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'Paperless' Office Doesn't Really Mean Paperless
It Does Mean New Processes and Procedures

By Jim Calloway

“Let’s just go paperless. We can free up all that space in the file room and quit paying so much for outside file storage.”

“What a great idea! We’ve already got those big, expensive printer-scanner-document senders in the hallways on every floor. So, let’s send out a memo! Effective Monday, we’re going paperless. We’re going to scan everything. Tell the mail room people to start scanning all the mail instead of delivering it to everyone.”

Thus begins the perfect storm of a paperless law firm makeover absolutely destined to fail.

It is destined to fail because they are going paperless for the wrong reasons, with the wrong equipment, without proper planning, without feedback, without buy-in from the other lawyers and staff who will be affected by the changes, without budgeting for new equipment and training, and without any professional assistance.

Make no mistake. Law firms need to convert to paperless office processes and digital file management. Lawyers need to incorporate digital workflows for several reasons. Here are the two primary reasons:

    1) Law firm backup procedures should protect the firm’s information and allow it to reconstitute its operations in the event of a digital or physical disaster. Those law firms that continue to exclusively rely on paper files will find their backup may not include a number of items such as attorney file notes, hand-delivered documents or correspondence from opposing counsel. In the event of a fire or flood, items contained only on paper may be lost with
little hope of recovery.

    2) Digital workflows allow you to operate much more quickly and effectively. Not only can you find all of your notes on a particular client file quickly without having to flip through pages of paper in a bradded traditional lawyer’s file, but also others who are assisting you (or perhaps stepping in for you in the event of an emergency) can also quickly review those notes. Practice management software allows a lawyer to quickly open a client file on the computer when a client calls without having to track down the physical paper file folder.

Last month I communicated to you that “Practice Management Shootout at the OK Bar” materials were available for OBA members to download at MyOKBar.

This month we are going to go more in depth about the procedures associated with implementing (or improving) your digital workflow. I was assigned to speak with Illinois lawyer Bryan Sims at ABA TECHSHOW 2015 on the topic “Beyond the Scanner — Paperless Workflows That Work.” (Some of you met Bryan Sims when he was a guest speaker at our 2014 OBA Solo & Small Firm Conference.) He contributed significant parts of his own office procedures manual for our TECHSHOW materials. He has used paperless workflow for a long time.

It was interesting that we agreed on 90 percent of the general procedures, but we disagreed on some of the nuts and bolts. As a hands-on solo practitioner who designed all of his digital workflow, he wants to personally review the incoming mail before it is processed into his system. I feel that for most law firms, especially those with more than one lawyer, it is better for the mail to be immediately processed, scanned and filed in the system’s practice management software before it is handed off to the attorney. Good staff training can allow for identification of any emergencies in my opinion and perhaps even more speedily than piling unsorted mail on a lawyer’s desk.

This points out that the most important part of converting to a digital workflow is building written documentation for how the workflow operates. This will also necessarily mean that there will be compromises between different points of view and every law firm cannot incorporate the same digital workflow. The procedures will differ based on everything from personal preferences to the types of legal matters handled by the lawyers.

The mailroom and the reception area have traditionally been thought to be low-level positions within law firm hierarchy and have sometimes received inadequate training. Digital workflow mandates that a smart and well trained employee opens and processes the mail, no matter what the particulars of your system. The necessity of standardization and documentation for law firm procedures is one reason why it seems that I mention Atul Ga-wande’s bestseller The Checklist Manifesto in this space at least once a year.

Since “how do we handle the mail?” is one of the most common questions associated with moving to a digital workflow, I have included some sample procedures on that topic in the accompanying sidebar.

CONCLUSION

This article is intended to provide a good starting point for your new and improved digital, so-called paperless workflow.

Your attention is also directed to the book Paperless in One Hour for Lawyers by Sheila Blackford and Donna Neff, which is available from the American Bar Association for $49.95 or less, depending on your ABA membership status or state bar discount codes.

I strongly believe that using practice management software or services is the only way to do this effectively. Sure you can store documents in Windows folders that are given client names, but you won’t have the billing tools and records immediately available. You can share a document with someone via a Dropbox link, but that is not the same as your client being able to log into the online document repository and see every document you have shared with them arranged in order. And if one of the other lawyers in your office needs to work on the file, how will they quickly and easily see all of your notes from every conference and phone call, all arranged in reverse chronological order?

