Eliminating the mountains of paper that accumulates in the modern business office has been a quixotic endeavor for probably the last 30 years – when the ubiquity of modern technologies like scanners, copiers and fax machines (which essentially are all the same thing) and networked computer systems, theoretically put the dream of the paperless office within reach.
As a practical matter though, many businesses that invested in paperless office systems were frustrated by the cost, complexity and efficiencies of paperless systems, and simply threw in the towel and bought more filing cabinets.
Within the last few years, however, great strides have been made in electronic storage and retrieval systems, and the advent of cloud computing has at last made a paperless office an achievable reality.
I had the pleasure of attending the recent American Bar Association Tech Show in Chicago, and can state with confidence that moving to a paperless environment – or a nearly paperless environment is easily within the reach of even small firms. For the record, I am a solo legal practitioner with a focus on business transactions and corporate governance.
Storage and Retrieval
The majority of a firm’s documents will likely already be in an electronic format, either because they are created by the firm, or are received in an electronic format by email or other transmission device. Accordingly, the question becomes how to efficiently store and easily retrieve the documents when they are needed.
While electronic documents can be stored on from your firm’s computer network or computer hard drive, this makes out of office retrieval more difficult. If your firm is large enough, you probably have an IT department that can provide you remote access to your firm’s network, via, for example, a virtual private network. Even here, however, access can be hit or miss, and can create security risks.
Also, trying to find a specific electronic document utilizing only a simple file/server (i.e. folder) structure can be an exercise in frustration.
Cloud based storage is one attractive solution to this problem. Services such as Dropbox, Evernote and Sugarsync allow users to store electronic documents on remote servers in the “cloud,” where they are accessible to authorized users with internet access, no matter where they are located.
As part of the storage process, the documents can be stored in virtual folders (for example, by matter name), and “tagged” for easy retrieval by whatever search criteria is used by the firm. Folders and documents can be shared with other firm members, which helps avoid multiple copies of the same electronic document being saved by individual users. Dropbox automatically stores previous versions of a document, and a creates a record of the edit history. These services are almost ridiculously inexpensive. Dropbox for Teams, for example, will allow one terabyte of data storage (that’s 1,000 gigabytes) for as little as $795. That is a very low cost alternative to buying and maintaining your own data servers.
Scanners and Scanning
Here is where the rubber really hits the road of a paperless environment. To go paperless, you will have to convert paper documents into electronic files and store them. In my experience, it makes more sense to create a firm policy that all paper documents received after a certain date be scanned and stored per the firm’s storage protocols. Legacy paper can be scanned in, if desired, as time and circumstances permit.
So, what type of scanner? The answer to this will depend on the volume of paper your firm generally handles.
If your practice has you routinely handling a large volume of lengthy paper documents, you will need to look at high capacity scanners that can handle the load. Few things are more frustrating than trying to scan a 150 page document on a scanner that will only handle 25 pages at a time.
As a solo attorney, I find that I have relatively little paper that requires scanning, and the nature of my practice is such that most paper documents are of relatively few pages. Accordingly, I opted for a lower capacity scanner with a footprint small enough that it easily sits on my desk for easy access.
And here’s a tip: ease of access is important. To the maximum feasible extent, each user should scan his or her own documents into the storage and retrieval system, and having the scanner sitting on the user’s desk makes this very easy. User’s should generally scan their own documents because they are presumably the most familiar with the document’s contents, and can more quickly file and tag than a clerical worker. And believe me, if you think you are going to get up from your desk and walk to your secretary’s desk or a central office scanner every time you need a document scanned, you should think again. The whole idea is to build the scanning into the workflow of your office in as efficient and painless a way as possible.
Personally, I opted for a Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300. It takes up practically no room on my desk, and scans documents of up to 25 pages in – well – a snap!
My ScanSnap quickly and quietly scans multipage documents of varying sizes. You can use the included ScanSnap Organizer software to easily file your scanned documents into a virtual filing cabinet, or, if you prefer, you can use a third-party application like OfficeDrop and scan directly into EverNote, Dropbox and other cloud based document storage systems.
So, in conclusion, it’s time to replace those stacks of paper and boxes out of your office chairs and off your credenza and join the revolution. You, your staff and the environment will appreciate it.