How to Transition to a Paperless Law Firm

Here’s my story about going paperless: The year was 2015. I was riding shotgun on a divorce case, a lengthy and pricey dispute that had been going on for five years and was about to hit trial. We were in a meet-and-confer, trying to settle as much of the ancillary crud as possible so that this wouldn’t evolve into a 10-day trial. 

We had everything left to settle: from the pricey tools that he took from the garage, to the family business that had been shuttered overnight (with accounts mysteriously transferred to businesses ran by friends of the family). We had brought along boxes of records, just in case we needed to reference financials, and the other side had their own boxes of records.

Ten minutes in, there was a question about the approximate values of the lost accounts of the small business. Having a paperless law firm, I pulled out my phablet (that was an en vogue term at the time for a large smartphone) and typed a query into my cloud storage provider, pulling up the records in seconds, before anyone else could open their file boxes. A few minutes later, there was a question about the family residence. Same thing: I pulled out my phablet, pulled up the appraisal, and emailed them to the opposing party’s secretary to print copies for everyone to review in all their paperless glory.

At the end of the day, none of the boxes had been opened. I had retrieved every document we needed from my massive smartphone, without the need for paper. This allowed us to discuss nearly every issue that had been set for trial, settling a few things in the room and at least opening discussions on everything else.

There is no doubt in my mind that had I not run a paperless setup, with text searchable PDFs, that my client would have paid an astronomically larger amount, as multiple attorneys accrued billable hours sifting through boxes of dusty documents. And we certainly would have had to extend the conference at least another day. 

Did I mention that that was five years ago?

Today, my law practice is almost entirely paperless—I can’t control what the clients bring in, which is usually old paper copies that I have to scan in. And I’m not perfect: as a sole practitioner, I often find myself accruing a backlog of documents that need digitizing. But with paperless retainers, billing, and exchanging of drafts of pleadings and court orders via email, plus e-filing in some jurisdictions, I can easily say that my legal practice is almost entirely paperless these days. 

I get paid faster, my clients get their work done faster, and I can carry my laptop home with me to sneak in a little bit of extra work here and there—I even carry it to the other side of the world, without having to worry about schlepping boxes of files, and keep my practice going when I decide to live in the Philippines for a month. Of course, this ability to work remotely with a paperless practice is incredibly relevant today.

Here, I’ll discuss the advantages of going paperless, steps to going paperless, and tools for paperless law firms. 

Why should your law firm go paperless?

Image of stacks of files

Image of stacks of files

There are oh-so-many advantages to going paperless, especially for law firms. Let’s start at the beginning: when you first retain a client.

Using a retainer with an electronic signature saves you at least one step—you won’t have to scan the document for recordkeeping, plus you can automatically send copies to all parties once they are signed. 

In fact, if you set up your paperless systems correctly, you can even automate a welcome email packet to the client containing FAQs and information on their case and the firm, send an invoice for an initial retainer amount or flat fee, and even automatically send an intake form and request for documents. I personally have all of this automated so that once a phone consultation is complete, I can send over a retainer agreement that is e-signed, followed by the invoice and intake form (which has a document upload capability), all with only a couple clicks from me, leaving me more time for consultations, legal work, and chasing around a rambunctious toddler.

The benefits are even bigger once you have actually retained the client. Assuming you have scanned all the documents into your case management software as text searchable PDFs, it will only take you seconds to search through a client’s file to find the information you’re looking for. 

For me, I might be looking for a date of marriage, date of divorce filing, or date of separation while drafting a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO), or something as simple as the address of a vacation property when I am drafting a trust.

This doesn’t sound like a big deal, does it? Wait until you are in the room with opposing counsel, as I was in the story above, and you can pull out a fact or document in seconds, because you’re paperless. 

Or if you do flat-fee work (as I do today), this means you get that work done in half the time. Even the little things—like when a client calls on a random Thursday with a question about her file—are made easier by being able to quickly type in a query into my computer, rather than shuffle through my filing cabinets.

And of course, the more time you save, the less you bill to the client. Sure, that means less revenue for you, but it also means the client is happier. Long term, this client-centered approach means better reviews, more referrals, and more business for your firm.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the massive advantage of being able to work from anywhere, at any time. For me, this meant I went to the Philippines last year for a month and run my practice without anyone knowing that I was on the other side of the world. 

