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The Paper-Light Revolution

Dianne McDonald | May 3rd, 2016

It is a well-known fact that lawyers are stereotypically conservative. If you have ever been into the back office of a law firm, two things stand out: the constant hum of the printer and the mountain of files in each office. Yet these are only the ‘current’ files; for every file in the office, there are considerably more in off-site storage facilities (some for as many as 50 years, in order to meet minimum requirements).

Our team decided to re-evaluate these inefficiencies and adopt an innovative approach to our paper policies, which turned out to be more groundbreaking than we realised. To date, very few Melbourne law firms are paper-light and we have been approached by a number of firms for guidance on how to transform to this alternative.

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Originally, mdp had a dual system of both paper and electronic files for 11 years. Staff would keep both as a ‘security blanket’, with no one being entirely sure if either system was complete.

We then decided 20 months ago to take the leap and stop using physical files and commit to saving everything electronically. At this time, we had just updated our software, which provided an easier method for saving emails, a better document storage system and a more versatile precedent system. This presented the perfect opportunity to introduce paper-light.

Of course, we are not entirely paperless. We still store original documents such as wills, contracts and court documents. Also, staff occasionally print documents for reading and consideration purposes. However, documents, except for original documents, are shredded when no longer required, leaving our bookshelves and filing cabinets mostly empty.

At the time we made the change, I was pleasantly surprised by how positively all our staff responded. We started the process immediately, cross-checking current and new files and ensuring that everything was saved digitally. At first, everyone still felt the need to hit the print button but now lawyers can go days without printing anything, the admin staff are utilising their time on more productive work (rather than the constant filing) and we no longer have to hunt around the office for a file as everything is saved electronically. We now have a de-cluttered office and a more efficient workplace.

Our tips for anyone considering the paper-light revolution include:

  1. You need at least one person with a passion to devise a plan and drive it as old habits are hard to change, especially in the early days of the transition.
  2. Take the time to present your case to your staff and consider all their queries as often they will raise something you had not thought of. It takes a team effort, with everyone on board, or otherwise it will not work.
  3. Make a date and do it. You cannot take a half hearted approach by doing it in parts.
  4. Make sure your IT is up-to-scratch. If you’re going to go online, make sure you have good back-ups and security in place.
  5. Be patient. Some people will continue to print emails or documents to read and that is okay, so long as they are saving it and know it will eventually be shredded. As time goes by they will print less and less.

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Still not convinced? Here are a few extra paper-light benefits:

  1. Improved efficiency and productivity. For example, three people can work on the one document from three different locations (given it is stored digitally).
  2. Help the community! We have given away over 1000 binders to schools and organisations, with still more to go.
  3. Better utilisation of admin staff. We have freed up at least one to two days per week of admin time in filing which, considering we are a small law firm, is significant.
  4. Costs saving! We are saving costs on paper, other stationery, electricity, printer servicing and toners.
  5. De-clutter and gain space. We no longer require so many book shelves and filing cabinets, freeing up office space.
  6. More cost savings! We have not sent a file to offsite storage in 18 months. We will eventually be able to destroy all documents in storage as the files that need to be kept more than 7 years are in the process of being scanned and saved electronically.
  7. Improved job satisfaction for admin staff as filing was their number-one, most-dreaded and thankless task.
  8. Our trust auditor spends less time in the office as I email reports to him.

And finally, litigation law firms say it’s not possible for them, but already the system is heading to an electronic world. As of 1 August 2016, it will be mandatory to e-file all civil court documents for the Victorian County Court and there are a number of e-trials now in progress across the country, with 14 in Queensland courts.

You too can get ahead of the game, if you start now!

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Written by Dianne McDonald

Dianne McDonald joined mdp coming from a background in industrial relations and business management. Dianne is responsible for HR, practice infrastructure, trust accounts and managing mdp’s compliance with the requirements of professional bodies including the Law Institute of Victoria, the Legal Services Board and the Legal Practice Board.