By Richard Hugo-Hamman, Chief Executive Officer at LEAP Legal Software.

The "Paperless Office" has been talked about for years, but the reality still remains elusive to most law firms. Is the paperless office a realistic goal for law firms?

Some lawyers have a system whereby every email they send and receive is printed out and placed carefully in a manila folder. What a waste of time and money. I don’t run a law firm but I have visited many over the years and I can say yes, there are paperless law firms operating today. I have seen them and it really does work.

Changing from paper to paperless takes courage and the acceptance that properly stored electronic data is far more secure, safe and accessible than we ever thought possible. Our work habits have also changed dramatically so we now need to ensure we have the right technology. The smartphone/tablet is having as profound an impact on how we work as the desktop PC did a generation ago. It is this mobile element that is driving the paperless revolution.

The way forward is by using a system that integrates your matter, document and accounting requirements in a single application. And to ensure that it is easy to use wherever you are, a cloud based system is best.

Going paperless in 5 steps:

Incoming documents

Today most correspondence arrives electronically. It should be easy for you to associate every incoming document with the correct matter. The conundrum is what to do with incoming documents. From observation of clients, these are triaged, literally, and treated as follows:

- Letters and other documents where the existence of the original is unimportant — scan to the matter and destroy the original.

- Documents where the original is important and you need to keep it permanently — scan to a Safe Custody record and store the documents in an organised Safe Custody facility.

- A good scanning system is critical to enable this to happen and you should be able to scan conveniently to a matter directly from a scanner on your desk or nearby.

Outgoing documents

Every document in every form should have its original stored against the matter. With a good system, whenever you create a piece of correspondence or other document, the new document will automatically be associated with the matter you are working on. If not, you should be able to easily add it to the matter. If you produce documents and then have to scan them in order to add them to your document management system, well … it’s time for an upgrade.

Precedent letters and forms and complex documents

The old tendency to keep ‘a good one’ in the bottom drawer is probably embedded in our human nature as lawyers, but the problem is no-one else will know it’s there.

Whether a simple letter, a complex family court form or a deed of trust, you should have these easily available, when needed. A good system will provide you with a stock of “off the shelf” forms and precedents, as well as a way to easily and economically incorporate your own precedents into the system. If there is only one place to store the document, then there is only one way to find it.

Invoices and reports

If you’re relying on your bookkeeper to produce your bills, then chances are you’re behind the curve. With a good system you can easily find, view, create and email an invoice, all without a bookkeeper or piece of paper in sight.

If you can, as you should be able to, create any report at any time for any time period, then there is no need to keep reports in paper form at all. Some firms even keep copies of receipts ‘for the file’ unnecessarily. Your system should make it easy for you to provide a duplicate of a receipt or any other document.

Time Records and Contemporaneous Notes

Making your attendance records in a paper file or even on a specially created paper ‘timesheet’ is inefficient, often inaccurate, and the cost of these errors can be enormous. If you just record all attendances on your smartphone or desktop as and when they occur, accuracy will increase and so will your billings. Time stamped, they are your ultimate record of your work.

Paperless reporting can offer many benefits to a practice, including reduced storage requirements and immediate comparison of past accounting/sales periods. Secure and encrypted off-site storage assists with business continuity and disaster recovery planning, and remote access for the accountant reduces audit costs significantly.

Electronic working means that a lawyer can easily work on a file from home in the evening or at the weekend, without having to take a paper file home with no risk of leaving a folder on the train or having it stolen from a car. As technology advances and applications become faster and more efficient, it is no wonder that more and more firms are moving towards the paperless office. Will you?