And when coronavirus hit New York City, and our entire town shut down, it felt like I was the only person in the entire legal system who operated as business as usual—I already met with my clients over the phone or online, all of my paperwork is digital, and I spent my spare time (courts are closed, so there’s a limit to my ability to work regardless of my own prep) counseling other lawyers on how to get their home offices working in conjunction with their assistants’ home offices.

The long and the short of it is, running a paperless practice is simpler than you think, and it’s clearer than ever that the flexibility going paperless affords you is indispensable. 

Steps to taking your law firm paperless

The first thing you will have to do, before thinking about software or scanners, is to buy in entirely. You need to commit 100% to eliminating paper, as does the rest of your law firm—Luddite lawyers, apprehensive assistants, everyone. A paperless system will require significant work up front, as well as some extra training time for everyone, but it does pay off in the long run.

Once you are ready, here are the steps you will have to take:

1. Switch to a paperless client intake system

Paperless begins before the client even signs a retainer. A brilliant way to handle all of the pre-legal stages of the case is to start with a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) platform. There are a handful of lawyer-specific CRMs out there, with two in particular that integrate with Clio Manage: Clio’s own Clio Grow and Lawmatics, a third-party CRM with a heavier focus on automation that integrates with several different services.

Most of these CRMs have similar paperless features to get your clients retained quickly, with as little paper as possible: They offer the ability to set up paperless retainer agreements, intake forms, billing, and e-signatures, for example.

2. Create a system for ensuring files stay paperless

Once a client has retained you, you will want instant access to their entire file with only a few clicks. You’ll need a few tools to get this job done (more on specific recommendations to follow):

  • A cloud-based storage system, such as Dropbox, OneDrive, or even Clio’s own storage.
  • Software to convert your scans to text-searchable PDFs.
  • A brilliant scanner (or three).

Staying organized with dozens or hundreds of cases is tough with paper, and at first, it’ll feel even more difficult with electronic files. (We promise, it’s easier once you get in the habit.) 

Employees come and go. As your office grows bigger, you’ll add more assistants and more voices to the document handling processes. If you want a paperless system to stick, it is imperative that you outline that system in writing. This should answer questions like:

  • What should be done with paper files dropped off by clients?
  • Are there any exceptions to the digitize everything rule?
  • How are files named and organized on your cloud storage server? 
  • Who is responsible for making sure this all gets done?

3. Digitize your existing paper files

Finally, there is the issue of your backlog. Unless you are a brand-new law firm, you probably have plenty of dusty old files, as well as a smattering of open files covering your desk. 

Common sense should tell you to start with the files that you will actually need access to (current files) and to have the digitization done at a time where you can spare the paper copies (pay someone to come in over the weekend). If you pay a service to digitize everything, you can get this done in a day or two. As an alternative, consider asking your staff for help.

Once you have scanned everything in, it is important to live amongst your digital files—build the habit of referring to the digital copies and adding notes there, rather than breaking out the old paper copies and asking your assistant to digitize even more paper later. In fact, order everyone at your law firm to close off the paper boxes and not touch them, absent any emergency where someone forgot to scan something.

After a while, once you have lived a paperless lifestyle for a few months, you’ll realize that you don’t need those old paper copies anymore. 

Of course, you may still be required to keep paper copies of certain documents. Take a look at your State Bar’s document retention requirements—do digital copies suffice for your archiving responsibilities? If so, offer the originals back to your client or discard them in a secure manner (shredding or a bonfire). If you are at all uncertain about your ethical responsibilities with regards to archived files, feel free to get a cheap storage unit and stuff the boxes in there.

Paperless procedures and protocols

As we mentioned above, you need to have procedures in place for all your law firm’s paperless documents. These paperless procedures and protocols will ensure that no files get lost and that everything continues to be accessible with a few clicks in a search query.

Every firm is different. A 50-person firm, with individual legal assistants for every attorney, is going to operate differently than a one-man band shop, like my own. With that being said, here is a sample outline you can use to develop your own procedures:

1. Start digital wherever possible 

Use electronic retainers and e-signatures, and save all legal work to the server in both Word and PDF format.

