06:00 AM

Paperless practice tips

By: Paul Unger and Jeffrey Schoenberger

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of mobility and the ability to work from anywhere. Before the pandemic, when we presented on "mobile lawyering" topics, we would spend 20% of the presentation preaching the virtues of being able to access matter information wherever you were (that doesn’t mean being “always available”). Examples included looking up facts or phone numbers at court or feeling comfortable leaving work early to attend a child's sporting event. The COVID-19 pandemic added a new spin on the importance of being able to "pick up and go."

Depending on the sophistication of your pre-pandemic setup, you may have felt some acute pains or noticed technology gaps. Below are ideas to address potential gaps.

It's not all or nothing

Don't think of going paperless, or "paper less" to start, as akin to extreme dieting. You don't have to throw out all your legal pads as though they were Halloween candy, just sitting there tempting you. If you are a fan of handwritten notes, and many studies extol handwritten over typed notes for recollection or "stickiness" in memory, then a good start would be to scan handwritten notes and file them on your computer with the other electronic documents for that matter.

If you don't have a high-quality, easy-to-use desktop scanner, we recommend the Fujitsu ScanSnap line. Their latest model, the ScanSnap iX1600, can usually be found on Amazon for about $400 and works with Windows PCs and Apple Macs. For those with mobile scanning needs, we recommend the ScanSnap S1300i and the ScanSnap iX100. Another portable option is the camera on your smartphone. Both Apple and Android app stores have several mobile apps that make it easy to scan multipage documents, use optical character recognition, and upload them to cloud storage services. SwiftScan is an excellent app for this purpose. It works on iOS and Android. An annual subscription to unlock all features costs $35.

Start with what you already have

Although full-featured document management systems ("DMS") like NetDocuments, iManage, and Worldox have wonderful, valuable features, the first step to paperless doesn't have to be opening your wallet.

If you are a solo or small firm, starting with a sync storage service places you on the right path for having the most recent version of files accessible everywhere. If you subscribe to Microsoft 365, you already have a terabyte of OneDrive space per person included in your plan. If you subscribe to Google Workspace, formerly G Suite, you have two terabytes of space per person already. If you subscribe to neither and just need cloud sync space, Dropbox's business plans start at three terabytes for $200 per year.

These offerings act as giant hard drives that save data from your computer to their servers while ensuring that any computers you connect to the service have access to the most recent versions of every saved file. The Missouri Bar's Practice Management site has an article with guidelines for managing your documents without a DMS, so the storage space has an understandable organization.

If you go this route, we recommend investing in a high-quality search program to help you locate documents. For Windows users, we suggest Copernic Professional Edition for $25 per year. For macOS, HoudahSpot is the way to go, for $35.

Meet PDF, your new pal

Going "paper less" means spending more time working with PDFs. Most legal professionals are comfortable downloading and reading PDFs, but less so with creating and customizing PDFs. Both Windows 10 and macOS can create PDFs as easily as printing to paper. You don't have to print a document and scan it back into the computer. Use the free functionality to create a PDF. Click here to learn what free PDF software can do for you.

More elaborate things with PDFs, like creating bookmarks to different pages or restricting how someone might edit the PDF you make, require spending some money to get a PDF editing program.

Everyone has heard of Adobe Acrobat, the granddaddy of PDF software. Adobe Acrobat Pro is available only as a subscription for $15 per user per month. That $15 per month subscription also includes access to Adobe Sign, Adobe's legally binding e-signature platform. If $15 per month is too much, or you dislike having more subscriptions, many PDF programs are available with the same features as Acrobat Pro (other than Adobe Sign) that you can buy on a traditional "pay once" model. Visit the PDF Programs Comparison Chart for more information.

Besides a good PDF program with editing features to replace your red markup pen, some legal professionals have found it helpful to rotate one of their computer monitors from landscape (wide) to portrait (tall). Rotating a monitor better reflects looking at a real piece of paper. Doing so is a two-step process. First, you must rotate the monitor physically. Most monitors support this out-of-the-box, but not all do. If your monitors do not rotate but do support VESA mounting, like a flat-screen TV, then a $40 stand from Vivo gets you over that hump. Second, you must tell the computer that you flipped the monitor; otherwise, everything will be sideways. Both Windows and macOS make this easy.

A potpourri of paperless practice pointers

  • Audit History: For paper documents, you can't easily know who touched them last or perhaps who lost them entirely. Electronic documents stored in a cloud-sync service can keep a trail of who made what changes when. Dropbox's file recovery feature, for example, lets you look back and undo file changes for up to 180 days. Full DMS programs like NetDocuments take auditing, recovering, and restoring files to a whole other level of capability and security.
  • iPractice on iPad: Once you become comfortable with digital files, if you want to set the legal pad and fountain pen aside, we recommend an iPad and Apple Pencil as your new notebook and pen. The Apple Pencil is key. No other stylus comes close. A base iPad Air ($600) with a second-generation Apple Pencil ($129) combined with either GoodNotes ($8) or Notability ($9) is a game-changer for handwriting fans. GoodNotes and Notability even search your chicken-scratch handwriting as if it were typed text and do a shockingly good job of it.
  • PDF Bonus: Many full-featured PDF programs offer integration with Outlook on Windows, giving you the ability to save an email and its attachments to a "PDF-like" container where the email text is a PDF but the attachments remain in their native formats (e.g., Word, Excel, JPEG, etc.). You can save the email and its attachments as a single bundle.

Have questions? At no cost, members can ask an expert their legal technology or practice management questions via email or by scheduling a one-on-one, remote consultation.