The Paperless Office

[article featured on The Law Society’s website]

The dream of the Paperless Office has been around for a long time, but yet it still remains elusive, says Ian Wimbush, Chairman of the Legal Software Suppliers Association.  Is the Paperless Office a realistic goal for law firms?

The theory

Although the exact origin of the term “The paperless office” is still the subject of some debate, the basic idea was that office automation would make paper redundant for routine tasks such as record-keeping and bookkeeping.  Although the widespread adoption of personal computers has helped to make this goal more realistic, these predictions have yet to be realised.

In theory, this model could lead to significant cost savings, less clutter, easier information sharing, increased productivity, and reduced environmental impact.   But for law firms, in particular, is this vision of the paperless office really achievable?

Although a total and absolute paperless office is perhaps an unrealistic goal now and for the foreseeable future for most practices, firms can certainly reduce the amount of paper that they are holding and storing by adopting some quite simple and cost-effective technologies.  Although some law firms remain sceptical of these new developments, the Legal Software Suppliers Association (LSSA) is confident that its members’ software solutions can keep electronic data both secure and accessible as the trend towards electronic data grows.

Paperless in practice

The LSSA is already working with a number of law firms that can see the benefits of this shift towards electronic data. Manchester-based Licensing Legal Solicitors provides a good example.  The firm, which deals exclusively with liquor, entertainment and gambling licensing and regulatory issues for the hospitality/leisure industry, has already taken some steps towards the paperless ideal by creating a secure web-based storage system for PDF licences, so that its clients can log into the system to view and print these documents at any time.

Despite this kind of innovation, there are still areas where paper may be required for compliance with legislation.  As a result, there may always be various reasons for keeping a hard copy of certain documents: maybe for legal reasons or maybe because having a hard copy is preferred within certain scenarios, such as a company’s board meeting.

The benefits of paperless

What is evident, though, is that by storing all of the company’s documents within a Case or Document management system, firms will have the ability to catalogue and index the information contained within the system easily.  This can then provide the system’s users with rapid access to specific documents, and additionally, any related documents.

Likewise, paperless reporting can offer many benefits to a practice, including reduced storage requirements, immediate comparison of past accounting periods, months and years, the possibility of secure and encrypted off-site storage of reports to assist with BC&DR planning, and  remote access to accounting reports for the auditing accountant, which can help to reduce audit costs significantly.

Despite these benefits, many firms remain concerned about data security.  In reality, however, electronic files, if used correctly, tend to be more secure than their printed counterparts, as firms have easy access to a range of highly effective security options that simply aren’t able to protect a stack of papers.

Remote Working

Electronic filing means that lawyers can easily work on a file from home at the weekend, without taking the paper file home.  That means there is much less risk of leaving a folder on the train or having it stolen from a car.  Not only that, but having an electronic file stored securely off-site also provides a complete and immediate Disaster Recovery Plan, in the event of a fire, flood or other disaster at the law firm’s offices.

For all of these reasons, and as technology advances and the applications that handle these new methods of working become cheaper and more efficient, it is almost certain that firms will start to adopt them as standard working practices.