As much as the internet and rise of the digital age has had us believing a paperless future was upon us since as early as the 1970s, the reality is that in 2020, the average American uses the paper equivalent of six 40-foot trees every year—more than the average in 1980.
For most law practices, paper consumption is even higher. As much as many in the legal profession would love to cut back on their paper use, their efforts have been hampered by the field’s old-fashioned practices like insistence on paper for court filings, service of process, and file storage.
Still, there are a lot of benefits to reducing paper consumption—it saves money, is better for the environment, and makes it easier for businesses to operate remotely. Law practices have a lot to gain from getting creative and finding ways to cut back on paper.
A truly, 100 percent paperless law office might still be just a dream for the future, but it’s certainly possible to reduce paperwork. Whether your law office is just getting started on its journey to use less paper, or you’re already a seasoned veteran at cutting back on cutting down trees and you want to expand your efforts even more, we have the tips you need. Read on to learn why working toward a paperless future is the right move for law practices, and how to get started down that path.
What Is a Paperless Office?
A paperless office is a workplace that has significantly reduced paper in its regular workflows and processes.
Offices have a lot of good reasons to go paperless. Using less paper is better for the Earth. It saves money on office supplies. At paperless offices, it’s generally much easier to do work from remote locations. And some studies have even shown that going paperless can increase productivity, since it’s faster and more efficient to share digital information than it is to share information on paper.
Here are some other compelling reasons your law practice might want to consider going paperless.
It Makes Document Retrieval Fast and Easy
As long as you have a good file management system in place (and document storage software makes this easy), it should be pretty painless to retrieve digital documents from the cloud in a matter of seconds. That means that instead of having to come to the office and dig through a file cabinet, an associate who’s 200 miles away can access a document related to the client matter they’re working on—even if it’s the middle of the night.
It Eliminates Version Confusion
Ever had a situation where multiple people were working on a document and you weren’t sure which version was the most up-to-date? A paperless law firm that has its documents stored in the cloud can completely eliminate that problem, since multiple people can work on the same document online at the same time. When working this way, edits happen in real time, and can be tracked so everyone knows exactly who made what changes and when. Just think about how much time and confusion your firm can save with that kind of system.
It Saves on Storage
If a law practice is dependent on paper for everything, that means it needs a lot of space to store all those paper documents. Whether it’s storing files at its office or somewhere offsite, the costs, logistics, and very real security concerns can make this a nightmare. Offices that store their documents on the cloud, however, can get storage for a fraction of the cost. And while there are still security concerns with cloud document storage, a reputable storage company that uses the latest cyber technology tools will be able to keep your documents as safe (if not more so) as they would be in a physical storage facility, as well as steps you can take yourself to keep your documents safe (but more on that later).
It Streamlines Billing and Communications
Sending paper invoices and forms to clients is inefficient, cumbersome, and opens up your firm to the potential for a lot of human error. In the digital age, it’s becoming more and more common for businesses of all types (including law firms) to do all their billing with accounting software, which can often be integrated with time-tracking tools, and can automate invoicing to help eliminate errors and get digital invoices and payment reminders sent out as quickly as possible.
And where law firms have relied on stacks of paper forms, simple to use software can now turn those into mobile-friendly digital forms that can be filled out and even signed on any device.
Every law practice is unique, and it’s likely that there are even more benefits specific to your firm to be had from going paperless. The only way to find out, though, is to start cutting back on paper. It’s a daunting move for any business, but these tips should help any law practice start reducing the amount of paper it needs to do day-to-day business.
5 Tips for Reducing Paperwork at Your Law Practice
It’s important to keep in mind that going “paperless” doesn’t have to mean completely eliminating every single piece of paper from your firm. Even in the digital age, that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to do.
Instead, think of going paperless as just trying to minimize your firm’s paper consumption as much as possible. It takes some creativity and thinking outside of the box to find ways to eliminate paper from all your processes, so don’t beat yourself up if you find that some tasks just still need to be done on paper.
With that said, these are our top five tips for law practices who want to remove as much paper as possible from their day-to-day operations.
1. Start With a Plan
Going paperless is not a small undertaking, and like any other large project, it’s best to go in with a plan. Decide what your firm wants to accomplish and set some achievable goals (for example, reduce your monthly spend on paper by half). With your goals in mind, identify some small steps you can take to start working toward them; for example, if your office routinely uses paper memos, shift internal communications to email or a workplace communication tool like Slack. As you make small steps toward your goal, it will become easier to identify bigger and bigger ways your firm can replace paper with digital processes.
2. Decide Where You’ll Store Your Data (And Make it Safe)
Arguably the biggest decision a law practice will make when going paperless is where it will store data. Cloud storage is cost-effective and convenient, providing anyone in the firm 24/7 access. But it’s important to choose the right cloud storage platform, evaluating your options carefully with security at the top of your mind. It’s definitely worth it to pay a little more for a cloud storage platform that has top-of-the-line security for your data.
There are also steps you can take to ensure your data is safe when it’s stored on the cloud. Make sure everything is backed up and stored in multiple locations, and encrypt data before storing it to make sure prying eyes can’t access sensitive information.
3. Create an Organizational System
Dumping all your digital files onto the cloud isn’t the way to go paperless; in fact, it will just create a huge mess for your firm. Before beginning the process of migrating new and existing files to a digital platform, you need an organizational system that ensures everything has a place where it belongs — and where it can be quickly and easily found later.
A few tips:
- Use consistent, descriptive naming protocols
- Set up file trees for different workflows
- Provide thorough training so every employee knows how to use your organizational system
4. Digitize Your Existing Processes
Odds are, your law practice has a ton of old documents and processes that exist on paper. It’s time to take those digital.
Scan and organize old files. Move to digital invoicing and time tracking. And implement an electronic signing service so collecting signatures no longer needs to be done the old fashioned way.
5. Make New Workflows Paperless
By the time you reach step five, you should be well on your way to a paperless law firm. At this point, with the experience you already have in digitizing your old processes and workflows, all that’s left to do is apply your new paperless practices to new workflows. As new documents get created, forego paper altogether and create them digitally. Congratulate yourself on your paperless journey. You’re on the way to cost savings, efficient workflows, a healthier planet, and even more benefits.