Resistance is futile. Download the “Practice Management Shootout at the OK Bar” materials and start shopping for the best tool you have ever purchased for your law office and your future.

Author’s note: I appreciate Bryan Sims allowing me to use (and edit) his office procedures manual for this column.

OFFICE MAIL PROCEDURES

Incoming mail

Mail is delivered by the post office to the firm’s mailbox once a day at approximately ________. The assistant should pickup the mail after it has been delivered. Incoming mail should be immediately stamped with our received stamp in red which notes the date that mail was received.

Saturday’s mail should be picked up first thing Monday morning.

Mail marked Personal or Personal and Confidential shall be opened only by the person to whom it was directed.

Scanning and Processing

The incoming mail should be immediately opened and reviewed by the assistant. There may be items that should be brought to the immediate attention of the attorney.

The mail should be sorted into two categories:1) Client Matters and 2) Lower priority. Checks and other matters related to payment and billing should be immediately delivered to the billing department.

As designated by the lawyer, the term Client Matters may include nonbillable matters for which the lawyer wishes to maintain a digital file in the practice management system (e.g. bar association activities).

The assistant should scan each document.

The assistant should use Adobe Acrobat to perform OCR on each document.

The documents should then be saved in the appropriate client file location in our practice management software system (insert the name of your system here.) An email shall be sent to the lawyer noting the receipt of the correspondence and any enclosures and that it is ready for the lawyer to immediately review it. Unless the attorney has specifically instructed otherwise, once the assistant has verified that the document has been saved in the appropriate location, the document should be stamped “For Your File. No Response Required” and the original mailed to the client.

ALTERNATIVE PROVISION: After scanning, the document shall be saved in the Attorney Incoming Mail folder on the lawyer’s desktop. An email is sent to the attorney notifying them of the incoming mail stored in the folder. It is the lawyer’s responsibility to clear their Attorney Incoming Mail folder as soon as possible each day by filing the documents as appropriate in our practice management software system (insert the name of your system here.)

Correspondence shall be filed and bradded into the appropriate physical file by the close of business each day. The physical client files are to remain in the file cabinet unless “checked out” by a lawyer to take with them to a court or to an out of office meeting. All work done on client files within the office will be accomplished on the client’s digital file in our practice management software system (insert the name of your system here.)(Author’s note: Someday the physical client files will no longer exist, but we don’t have to think about that today.)

ALTERNATIVE PROVISION: The physical copies of all incoming correspondence are stored loosely and chronologically in the Firm Correspondence weekly files. These are available in case it is thought that some correspondence has been misfiled or someone wishes to review a Received stamp. These files shall be saved indefinitely for the time being. The firm will adopt a uniform destruction data for Firm Correspondence weekly files after we determine how long these are useful.

Lower priority mail shall be physically delivered to the attorneys only after the Client Matters mail is fully processed.

The above process also applies when documents are received via FedEx, UPS, courier or when dropped off by a client.

Outgoing Mail

Any outgoing mail that is ready before __p.m. should be deposited in the building’s outgoing mail receptacle before __p.m.

The remaining outgoing mail should be deposited in the building’s outgoing mail receptacle when the assistant leaves for the day.

Stamps and Postage Charges

The firm does not bill back to clients the costs of ordinary mail.

Any mail sent in a special method such as certified, registered, priority or express should be billed to the client at the actual cost charged to the firm.

Overnight Delivery or Similar Services

The firm has an account with both FedEx and UPS in order to send overnight delivery packages. The preferred vendor is ____,as the firm receives the most favorable rates from that vendor.

All overnight delivery labels should be prepared on the Internet via the vendor’s website.

A copy of the overnight delivery label in PDF format shall be saved in the client’s digital file.

All overnight delivery charges should be billed to the client.

Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program Director.  Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma?  Contact him at 405-416-7008, 1-800-522-8065 or jimc@okbar.org.  It's a free member benefit!

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- September 12, 2015 -- Vol. 86, No. 24