Why the legal sector shouldn’t focus on being paperless but rather paper-light
According to recent findings 67 per cent of US law practitioners believe paperless firms will be the norm by 20201. However, across the pond progress to achieve paper-free environments is a little slower. Rather than focusing on the daunting prospect of achieving ‘paper-free’ operations, Craig Smith, divisional managing director for Parseq explores the potential available to those working within the legal sector to instead become ‘paper-light’.
It’s fair to say that there are a few ‘paper-free’ sceptics, but it’s hard to deny the figures which support a drive towards it. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimates that if businesses remove paper from their operations, they could potentially improve business productivity by as much as 30 per cent2. A figure which we predict could be far higher within the legal sector.
A company based in the Netherlands has exceeded expectation of what is achievable. Decos’ office in Noordwijk is the world’s most extreme paperless environments and boasts 100 per cent sustainability status. Remarkably this has been attained by eradicating the use of bins, putting into place a strict ‘no notebooks’ rule, a complete removal of the use of business cards and most extreme of all, flushing out the use of toilet paper by introducing bidets.
I agree that this route to achieving paper-free status isn’t realistic, possible or in fact, necessary for most businesses especially those operating within the legal sector when paper still remains fundamental for court applications and documentation such as Wills. But it is time that the sector stopped burying its heads in the sand and instead of focusing on becoming ‘paper-free’ why not aim for the more attainable status of being ‘paper-light’?
According to Xerox the average working office will use 10,000 sheets of paper a year, with 45 per cent of those being thrown away within 24 hours3. Those working within the legal sector know that 10,000 sheets of paper could account for one court bundle, particularly if you factor in the number of hard copies produced – for the fee earners, barristers and to retain an archived record. This means the full picture of paper use and subsequent wastage in the sector is in reality far higher and more costly.
The environmental impact of this is evident, but take into account what this could mean to a firm’s bottom line in administration assistants salaries, the time used by fee earners, archive storage and overall material cost and things can spiral out of control. At a time when the sector is facing many financial challenges, particularly those felt by the Jackson Reforms, these often unnecessary costs are something even the most successful firms could benefit from stripping out.
A paper-light office is one that takes away the taboo of a completely paperless office and what may seem to be a mammoth task can be broken down to make more manageable. Less demanding areas of the business can be targeted at a time or simple changes such as creating a policy which means that any correspondence which enter a firm are immediately digitised, indexed by fee earner and filed electronically against the case reference. Additionally, such a policy will prove hugely beneficial at reducing the opportunity for case notes to be ‘lost’ due to human error in the masses of correspondence firms can receive on a daily basis.
Another successful way at starting off this process is to rationalise what can be tackled effectively in the short-term and what needs to be planned as a long term strategy. For example, instead of making the decision to digitally archive everything why not only tackle cases which have recently been completed and will need to be stored for up to six years or those within a specific fee bracket, such as Small Claims and Fast Track?
In-house scanning is a popular method of digital document management, but this demands a lot of administration resource which is not only costly, but also means the digital data is essentially a PDF photocopy of the document. Innovation within digital mail rooms means that scanning from OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software detects text in the document. This enables the entire document to be searchable by key word, client name or a case reference. Much more efficient than rifling through a wad of paper or scouring through files – printed or network hosted. For most firms it doesn’t make financial sense to buy this technology outright, but it does to partner with a specialist, such as Parseq, who can digitally process sector documentation to the same quality of necessary legal standards.
By harnessing the advantages of a document management system and working with a specialist provider who has knowledge of the specific needs of the sector, legal professionals will be able to access files from anywhere. Putting an end to problems such as wading through endless case bundles and barristers transporting hefty hard copy files to and from court.
Document management systems can maintain a full audit trial which means firms can stop spending money on archiving and retrieval. Invaluable when you consider that recent findings suggest that 11 per cent of printed documents are lost within business2.
A paper-light office can help firms improve the way they manage their documents with the confidence of a secure paper record combined with the speed of digital records. It will also free up valuable office space – a huge benefit for those in premium city centre locations – increase productivity and fee earner capacity.
For most operations achieving a 100 per cent paperless status isn’t achievable, but becoming ‘paper-light’ is not only possible for the legal sector but it’s also massively beneficial at reducing resource, square footage and operational wastage.
So what’s stopping your firm from becoming paper-light?
\ Document Management (including Digital Mail room)
\ Paperless Payment Processing (making and receiving payments)