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Bar News - April 16, 2014

New Lawyers Column: The Paperless Dream: Why Havenít We Realized It?


It seems as though everyone has been touting the magic of the paperless office for years Ė decades, even. Countless articles excitedly tick off the benefits of the brave new paperless world. Itís cost-effective. Itís good for the environment. It allows you to take your entire office with you wherever you go (because who wouldnít want to do that?), and to easily access any document you need with lightning speed. With the searching capabilities of most document management systems, you can avoid the misfiling nightmares you might otherwise face if you maintain only paper files. Perhaps most importantly, if paperless offices were to become the norm, it would mean an end to the file-storage wars that are no doubt grappled with daily in law firms around the world.

Yes, the paperless office sounds pretty fantastic. So, why arenít we all paperless? First, despite its many pros, the paperless office is not without cons. Document management systems can be expensive, and the cost of keeping up with the software updates and upgrades should not be underestimated. Furthermore, the paperless office can still fall victim to human error. Data entry is not always done correctly, and it is reasonable to expect that some documents might be improperly or incompletely scanned. In addition, technology sometimes fails, and when it does, itís impossible to get anything done until those IT angels come to the rescue. Your old friend paper, by contrast, is always there for you. Unless you lose it. Or spill something on it.

For some people, these cons are enough to write off transitioning to the paperless world entirely because, as a practical matter, that transition is rather daunting. Depending on the number of files in your office, it could take a significant amount of time and effort to go completely paperless. Certain elements of the paperless office, moreover, can be downright frightening to a lawyer who has always maintained paper files, and can raise more questions than they seem to resolve. Expensive software or cloud storage? If youíre headed to the cloud, which cloud storage service will you use? Do its security and confidentiality procedures comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct? Does the thought of cloud storage give you nightmares about hackers, improperly comingled client information, and accidental disclosures? What and where exactly is this cloud everyone is talking about, anyway?

Above all, however, it seems most likely that lawyers arenít paperless because change is difficult. Many lawyers and law firms are currently in limbo, with half of their documents in paper form and half in electronic form. Within a firm, ďgoing paperlessĒ may represent an ongoing debate among attorneys, with some vehemently demanding as little paper as possible and others insisting (with equal vehemence) on maintaining their prized collection of carefully organized Red welds, which contain hard copies of every email they have ever received. There are also those indecisive folks who choose to maintain both a paper file and an electronic file.

Ultimately, going paperless is easier said than done because it involves entirely reworking how information flows in and out of your office, developing new policies and procedures, and encouraging (forcing?) everyone in your office to depart from their long established, and very comfortable, routines.

Although you might be tempted to turn your back on the paperless office, like death and taxes, it cannot be ignored. As courts and the rest of the world move in the paperless direction, it will become increasingly important to understand, and become comfortable with, all of the elements of the paperless world. In the end, this will likely be a dream that we are all forced to realize, whether we like it or not.

Megan C. Carrier

Megan C. Carrier is a litigation associate at Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green in Manchester, NH. She joined the bar in 2011 and is a member of the NH Bar Associationís New Lawyers Committee.

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