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Law Firm Goals: Becoming a paperless office

Noel Peel

Written by

Noel Peel


June 3, 2021

“We can lick gravity, but the paperwork is overwhelming,” Werner von Braun, c. 1950.

In case you missed it, Microsoft Word turns 37 years old next month; we thought it might be useful to reflect on the state of the paperless office. 

The term “paperless office” came into usage in the late 1970’s as rapid development of screen, keyboard, and mouse technologies allowed the creation of documents on a screen. Laser printing was being developed at the same time by Xerox and H-P, and the combination of the two revolutionized office processes. Media at the time speculated that these developments would transform office functions by eliminating the massive burden that paper already constituted to a modern business.

Alas, the result of the potent linking of the new technologies led to the opposite – an explosion in document printing and copying. Documents that previously had to be typed and photocopied could now be printed, in multiple collated copies, at the touch of a button. Costs were mounting, verging on out of control. 

The cost of the paper itself is just the tip of the iceberg. Other costs associated with paper include printing, filing, mis-filing, searching, storage, retrieval, and destruction. In fact, a study by Alameda County, California found that the purchase price of paper constituted only about 10% of its life cycle cost. In addition, paper is not “green,” considering the carbon footprint of the production of paper and the downstream costs of using it. 

A number of businesses were reinvigorated or created due to the growth in the sheer volume of business documents.

  • Recycling
  • Document storage and retrieval
  • Secure and verifiable disposal
  • Integrated document management systems using cloud based technologies

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure recognize the importance of document retention and retrieval systems. They have been revised several times over the past 15 years to lessen the burden of massive data searches on the civil justice system. In response, many law firms and consultants have advised clients on how to structure their document management systems to comply with and benefit from the rules.  You can protect and modernize your firm the same way you advise your litigation clients to, with a modern and reliable document management system.

Law firm response to the growing burden of paper-based offices can be tracked back to the 1980’s, as the impacts of computer drafting and laser printing began to negatively affect both operations and financial performance. The large law firms were the early adopters of integrated document management systems, with medium and smaller firms entering later as costs came down and useful features were added. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread remote work, the value of these cloud-based systems was immediately apparent. Two large U.K. firms have gone so far as to prohibit the printing of documents, using cloud-based legal document management systems both to save paper as well as increase security

Although not an easy task by any means, moving towards a paperless office has never been easier. Cloud-based technologies, combined with generational changes resulting in a more tech savvy workforce, offer a real opportunity to address the challenging task of taming the paper giant. 

Technology advances cut both ways. While new technologies improve speed, functionality and value, the changes also impact law firms using older technologies. Some widely-used office programs have recently been abandoned, including:

Firms using outmoded IT systems will have to upgrade their equipment, however costs are coming down, capabilities are rising, and systems are increasingly user-friendly. The usual technology value equation applies – later adopters benefit from lower costs and more advanced systems.

Smokeball has published a detailed guide to implementing or upgrading your legal practice software, which is the first step in becoming a paperless firm.

If you are ready to take that important first step, ask your firm administrator to contact us.

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