Paper cut – the digital office

A paperless environment is the ideal, but how realistic a proposition is it?

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In brief

Like every other industry, the law is moving from analogue to digital and paperless document management is now a reality. But how should firms handle the changing environment and what sort of issues should they be keeping on top of?

Q: Do you think that a ‘paperless’ law firm office is ever going to be a possibility?

Gareth Ash
Gareth Ash

Gareth Ash, chief information officer, Allen & Overy:

It depends on what one defines as ‘paperless’. More and more legal work will be conducted in virtual files, client extranets and collaboration spaces. Workflow systems will increase in usage to control most legal processes, while document automation and other tools will replace much of the ‘hand crafting’ of documents. Therefore, the need for paper will diminish.

However, the lawyer’s personal preference to read hard copy will remain. But the influx of Generation Y, used to reading from a screen, the rising tide of mobility devices that are not suited to printing and the advance of eBook-type applications will mean the preference to read hard copy will start to fizzle out.

Ben Weinberger, director of IT and facilities, Bond Pearce: Paperless, in reality, is a relative term. I think it’s possible – and likely in the near term – that paper should be unnecessary for most firms.

We’re converting our remaining groups to electronic files this year; that doesn’t mean we’re eliminating paper, but it means we’re eliminating the need for storing files in paper format. People will still hold paper in their hands, though, as they may prefer to work on it in that format. However, they’ll have no reason to keep that paper, so when they’re no longer working on it (as work-in-progress) they can simply recycle it.

Paul Caris, chief information officer, Eversheds: For many lawyers paper documents are a way of life and resistance to change is high in this area. Nonetheless, the concept of a (nearly) paperless office is still realisable, as mobile devices and platforms allow us to find new ways to deliver the same services.

At Eversheds we monitor our paper consumption and over the past few years have reduced significantly that consumption by introducing technologies such as the iPad and encouraging our lawyers to access our document management system from any device using our Eversheds Anywhere technology.

The ‘paperless revolution’ will not happen easily, though. It will require a change in attitudes, and in particular challenging accepted wisdom, such as the requirement for physical signatures on documents. All of these are issues for which tools already exist and, coupled with a workforce demanding the same benefits in their work life as in their personal, this will drive the adoption of paperless working practices faster than ever.

ciara mooney-bell
Ciara Mooney-Bell

Ciara Mooney-Bell, London head of IT, Baker & McKenzie: Not really. A completely paperless office is probably impossible to achieve. Even if a firm has moved to full electronic document and records management there’ll always be some records that have to be managed in hard copy for legislative, statutory or business risk reasons. Client processes might also require paper sometimes.

But, if by paperless office we mean continuing to reduce paper, then yes, that is viable.

Q: What sectors or industries use document management practices that law firms should learn from, and why?

Ash: This may sound like arrogance, but I haven’t come across another sector that legal can learn from when it comes to document management – law tends to push the envelope. I was previously in financial services and insurance and these sectors never had anything like legal does.

At A&O we often get asked by firms in other sectors to demonstrate how we deal with document management. I should be clear that this doesn’t mean other sectors don’t have more up-to-date technologies in this space, rather that the cutting-edge thinking tends to come from law firms. However, as the amount of information continues to grow and the value of sharing knowledge within a firm is recognised as a valuable asset, other sectors will play a greater part.

Weinberger: I continue to be amazed that so many businesses still lack cohesive record management strategies. Law firms have been ahead of the game here for years, which may surprise many people. Other businesses talk about document management, but they’re talking about much less mature models.

Nevertheless, there are some industries from which legal can learn a thing or two. Pharmaceuticals and some medical practices – few at this stage, but some – can provide some decent advice when it comes to tweaking aspects of document management.

Paul Caris
Paul Caris

Caris: There are many document management models that law firms could learn from – financial services businesses, pharmaceuticals companies and local and central government all have document management requirements that could be models for law firms. However, in this time of rapid changes in technology and regulation, there’s also a strong need to consider all possibilities and not be led down a single track by existing capabilities.

Our approach is to seek out the best solutions in every area of the document lifecycle and present these as options to fee-earners so they can determine the tools that best suit them. Rather than follow what a given sector has done, it’s important to take the best from every area and combine these to give a solution that’s robust and flexible.

Mooney-Bell: I’m not sure that any one sector has got this right yet and it’s probably true to say that different sectors have different practices that reflect their specific challenges. But there are things that can be learnt and it’s good practice to learn from and benchmark against what others are doing.

For example, law firms may be able to learn from what the Government’s been doing in recent years to improve security. There’s been a focus on information assurance and actively managing the risks of using, processing, storing and handling particularly sensitive information. As a result document management systems have rigorous security models applied.

Q: What will be the advantages for law firms that have invested in their document management functions over the past few years, in contrast to those that have tried to make cost savings in this area?

Ash: Law firms create documents, that’s their product, and document management’s an integral part of the production line. Document management, along with practice management, lies at the heart of a law firm and will drive collaboration and knowledge-sharing and help to institutionalise clients, improve working processes and practices and allow for appropriate security measures to be applied.

