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Going paperless at the office is possible with some astute planning, determination
By Luigi Benetton

April 02 2010 issue

If a clean desk is a clean mind, what do the papers on your desk say about your mind?

Increasingly, lawyers answer that question by replacing piles of paper with that most prominent of paperless-office machines, the scanner.

While critics argue that youíll find paperless offices when you find paperless restrooms, the misnomer hasnít prevented people from reducing the amount of paper they use, nor from sharing their experiences and lessons learned along the way.

Reducing the workload
Brock Smith, a partner in Clark Wilson LLPís Technology and IP Group, finds traditional office copier-scanners cumbersome. 'Theyíre not mouse-driven, theyíre all touch-screen,' he explains.

But the models in his office can perform all related tasks ó optical character recognition (OCR), emailing, filing and so forth ó as part of the scan operation. 'You only have to deal with it once,' Smith says.

Support scanning enthusiasts
Smith describes himself as one of the lawyers who drink the 'paperless office Kool-Aid.' So when the firm rolled out about a dozen MFPs (multi-function printers, all-in-one scanners, copiers, printers and fax machines), he had one directed to his assistantís desk.

'Everything that arrives for me gets scanned,' he says, 'then filed directly into our document management system.'

Reduce wait times, part one
Clark Wilson staff didnít take to scanning right away. 'There were ten-minute waits to get to scanners,' Smith recalls. That experience caused the firm to accelerate its scanner rollout, which included the aforementioned MFPs. 'Scanning went up dramatically,' Smith says.

Reduce wait times, part two
Scanning speed also makes a difference. Since faster scanners generally cost more, law student Omar Ha-Redeye offers the following suggestions: small offices can make do with speeds of 25 pages per minute (ppm), midsize firms may opt for 50 ppm, and large firms can go for 100 ppm.

'If you want to move massive numbers of documents, you donít want people sitting around,' Ha-Redeye says.

What to scan
'We scan every document,' says Toronto real estate lawyer David Feld, adding that people ought to scan documents that they will use more than once.

How to scan
Another potential obstacle: different scanning procedures in separate departments. These can frustrate junior lawyers who work across different practice groups whose inconsistent policies (whether to scan, what paper to keep and so forth) can cause confusion.

The solution: a universal scanning policy. 'As difficult as that may be for the lawyers to handle at the outset, they get used to it,' Smith asserts.

Making documents 'findable'
Scanners can create image files from paper documents, but lawyers want more. OCR makes the text in scanned files (Adobe PDFs are the undisputed standard here) machine-readable which, when combined with a powerful search tool, greatly lessens the time it takes lawyers to find documents that contain specific keywords.

'Itís all about searchability,' contends Ha-Redeye. 'If youíre not going to use OCR from the get-go, donít bother scanning. I just donít see the point.'

Naming files
Smithís firm did not use OCR from the get-go, relying instead on consistent file naming practices. He admits that OCR plus a universal search tool would lessen, but not eliminate, the need to name documents. 'We donít want 87 documents named Ďscanned document,í' he says.

Creating readable files
Digital documents look clearer when scanners capture the paper versions at higher resolutions, especially when they contain anything not written in black.

Resolution, however, comes at a price ó much larger files. Sometimes the price is worth paying, like in the case of architectural drawings or photos, but for plain text documents, 600 dpi (dots per inch) suffices.

Add some colour ó sparingly
A colour scanner can come in handy. Smith suggests keeping it set to black and white by default since colour scanning, like higher resolutions, creates much larger files even if the originals are black and white. 'Iíve annoyed clients with this,' Smith admits.

Fast finding
Even if everybody minimizes file sizes, PDFs will pile up on file servers.

Ha-Redeye recommends getting fast document servers to speed up searches through PDF haystacks. 'Servers can get bogged down when many people search for documents at the same time,' Ha-Redeye says.

Closely related to file server capacity is backup. Feld goes the extra mile to protect his information. 'We use multiple systems,' he says. 'Our data is backed up to four drives as it hits the server, then it gets incrementally backed up to another four drives, then it gets backed up nightly to an offsite secure server.'

Smithís office backs its files up in another province. Also, the firm uses mirrored drives on-site to prevent disruptions. 'If the main drive is on fire, most users donít know thereís a problem unless they smell smoke,' he quips, 'and then they run.'

Scanner makers bundle software like Adobe Acrobat with their wares, but Ha-Redeyeís Acrobat experience hasnít been entirely satisfactory. 'For older documents that contain different font sets, itís more challenging for Adobe to recognize words, so I use ABBYY FineReader,' he says. 'It seems to get just about any text or font type that causes problems for Adobe.'

Feld offers encouragement to prospective paperless lawyers. 'Itís worth the initial headaches as you make the transition,' he says. 'The end result is a super-efficient office. With no paper around, you it makes it easier to focus on one thing at a time and it avoids spillover of paperwork from one file to another.'

Benefits can also be financial. Case in point: Smithís office no longer houses a filing cabinet.

'We didnít think that we would be able to pull filing cabinets out of peopleís offices, go to smaller offices and reduce lease space just by going to a paperless office model,' he says.

'Itís becoming an expectation for new lawyers,' adds Ha-Redeye. 'If youíre not going paperless, if you donít have the latest scanner technology, youíre not a place where people want to work.

'If I can make 300 billable hours more at another firm doing the same amount of work, just because they have better systems there, I feel more fulfilled and I feel like Iím getting more out of my time in the office.'

Click here to see this article in our digital edition (available to subscribers).

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