2. Scan any paper as it comes in

To keep your law firm paperless, make it a policy to immediately scan any new paper documents as they come in, and return the paper copies to the client. Store the scanned files in the actual client folders on the server, not in a big folder called “SCANS.”

3. Make sure you’re making text-searchable PDFs 

Most modern scanning software will include an option to make the scanned PDF text searchable, but if not, use OCR software like Adobe Acrobat or ABBYY Fine Reader to convert it to a text searchable PDF.

4. Only keep documents that are required by local law to be in paper form 

This might include deeds, wills, or other key documents with ink signatures. Even then, scan a copy into your system as a backup and for quick searches.

5. Keep your law firm’s paperless files organized

For file naming, it’s a matter of preference, but many smart people do: date, description, initials of responsible party (Example: “2020-04-08 Letter to OC re: QDRO WCP”).

Consider your directory structures as well. If you’re using Clio’s file storage, there is already a folder for each client. Litigators might be best served by creating subfolders for pleadings, discovery, correspondence, etc., but do what works best for your practice.

6. Stop printing 

Okay, this is easier said than done, especially for meetings, but if you get into the habit of using a tablet or laptop to pull up your files from the server and to take your notes where the file lives (on your laptop or tablet, rather than paper), you’ll save yourself a lot of time when it comes to searching your notes later.

7. Stop faxes 

Don’t worry, you can ease into it with tools that help you fax without a fax machine. I abhor my fax machine. I tell potential clients who ask to fax something over that they are the first person to ask to use it this year and it doesn’t work. Most can figure out how to scan it, head to UPS or FedEx to have them scan it, or they just mail me a copy. 

Despite this, I still get occasional faxes from retirement plans or opposing counsel. It drives me nuts. I will probably sign up for an online faxing service soon just because I hate my fax machine, which does not want to play nicely with modern VIP lines. People, please stop faxing.

8. Generally avoid creating more paper 

Email files or share them digitally when possible. This is way easier today than it was even five years ago. Today, everyone has a smartphone. If you can use a smartphone, you can eventually get into the habit of taking all of your notes digitally, allowing your legal practice to stay fully paperless. 

As much as I still reach for a pen when it comes time to take down a quick note, I hate myself every time I have to flip through 15 Post-it notes on my desk to find that random phone number I wrote down three hours ago. If you really need that tactile sensation of using a pen to take your notes, consider getting any iPad released in the last couple of years and an Apple Pencil—it is almost, but not quite, the same sensation.

Exchange files with counsel and clients digitally, whenever possible 

Believe me, sharing files in a paperless way is actually much easier than it is to print something off, put it in an envelope, add stamps, drop it off in the mailbox, wait three days for it to be transferred by the post man less than a mile down the street, then wait for somebody’s assistant to pull out of the mailbox, open the file, and hand it to the other side.

Technology and systems for going paperless

hand using a stylus

The biggest obstacle to starting a paperless law firm, besides getting buy-in from your staff and building good habits, is going to be attacking the backlog of files that you want to digitize so that you can ditch all the physical storage space. But it’s worth it: Your day-to-day becomes a lot easier when you can just type in a search query and pull up a line from a document that would’ve taken you hours of thumbing through a massive box full of paper to find otherwise.

Let’s talk software. There are great options, free and paid, to get this done. You’ll need software to turn scans into text-based PDFs, plus somewhere cloud-based to store all those files.

Searchable PDF Software

The easiest and most user-friendly solution is to pay for commercial PDF software. Adobe Acrobat DC has a $15 per month subscription that comes with the Pro PDF software and Adobe Sign, and allows you to batch process all of those scans you have sitting around in a folder: Pay a few assistants to come in on a weekend for a scanning binge, set Adobe loose on the files, and voila—your backlog is complete and your PDFs are now all text-searchable.

An alternative is Foxit Phantom PDF, which in my experience is a little faster and more stable than Adobe’s offerings—it also has batch OCR functionality.

