Getting rid of the comfort blanket

It’s time to replace the paper comfort blanket with an electronic matter file, says Roy Russell

It’s no surprise that digital transformation is going to drive technology adoption in law firms this year. The current business landscape demands a digital environment for operation. However, the success of digital transformation, to a large extent, will hinge upon a firm-wide adoption of a complete electronic matter file.

A clear and simple strategy for the transition from a full or part paper matter file to a 100 per cent digital matter file – complete with intuitive, integrated e-mail and document management processes – is fundamental. It will enable firms, large and small, to think about flow of information in an innovative way. And not just within the confines of their own organisations, but how they exchange information and communicate with external parties too.

Paper, the lawyer’s comfort blanket

Lawyers still prefer to work with paper and so law firms capitulate. They continue to facilitate a paper-based way of working by supporting file rooms and expensive off site storage warehouses. To be fair though, despite lawyers’ reluctance to fully embrace the electronic format, paper has been hard to eliminate entirely from business generally.

Paper can’t be removed from the office overnight. To slowly wean the lawyers off the paper habit without enforcing a cold turkey approach, firms must allow for paper processes while simultaneously digitising and storing the documents within the electronic matter file. To increase user acceptance of the digital file, there also need to be quality assurance processes to prove that accurate facsimiles of the paper records have indeed been captured.

Only then can the paper records be destroyed with confidence, safe in the knowledge that they can be accessed and reproduced as necessary.

Why is a single, electronic matter file important?

Basically, electronic files are easy and cost-effective to store, especially as today records aren’t simply Microsoft Word documents, but also text messages, emails, voicemail and app-related communications. By keeping all interrelated documents in a unified electronic file across the organisation, it becomes possible to preserve the original context of the content and provide a holistic view of a case.

Over time, this accumulated information becomes corporate knowledge and as a digital asset it can be easily shared and mined throughout the firm for generations to come. With the right tools, firms can analyse and understand in more detail things such as what they know, how they execute matters, what the true costs of managing a matter are, and what differentiates them from competitors.

Crucially, firms can use the information to transform the business, increase customer satisfaction and be cost efficient.

While it’s impossible to immediately change lawyers’ affinity to a paper-based practice of the law, there’s a business case for initiating a change in mindset towards an electronic format. It requires adopting a measured approach that systematically addresses the issues and concerns of lawyers while demonstrating the efficiency and productivity benefits tangibly.

Email and document management processes underpin an electronic matter file. And there are some approaches that firms can take towards establishing an electronic matter file to the direct benefit to lawyers.

Consider email – today’s de facto communication and collaboration tool. A vast proportion of a law firm’s knowledge resides in lawyers’ inboxes.

The problem of course is that the inbox is unstructured and it’s difficult to draw out the valuable information that sits within the messages residing in these electronic containers. Unless proactively shared with named individuals, the knowledge remains inaccessible to others in the organisation and therefore meaningless. It’s akin to placing critical information in cold storage that no one can access except the individuals who own the inboxes. And even then, over time, it’s natural for individuals to forget that those precious nuggets of information exist and it becomes orphaned from the people that could benefit from it.

A firm-wide email management system will allow lawyers to save important correspondence to a matter folder routinely.

Such technologies learn who is working on what and can suggest or auto file emails to the correct matter. When working in the office, on the move or remotely, lawyers will be able to save all critical emails automatically in the right matter folder within the firm’s document management system from their desktop, laptop, smart phone or tablet, with a simple “send and file” command.

The risk of not filing important information or breaking the thread of critical communication saved to the electronic matter file will be eliminated or minimised.

Searchable PDFs

Managing incoming post is still a key activity in law firms.

Fee earners identify the documents that need to be scanned and then the original is filed in an office cabinet or sent away for storage in a warehouse.

There should no longer be a need to retain the paper, but the issue is that without quality control checks on the resultant PDF documents to ensure that a good quality representation of the original has been captured, how can firms have the confidence to immediately destroy the original paper documents?

Additionally, PDFs created from most scanning processes are in effect just images of the document and so cannot be indexed. They may be stored in the firm’s matter or document management system, but aren’t searchable. This defeats the objective of going digital, in turn making the benefit of the approach to lawyers questionable.

Instead, by embedding an optical character recognition (OCR) engine in either the scan process or the document management repository, PDF image files can be automatically converted into text-searchable PDF+Text documents.

Document management systems can then index them, allowing lawyers to easily search the content of every document in the firm and locate it in the electronic matter file by context.

A functional, intuitive, matter-centric system

Many firms use the document management modules within their practice management systems for records and information management. Often, the functionality of these modules isn’t adequate.

For example, some systems place restrictions on the number of documents that can be saved to a single folder, or offer little or no search functionality. Very few provide any true mobile solution.

These Jack-of-all-trades applications are in fact holding back the business transformation in many law firms, especially in the small to medium firm market. Furthermore, typically, if it takes lawyers extra time and mouse clicks to save a document or an email into a system, they are unlikely to undertake the operation, which hinders establishment of a complete electronic matter file.

Therefore, it’s critical to adopt a best-of-breed document management solution, which has been well proven within a legal environment and can be tightly integrated with the firm’s email system.

Slick handover of matter files to clients

Clients expect their law firm to transfer matter-related documentation periodically during the course of the matter and at its close.

Developing a physical copy of the matter file is time consuming and requires a fair amount of man hours to put the dossier together. With an electronic matter file, the activity will be easier and take a fraction of the time it typically takes.

Also, the presentation of the folder will be slicker. Documents will be properly catalogued and indexed. The dossier will also off er superior search and navigational functionality, which is useful due to the size of such files. Clients appreciate good presentation and it provides them assurance that all the critical information is indeed
included in the dossier.

The bedrock of any successful technology adoption

A single, electronic matter file underpinned by email and document management processes is the bedrock of technology success. Without an electronic matter file, digital transformation will likely remain a far cry. Already, most IT systems today provide process automation and management capability that firms don’t necessarily use due to a lack of electronic information flows – paper is a real obstacle to ensuring a return on investment from technology.

The success of law firms will be severely impeded without a clear and achievable strategy to reduce
paper within the workplace.

Roy Russell is CEO of Ascertus Limited

Roy Russell_Found & CEO Ascertus Limited