PaperLESS Office Creates Financial and Sustainability Advantages: Insights from a Law Firm COO

By Janis K. Alexander

Ambrose Law Group LLC is a boutique business/real estate/finance law firm with offices in the historic Pearl District in Portland, Oregon and a branch office in Bend, Oregon, which has been in business for more than 20 years.

Technology has always played a very important role in our practice. In the mid 1990s, members of firm management attended the ABA Annual Meetings in San Francisco, which included a Law Practice Division CLE entitled “Technology for the Rest of Us,” with veteran attorney speakers who are also technology experts. After meeting with Ross Kodner, an attorney/technology expert from Wisconsin, we got very excited about how we could use technology not only to totally revamp the way our firm did business, but to  better compete with the largest law firms. Having “top down” buy-in from management/partners was a great advantage, because we could move much faster than larger firms who need to convince larger numbers of people to support the plan.

The Plan. Upon our return to the office, I formed a staff committee (who, by the way, were the staff most excited about this new concept) to start working on what I consider to be the hardest part of this new plan–-the implementation and procedures. There were and are so many things to think about, which can be daunting. As we all know, attorneys and staff get very used to doing things the “same way we always have done them,” which results in push-back from some to even the smallest changes. Realize that you will meet resistance, but nothing good ever comes easy, right? With the staff’s assistance, we began to develop a plan that would not overwhelm our office, and we never looked back.

The Technology. After meeting with some excellent computer consultants, we put in place high-end scanning equipment (we now use Xerox multifunction machines in each of our offices which print, copy, fax, and also are high-capacity scanners), greatly enlarged our online storage capacity and added a document management system (DMS) called Worldox. Worldox is an easy-to-use and extremely popular program in small, medium and large law offices, and is much less expensive than others on the market.

The Implementation-Figure Out the Issues. Just a few of the issues we faced in this endeavor included:

  1. Develop intake procedures for all data, including mail, voicemail, faxes and email.
  1. Determine who is responsible for coming up with data profiles in your DMS, and then scanning and profiling the documents in the DMS.
  1. Identify who will organize the electronic file cabinet and who is going to do spot checks to make sure electronic files are saved consistently in the right place.
  1. Decide whether you are going to keep electronic, hard copies or both.

Electronic Filing Procedures. When moving to this electronic filing system, the first step was figuring out what happens in our office on a “day to day” basis. Our office is structured differently than most law firms. Instead of attorneys being assigned to a particular legal secretary and/or paralegal, our office works in three teams: (1) Business Team; (2) Real Estate/Finance Team; and (3) Litigation Team. Initial decisions that needed to be made included:

  1. What Happens with the Mail? In our case, it is opened and sorted daily and given to the paralegal in charge of the particular matter. That person will then stamp, scan, profile and email to appropriate team members working on the file, and it will be filed in the hard copy file, if applicable. That way, no matter if the attorney/staff are in separate offices, everyone sees the documents same day, no matter if at home or on a trip or at the office.
  1. What about Email/Voice Mail/Fax Inbox Issues? Our office uses a third-party software called Callware, which creates a universal inbox through Outlook (includes immediate access to voicemail and faxes, as well as email, within Outlook’s window). These documents (including email) are not printed out for physical files, but rather are filed electronically within our DMS by those sending or receiving them. Junk faxes are simply deleted, and saved faxes and applicable voicemail are forwarded to other team members via email.

Files, Files, More Files. At this time, we made the decision to move to electronic-only files. Steps taken included:

  1. We started with a test category (ours was loan documentation files), which are pretty standard in each case.
  1. We save all files and profile them electronically through our DMS for easy searching, both full text and by several profiles which the user completes when saving each file to the network.
  1. We scan and send all original documents back to the client when received from the recorder’s office. Why do this? Both our law firm and our clients have the documents when needed, no storage costs and the PLF loves it!

At this time, all files in our firm are electronic only, with the exception of litigation files and company minute books (although the actual corporate file is all electronic, which includes an electronic version of the corporate minute book). Moving our litigation files to all electronic files is our next goal, so that all of our files are electronic only.

Closed Paper Files. What happens when the paper files have been closed?

  1. Staff reviews a file to make sure it does not contain any original documents, while at the same time taking out all paper clips, staples, note pads, etc. for recycling purposes. After doing so, the file is scanned in bulk, by section of file (such as correspondence) and saved and profiled in the electronic file cabinet with all the other client documents, but in a separate electronic folder. The file folder is then reused for a future file.
  1. Documents are then shredded and staff make a file maintenance entry in our time/billing software to track files.
  1. Why go through the hassle when you can just store the files you ask? (a) To save storage costs—which really add up over time; and (b) to save office supply costs by recycling, which is good for the environment and your budget.
  1. Another great advantage to this system is that there are no storage/retrieval costs and delays, as the electronic file is on the network if anyone needs it, including those working outside the office with access to our network. No payments to third-party vendors for storage, and office space for storage in file cabinets, etc. is significantly reduced.

Branch Office. Our branch office in Bend, Oregon, is almost entirely without paper files, and attorneys and staff access network files through high-speed internet access using Citrix technology, requiring a much smaller office footprint and less overhead.

Sustainability Issues. Our firm started this office concept long before sustainability issues were important to law firms or most of the world, and as you can see, this concepts fits right in with saving the environment from waste and recycling those office supplies we actually need to use on a daily basis. I think it is a win-win for all–-an added bonus if you will, not to mention employees can work from home or anywhere without having to waste gas to come to the office, giving all employees much more flexibility. Going PaperLESS is a major venture, but our firm would never go back to the way we used to do things. We feel that a PaperLESS office is the wave of the future in law firms—that is, if their members are willing to change old habits.

 

Janis K. Alexander

About the Author

Janis K. Alexander is the Chief Operations Officer at Ambrose Law Group LLC, a boutique Real Estate/Finance law firm in Portland, Oregon.  She can be reached at 503.467.7237.

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