If Apple or Netflix made law offices, they’d be entirely paperless. But if Borders or Blockbuster made law offices, they’d still be made of paper.
Since moving to Farrar Gesini Dunn in February 2014, I have been working in a paperless office. Innovative or unworkable? Well, despite the ever-increasing technological revolution, a surprising number of people I talk to in other law firms seem frightened by the idea, and say it wouldn’t work for them. This is my attempt to ease their concerns.
The information technology revolution
Developments in information technology make going paperless an option that wasn’t possible just a few years ago.
Within just a few years of existence, Dropbox has about 300 million users worldwide and Twitter about 230 million, and Skype accounts for about 40 per cent of all international calls. Amazon now has about 270 million active customer accounts and sells hundreds of items per second. The iPhone didn’t even arrive until 2008 and we’ve only had iPads since 2010.
Technology can create new ways of delivering legal services that will eventually make old practices obsolete. Think further about the possibilities arising from increasingly sophisticated video conferencing, internet forums, social media, and cloud-based services. Lawyers can’t stand still in the face of these changes.
Paperless in practice
So what does it mean for an office to go paperless? Well, for a start, paperless equals portable. Working from home instead of the office? No problem. On a beach in Bali and an issue arises? No problem.
When your documents are saved in pdf format, you can search text quickly and save amendments and annotations electronically. Control + F is your friend.
Electronic documents are (or should be) much easier to locate than a document in a physical file, which might be buried somewhere, say, at the back of the third of seven volumes of correspondence going back two years.
Although proofreading or reviewing long documents is usually easier in hardcopy than from a computer, have you tried doing this on an iPad or other tablet? I find the experience just as comfortable on the eyes.
Keep in mind that paperless doesn’t necessarily mean an absolute ban on all paper, all of the time. At my firm, the lawyers still have access to a traditional printer and photocopier. But despite having that option, we rarely need it.
At previous firms, although most of the work was generated and accessed via a computer, we had to print every single item of correspondence, email, file note and financial document just for the sake of it, even though 90 per cent of the hardcopies were never looked at again. To me, this seems an unnecessary and wasteful duplication.
Going paperless saves space around the office, and makes for much nicer and tidier offices. Reduced storage and printing costs equals greater economic efficiency within law firms. In the long term, progressive law firms will pass those savings onto their clients and employees.
Even the judiciary is embracing the move towards less paper. According to a 2014 report, if you were to stack every paper document held in the storage facilities of Australia’s Federal Circuit Court and Family Court they’d stand about 24 kilometres high. That’s 92 times the height of Sydney Tower and 80 times the height of Melbourne’s Eureka Tower. For this reason, the Family Court is moving to a fully electronic filing system to replace paper-based storage “as soon as practicable”. While a fully digital court system – where judges, as well as litigants, read from digital documents on electronic devices during cases – is some time off, the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court have made significant progress in recent years, with electronic filing becoming standard. Currently documents are still printed off for judges and put into archives. But this won’t last forever.
Technology can be used to streamline processes to deliver higher quality services more quickly, and improve efficiency and responsiveness to clients’ needs. Once the paperless office becomes standard, clients will routinely be given the option of logging into a portal to access their files and documents, in the same way they do now with online banking or a social media account.
It’s time for lawyers to embrace the change and be ahead of the curve.
– This article was first published in the LIV Young Lawyers Blog on Tuesday 22 September