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3 Reasons why the Institutional Framework for Law Firms to Go Paperless is Finally in Place

Going paperless. The phrase alone is enough to send business managers in any vertical into near-fits. The thought of doing away with the longest-lasting component of business process and interaction is nearly incomprehensible – and inspires a healthy fear of change and resistance to the idea at its mention.

But removing paper from business processes isn’t about changing them simply for the sake of change; there are tangible, substantial, and almost immediate benefits to removing paper from business processes. In the legal industry particularly, the framework on the institutional side of the equation is solidifying every year – with many stakeholders having put in place the necessary systems and processes to go paperless already.

This institutional, paperless-readiness raises a number of questions. If the notoriously slow-to-change courts can handle the transition to paperless, might it be time for your law firm to take the plunge as well? How long before it’s no longer even an internal decision to be made, before paperless case management becomes the only option to submit cases or other paperwork to courts? How long before this resistance to change becomes a distinct, competitive disadvantage? Here are three reasons why it’s easier and more sensible than ever for law firms to go paperless, given the state of affairs on the institutional side.

1. Bankruptcy, Federal District, & Appellate Courts Use Paperless Case Management – and other Institutions aren’t far Off

It’s been nearly 16 years since the first bankruptcy courts began rolling out and implementing CM/ECF, the federal court systems’ paperless case management system. Even that initial roll out was bested by the Washington Supreme Court, which has been accepting electronic filings of court documents since 1997 – two decades ago. By as far back as 2004, nearly every federal district and related appellate circuit were using CM/ECF. While the courts have supported the slower-to-change firms by still accepting paper filings to date, the fact that electronic filing systems have become so well-established within the institutional legal frameworks raises the question of just how much longer they will offer that support. A favor extended once – even one extended for a full two decades – may not last forever. And it will be much to the pleasure of firms that have gone paperless if and when such a change does come down. Because they will be the only ones capable of handling case work until the rest of the firms get modern, paper-free processes in place.

2. Malpractice Insurers Have Gone Paperless – and Recommend it as a Best Practice

Lack of adequate documentation of work is one of the leading causes of negative client relations or missed-contractual deadlines, which can lead to malpractice suits. Because of this, malpractice insurers are pushing their clients – law firms - to go paperless – and many agencies in the industry already have. While reliable tracking for accuracy and content of all outgoing documents like letters, briefs, contracts or motions can be difficult in a paper-based system, even basic paperless office procedures can prevent many of these errors from happening. But good file management goes beyond tracking outgoing documentation. Information governance best practices factor in more than that – daily interactions with clients need to be logged, telephone messages and emails all need to be archived. Paper-based systems can no longer viably keep up with the pace of business in a largely paperless world. Consciously implementing a uniform, digitally-based filing system is critical to both day-to-day workflows, and for protecting the firm itself from outside litigation.

3. Compliance Protocols – Documentation is More Searchable & Secure

While institutions like the courts prefer to deal with electronic documents, it is also an operational plus for your law firm, especially if and when government regulators conduct an audit. Properly storing and disposing of physical, private documentation is costly and creates any number of areas for privacy breaches. Firms have failed security audits in previous years because private client information was left sitting out in the open on associate’s desks. Ultimately, it cannot be considered a best business practice to leave documentation related to multi-million dollar, or even larger deals, in stacks of paper on someone’s desk. It’s easier to ensure that case documents are kept secure from a compliance standpoint when an electronic filing system is employed, as opposed to traditional paper-based filing system. It’s also easier to prove that case files were securely stored, or that correspondence was indeed sent in a timely fashion, in the case of a compliance or malpractice audit.

While resistance to change is an incredibly strong force, it is becoming more clear that the courts, and other legal-industry institutions will not be accepting paper documentation forever. Beyond that, reducing or eliminating paper from your internal business practices aids with compliance, streamlines day-to-day operations, and increases security. The only question remaining is what the effects of that resistance to change will be for firms that wait the longest to digitize. 

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