Lessons Learnt: Switching to a Paperless Office

The legal profession is one of the most document-heavy industries around, so how can your firm go paperless?

For hundreds of years, lawyers have been dealing with reams of paper, printing indictments and lengthy cases, posting out client letters and wordy submissions, faxing documents, printing discovered documents and producing voluminous legal tomes.

So with all the documents we receive in digital form these days – from emails to text messages, electronic documents, PDFs and online banking transactions – why convert them to paper? More importantly, what does paperless really mean and what benefits could it bring it your firm?

Why move to paperless?

Hayley Weber, WRMK Lawyers
Hayley Weber, WRMK Lawyers

Law firms around the world are starting to find ways to cut down on ‘physical’ files and paper reams. Progressive industry players have begun to save trees and cut overheads all at once with the new paperless model, particularly popular with sole practitioners and small firms.

We chatted with Hayley Weber, office manager at WRMK Lawyers, an innovative New Zealand law firm that successfully made the transition to paperless. Weber explained how the firm moved to paperless, improved their existing workflow system and managed to save the environment (and money) at the same time.

For WRMK Lawyers, the conversion to paperless made sense on a number of levels. The reasons for the transition included:

  • Improved client service.
  • Flexibility to work remotely (for example, they have a number of working mothers who benefit from working from home when the need arises).
  • Working more efficiently.
  • Consistency throughout the office.
  • Financial reasons (stationery costs and physical storage costs were reduced dramatically).
  • Protection against disaster.
  • Environmental reasons.
  • Increased security.
  • Quickly and easily accessing information.

After transferring to Thomson Reuters’ Infinitylaw practice management system around four years ago, Weber says the firm quickly realised the potential of electronic operations.

“We had already been scanning completed files for over 10 years and we felt that we just needed to shift from scanning at the end of the transaction to scanning during the transaction,” Weber says. “We knew that we already had all the components for operating electronically, so we just needed to develop some systems to bring it all together.”

So having made the bold decision to toss the paper in the bin, does this mean paper is now completely redundant?

Does paperless actually mean ‘no paper’?

There seems to be differing views on the topic, so we asked Weber how WRMK Lawyers defines ‘paperless’.

“We struggle with the term ‘paperless’, although it seems to be the word that grabs everyone’s attention. What we are really talking about is a shift from a paper file to an electronic one. It’s not about becoming entirely paperless; it’s about reinventing the legal process digitally. The focus should not be on removing every piece of paper from the office, but rather a shift to improving access to information, reducing physical storage requirements and increasing overall productivity and efficiency.

“Once everything is stored electronically, your future options for using that information for the benefit of your clients will increase and your need for paper will decrease. It’s easier than ever now thanks to readily available technology.”

But while technology allows innovation, we all know that traditional law firms often resist change and disruption. What about the challenges and barriers to implementing this system?

The barriers to going paperless

Weber and the firm understood that with any new system, resistance can rear its ugly head. It’s important to work through the challenges to reap the benefits of new technology.

The most difficult challenge was the ‘human’ element, which included addressing the psychological attachment we all have to paper.

Weber lists some of the common reservations cited by employees:

  • It’s not a problem.
  • I can’t read off a screen.
  • I need the paper or I’ll forget.
  • I’m too busy to change.
  • There’ll be too much disruption.
  • Electronic records aren’t secure.
  • The computer will crash.
  • The systems are too complicated/strict.
  • I’m stuck in my chair all day.

Weber believes that it’s important to address problems at the outset and take people’s concern seriously to work towards a common goal.

“The systems you develop have to enable you to respond sensibly to all of these things. We believe that our system does. Our experience is that for most people this sort of change does not happen overnight. It does for some, but for others it can take months.”

Practical steps: The implementation path

So once you know the reasons for going paperless and you’ve put all the fears to rest, the inevitable next question is: how exactly can it be done?

Weber says the firm took advantage of its existing product, Infinitylaw, and discovered that its features worked well with the paperless system. They decided to:

  • Find out exactly what the software does.
  • Find out what changes the firm needed to make to take advantage of those features.
  • Change the way everyone works so that they can use those features.

“By doing this, we managed to use almost all of the Infinitylaw features including document management, unallocated mail, workflows, to-do lists, precedent explorer, transaction requests, client extranet, client trust management together with the standard features of time recording, online billing and the trust account database, and developed in-house systems for working electronically.”

In practical terms, the firm also obtained support and commitment from the partners and directors, which was essential for its implementation, and provided staff training, created policies and protocols including a step-by-step manual, purchased dual monitors and became very knowledgeable about all the functions and features of Infinitylaw to allow a seamless transition.

Tips to going paperless

Having made a successful segue into the electronic world, WRMK Lawyers now leads the paperless pack by training other firms to introduce the paperless model.

“In 2014, we presented four New Zealand Law Society seminars on this topic. As a result, we received a huge amount of enquiries, have been able to assist a few firms in a consultancy role and we have developed a package to support that.”

Some final tips? Weber recommends that firms:

  • Be open and willing to change.
  • Keep it simple. You want everyone in the office of all ages and skill levels to be able to use the system with ease.
  • Highlight similarities between completing a task in paper format and getting the same result electronically. Reassure staff that the system won’t miss anything, such as critical deadline dates.
  • Keep the momentum moving forward and keep the pressure on with regular meetings and training sessions.
  • Do not suggest a trial period (it won’t work).
  • Review your terms of engagement.

“This has been an exciting and rewarding (but sometimes frustrating) experience for us. It’s only now that we’ve made the switch that we realise just how crazy and time-consuming some of the tasks we were doing on paper were.”

While you might not want to get rid of paper entirely, this lean model may help you save money and trees at the same time – fantastic for your firm’s bottom line and not so bad for its conscience either.

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