Weinberger
Ben Weinberger

Weinberger: Those who’ve made cost savings without focusing on the longer-term strategy are probably still operating with policies that aren’t as holistic as they should be. Their physical and electronic records policies aren’t in sync. They may not have implemented systems to streamline the scanning and filing process, which means their teams are less efficient. This is becoming increasingly important with the price pressures in the market eroding margins.

Caris: Law firms are all about the conversion of huge bodies of knowledge and experience into specific, bespoke advice for clients, which importantly is delivered universally in the form of documents. As such, the efficient management of the document lifecycle, while never a competitive edge in itself, will always be a core function for law firms.

Where firms have made a significant investment in this area, they’ll create an environment in which their lawyers can be more productive, more mobile and more readily available to give clients advice at short notice. Such investments, though, need to be throughout the document lifecycle, not just in one aspect. For example, at Eversheds we’ve invested in iPads to make lawyers productive on the move; in a flexible working environment we’re improving document search capabilities to enable precedents to be found more easily; and we’ve implemented innovative techniques for digital dictation to make the creation of documents more efficient. We can already see all of these giving us an edge over other firms.

Mooney-Bell: The issue here will always be, who has best realised the benefits of their investment in technology? It’s not enough to just buy the kit; you also need to change your business processes, your people’s daily routines, and actively manage your knowledge assets if you want to maximise the benefit of your investment.

Firms that do this well will be more competitive and more successful. Good document management reduces costs and increases productivity because users have better access to data and are better able to collaborate on documents across locations.

Q: How should document management be addressed by law firms and training providers when it comes to training the next generation of lawyers?

Ash: Using a system that’s core to your business means users (the lawyers) need to be expert in using it to ensure they’re efficient and get the most out of the technology. Demonstrating the reasons why a system such as document management is used and the benefits it can bring help to drive adoption – after all, one wants the lawyer to embrace the system, not fight it.

Weinberger: I think it’s important to focus on the big picture and ensure that the lawyers understand the value and purpose. Once they appreciate why systems are set up in a particular manner, they’re not only better at using the systems, but also better able to make meaningful suggestions for improving them further.

Weinberger

Caris: In training new lawyers, firms and their suppliers need to make a clear distinction between the questions of why document management’s required and of how it’s to be practised. It will remain vital that all staff understand the core principles underpinning good document practices: the need to protect client confidentiality, the requirement to document advice and the necessity of being able to recreate a client file at short notice.

However, in a 21st-century law firm these principles need to be distinguished clearly from the implementation in practice. In the past many firms have put their faith in monolithic and inflexible document management environments that are clearly developing signs of strain under the rising demands of a new tech-savvy, ever-mobile and ever-global workforce.

Instead, a flexible set of tools must be deployed that skilled fee-earners can employ as they see fit. Every document must be filed in a retrievable form, but the methods used for that filing must be simple, efficient and above all flexible.

Mooney-Bell: The next generation is much more comfortable working in a ‘paperless’ environment. The big challenge for firms will be to keep up with the next generation’s demands for how and where they can access their information and documents along with all the inherent data security issues that brings.

Training will have to focus on working practices rather than how the document management system works and on ensuring lawyers understand the security risks and implications of accessing their information from any device, in any place. They’ll have higher expectations of how internal business systems should work, having grown used to efficient user interfaces in other aspects of their lives.

Sponsored viewpoint: Kofax

One of the most hotly debated topics in document management is around the paperless office and this is clearly a huge consideration for the legal profession. The panel discussion has highlighted the cultural change that needs to take place before the adoption of paperless working is widespread in a law office.

People like paper – they can feel it, write, sketch and draw on it, making it ideal for reading and annotating anywhere. There is still a fear factor associated with electronic documents, and some legislative, statutory and business risk reasons for keeping some documents in hard copy.

It is certainly encouraging though to see that law firms are maximising the opportunities presented by the latest consumer technologies to help ease the transition towards device-based document management.

Many industries don’t offer the support and infrastructure for office workers, with a lack of integration to make devices at home and the office work together seamlessly. It is also interesting to note that the legal profession is actually pushing the boundaries in the realm of electronic document management, embracing a range of flexible solutions that will adapt to their changing needs. One size most definitely doesn’t fit all, and this is a significant message that the legal industry can convey to other sectors.

The panel discussion also emphasised the importance of training when rolling out document management processes. Employees need to understand ‘what’s in it for them’ if they are going to participate fully and adopt good practices. Particularly in the legal profession, this means understanding and prioritising data protection.

Paper is good for some things and it’s not about getting rid of it completely, but understanding where an electronic alternative can be used instead. Businesses want credible, tried and tested solutions to successfully manage business processes right through from the receipt of a document through to its processing and eventual storage.

However drastic the change – be it automating all manual paper-based processes or banning employees from printing all together – the effort needs championing at a senior level in order to get buy-in across the company and to its customers beyond.

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