immediately apparent.
- Putting the date at the beginning of the filename in YYYYMMDD and the time with am or pm first is so that when you alphabetize the filenames they will be chronological. I also put periods between the year and month and the month and day (it makes the names two characters longer, but I find it easier to process at a glance). Example: 2015.10.25 p0331
- For your correspondence file I suggest following that with a correspondence “type” to make letters, faxes, etc. stand out from regular emails. I wouldn’t use more than a single letter for this.
- Using standardized abbreviations for the sender/receiver will keep the filenames short and make sure that everyone means the same thing when they abbreviate.
An example of folders you can use to process incoming documents, etc. are included in the download at the end of this post. These are referred to in the various procedures. Think of them as the electronic equivalent of inboxes. One good thing about paper is that it has to besomewhere. If you pass a paper draft to someone it cannot just pass into the ether–you know it actually exists somewhere in your office. If you move files through your digital inbox system in a similar fashion you won’t lost any files as they are being processed.
Putting the Files to Use
Once you have all of your files organized it is a cinch to put files together for disclosures, discovery, inclusion as enclosures with a letter, etc. I’ll go into detail on how to prepare an exhibit notebook, because if you can do that, you can do simpler output without any trouble at all.
Exhibit notebooks, for the most part,have to ultimately be paper whether your office is paperless or not. The trick is to keep them paperless until the very final step of printing them and dropping them into binders for court. Here are the things you can do electronically that you have likely done with physical paper and ink in the past.
- Choosing Exhibits. A paralegal can mark the exhibits an attorney will want for court just by indicating them on the pleadings and documents indexes (use the “sort ID” column for this purpose). The attorney can review and modify the selections the same way.
- Then the files can be copied to a new folder electrically for further processing. Chances are your PDF software can handle Bates stamping, redaction, and exhibit labels easily. You can find a ridiculous number of digital exhibit labels I made in the download at the end of this post. To save you some trial and error, the settings I use for Bates stamping are: 5 digits, Arial, 10pt, 0.03 inches from the right and bottom.
Going to Court
I recommend a fast, quiet, mobile printer and a laptop become your default bring-alongs for court. Don’t forget to think about power, also. There are courtrooms without easy access to a power outlet. You probably won’t need the printer, but if you ever find yourself saying, “Yes, Your Honor, I have that right here on my laptop” you want to immediately be able to follow that with, “and I would be happy to print copies right now for the Court and the parties.” You probably won’t need to print anything, but if you can’t print anything then you were better off bringing your client’s file in a dozen banker’s boxes to court with you.
Speaking of bringing the whole file with you, I recommend it. Don’t be choosy when deciding what portion of your electronic file to bring with you to court, just copy the whole thing to your laptop and take it with you. Do not count on files stored in the cloud. “Excuse me, Your Honor. May I please approach the witness? WiFi is stronger over there.”
You will need to decide how to reintegrate any changes you might make to the file while you are on the go with the copy that’s back at the office or in the cloud, and you will need to have a procedure for dealing with items that come in at the last moment. Pleadings might be filed between the time you load your laptop for court and the time the hearing starts. You know how it goes.
Cutting Out Paper
You will need to tie up a few other paper-related loose ends before you are completely paperless. I recommend creating a digital letterhead if you are going to send professional looking letters electronically. Sometimes a formal letter just seems more appropriate than a standard email, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use email to transmitthe signed letter on letterhead.
When you do have to print an envelope (I do this so rarely I have to remember where we keep them) print your own return address (and logo if you want) from Word. Pre-printed letterhead and envelopes belong in the past. If you are still paying for these at your local print shop, stop that! Don’t make me scold you again.
Getting a logo to print in your return address automatically in Word is a simple matter, but isn’t as intuitive. And by that I mean it is literally impossible to intuit. If you need help, just let me know.
Your business administration files may be the hardest thing for you to give up the paper on. While there may be a few ink originals you want to maintain, the vast majority of your administrative files –vendor contracts, invoices, receipts, leases, employee performance reviews, etc. can be stored paperlessly. If you have more than a drawerful of administrative files, try harder. We used to box up and send offsite old administrative files annually. Now we use that annual process to whittle down some of the few remaining paper files we have and review our electronic administrative file structure to make sure it is still being used uniformly by everyone.
- Sending large files via email. Once you have everything electronically stored you are going to run into the problem of wanting to send large files (disclosures, discovery, hearing exhibits, etc.) to others. Email is not ideal for this purpose. There is always a limit to how large a file you can send and how large a file that can be received, and you may not know either limit. I used to recommend Dropbox for this purpose, but they now require your recipients to create their own Dropbox account and strongly imply to your recipients that they need to download the Dropbox software to their computer just to access the files you sent them.. and if they don’t they will get follow-up emails from Dropbox. I think you’ll find the cloud services offered at familylawboard.com are much simpler. All your recipient will need from you is a link to the files and the password you created. They don’t even need to be members. End of shameless self-promotion.
- Consider OCRing your PDFs. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here, but this is the process of making the text of a scanned document searchable. The benefits of having your entire client file searchable by keyword should be obvious. There are balancing concerns of processing time, increased file sizes, and metadata issues.
- Make your electronic system match your paper system (at first, at least). Chances are you spent a good deal of time creating paper processes that have stood the test of time. Spend some time thinking through the exact electronic equivalent of an old paper system. You can refine your process from there. Little touches like using the same colored electronic folders to match your old paper filing system might make the transition more comfortable. I use blue digital file folders to hold pleadings because we used to keep them in blue pressboard binders. You can find millions of icons on the internet for your electronic folders, but I have included the few I use at the bottom of this post.
- If you are moving from a paper process to a paperless one, it’s okay to leave the training wheels on for a bit. If you don’t trust scanned documents, don’t shred the originals right away. If you want to take a laptop and bankers boxes containing your client’s file, do that. If someone at your firm likes taking notes on legal pads instead of iPads, fine– that’s what scanners are for. You will find yourself moving toward a fully paperless system automatically once you realize all the benefits, but don’t make the transition a jarring one.
- Change Default Thinking. Over the course of the conversion to paperless, you will hear, “this document is important so we should keep a paper copy” change to “this document is important, why hasn’t it been scanned and shredded?” Create an office culture that encourages careful evolution of process and it will just happen.
- Backup your data off site. Use a cloud backup service with versioning features. You couldn’t back up all of your paper files every night at a separate and safe location, but it’s easy to do this with digital files. Want to be able to roll back time on a draft or get back up and running after your whole office burns down before the smoke clears? You need a good backup system. Don’t skimp.
I hope you took something of value away from these tips and files I have provided. An enormous thank you to David S. Rolfe for allowing me, without hesitation, to share his firm’s policies, procedures, macros, etc. with the community. He paid me good wages (not that I’d reject a raise, if he’s reading this) to make these templates, macros, etc. and then he didn’t hesitate a moment when I asked if I could unfairly give it away to everyone else for free. He said something about not caring a whit about proprietary concerns. Cool points earned.
If you need help implementing any of these suggestions or files, I’m an email away. firstname.lastname@example.org or you can post your question as a reply to this post (that way someone else might benefit from the answer, too).
All of the files mentioned in this post are attached.