ABBYY, my longtime friend (though I use a very old version), is a little pricier, but has a very interesting feature if you buy the higher-tier package: It will convert scans to text for any files placed in a “hot folder.” This is great for automatically converting each and every scan as you go, especially in high-volume offices. Adobe lacks this automation feature, though your scanner may already convert scans to text-searchable PDFs at the time of scanning, or you can just make “run it through Adobe” part of your filing procedures. ABBYY is second to none when it comes to accurately reading text from a scanned image.

And a free option, since many of us solos cringe at adding yet another subscription, is Paperwork, an open source document management and OCR system that will scan, recognize text, and index all of your files, allowing you to search through the text of each and every page of your hundreds of closed cases. (How many times have you thought, “I know I’ve handled a case with this issue … a breach of fiduciary duty issue…” but couldn’t recall the case name?)

And finally, an outside-the-box option is note-taking software. Both Microsoft OneNote (free) and Evernote (free and paid tiers) are meant to catalog your notes into easily searchable and indexed notebooks—and both include the OCR technology to make your scans searchable. 

I know some lawyers who organize all of their cases through OneNote, creating a new tab or notebook for each client, and adding notes from anywhere: A phone, tablet, or computer, and every note or scan they input is instantly text-searchable. Personally, I aspire to get that organized someday, though I’d also include standalone PDF files in case I need to quickly burn off copies of a document or email it to opposing counsel.

Hardware: Get a brilliant scanner (or three)

We’ve mentioned scanning, which as you probably guessed, will require a scanner.

Consider a powerful desktop scanner for day-to-day filings, as clients will mail or drop off paper files. Many lawyers swear by the Fujitsu ScanSnap series, though I’ve never seen fit to invest hundreds of dollars in a single-purpose device—even if they do come with all of the software and features you could ever need.

Many all-in-one printers have scanners, obviously, but if you go the all-in-one route, look for one with duplex scanning. I use a ten-year-old workhorse Brother multifunction machine that has two-sided scanning and it has never failed me. Newer Brother machines—including literally the model released after mine (of course)—can scan directly into OneNote, as well as other online services.

Smartphones are ubiquitous and there are a handful of great scanner apps that allow you to take pictures of documents on the go: Office Lens (by Microsoft), Adobe Scan, CamScanner, and OneNote (the mobile app has Office Lens’s functionality built-in).

There are also portable scanners. If you are regularly doing house calls, for example, if you’re an estate planning attorney, consider a portable scanner. There are a handful of standalone options, including a SnapScan model, while I personally employ a HP OfficeJet 250—a battery-powered printer/scanner/copier to copy finalized estate plans and documents on site.

Somewhere to store your files

How about Clio Manage? If you are a Clio user, you get all the storage you could ever need with Clio. You can also set up an integration with a cloud-storage provider, like  OneDrive, Box, Dropbox, or Google Drive first. Clio will then create folders for all matters in the cloud drive, which you can then easily drag files to from your computer, and they’ll sync to both the cloud drive and Clio.

FasterLaw is a great add-on for Clio as well. It includes FasterDrive, which turns Clio’s storage into its own cloud storage platform—a la DropBox.

You can also, of course, just use one of the aforementioned cloud storage providers on its own: just create new folders for each past or present client and start dragging files over. 

The Sooner You Get Started, The More Time You’ll Save

I know taking your law firm paperless sounds like a massive, massive project. And it is. You and your entire staff will have to get used to storing things on a cloud drive instead of a paper folder in a filing cabinet. Instead of taking notes on a yellow pad, you will probably want to start using a smart phone or tablet.

But here’s the major upside: When disaster strikes, such as the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 which has forced nearly all of us to work from home on short notice, a paperless, cloud-based system allows you to pick up your work from anywhere. Compare my paperless situation with that of with my friends who had to move their files to their homes, and they were schlepping boxes while trying to troubleshoot phones, filing, and workflows with their staff while managing their personal lives and prepping for the pandemic. They had to advance their technology by decades in a day.

That’s not to minimize the task in front of you. It will be difficult to migrate to the cloud. And you don’t have to do it all at once. Maybe start with active cases, or have your most tech-savvy attorney make the jump first and work out the kinks in your system before everybody jumps on board. With a bit of determination and a lot of patience, you can do it.

If you’ve still got questions, jump into the Clio Co-Counsel Facebook group and ask other members of the legal community how they have approached their paperless systems.