The reality of abandoned law firm offices with files left on desks, in desk drawers or in overstuffed filing cabinets has encouraged many senior partners to consider how they can finally bite the bullet and reduce the amount of paper their firm uses and stores for good. Not only does paper take up valuable space, but it introduces unnecessary security and regulatory risks that could have a negative impact on a firm’s reputation.
The lockdown has presented a golden opportunity for law firms to address their paper-dependency and adopt a new approach towards workplace transformation. But having decided to reduce paper in the office, where should law firms begin? At ClearSpace, we recommend a tried and tested three step approach.
1. Undertake a document audit
Consider where you are now and where you want to be in the future. Key questions to ask at this stage include:
- Who works where?
- When do they work?
- What information do they need access to?
- What information does their team own?
- How much space does their filing occupy?
- How will they work from home in a safe and compliant environment?
- What are their filing processes and retention guidelines?
While the same questions would apply to organisations in any sector, law firms are built around cases, which can run into the tens of thousands per firm. So, as well as mapping out and calculating the space your team will need, you need to understand how many of the case files currently stored in the office should be there.
By instructing ClearSpace, you gain access to an audit team that is experienced in working with law firms and understands how paper files relate to digital case management systems. We quickly classify paper files (wherever they have landed during the lockdown) into three categories of case: open, closed and pending.
All closed case files can be immediately moved off-premise and archived. Pending files normally relate to those cases that are closed but require an additional signature or agreement on small disputes over final fees. Pending and open cases require additional investigation and checks.
2. Carry out interviews
The next stage is to ensure that pending and open case files are dealt with safely. We currently carry out this stage by interviewing legal administrators remotely, as they have the best overview of cases and which ones belong to which groups. This presents an opportunity to close pending cases by securing the necessary signatures or agreement on fees, for example, releasing files into the closed category for immediate archiving.
Remote interviews also provide the opportunity to plan location of paper files that need to remain, and a chance to consider which documents could be scanned and stored electronically.
The interview phase also presents an opportunity for you to understand more about filing habits that exist within your organisation at a department level. These ‘unwritten rules’ can prevent more paperwork from being rationalised. These filing habits are reviewed in line with your organisations records management and retention policy to ensure they are justified and if not, staff can be re-educated in line with the company’s policy and adapt their processes to reduce paper more urgently.
It can be tempting to adopt a policy of scanning every document, so it is available online, but the cost and resources of this approach need to be carefully balanced against the much cheaper one of storing documents in an off-site location and accessing them on a scan-back service.
The most successful projects we’ve seen by law firms that seek to reduce paper in their offices don’t just take a ‘one and done’ approach but begin with the commitment to introduce change. After all, there is little point in spending time and resources removing paper documents only to let it build up again in the future.
By modelling the future office layout according to the questions listed in the audit stage, you will know the optimum space required and the size of the planned budget. Allowing space requirements to creep up again will mean these budgets are not met, and the risks of non-compliance and reputation damage return.
Understanding the lifecycle of each document type in the office and what this means in terms of triggers for certain processes such as allowing paper to go offsite, be confidentially destroyed or digitised, returned to the client etc, will result only necessary paperwork occupying your floorspace.
Empowering paralegals and secretaries with the permissions they need to act on these triggers (signature, payment etc) will mean documents are actioned in a more urgent fashion. While the lockdown has created the opportunity to reduce paper records, it's advisable for law firms to build on this with a more holistic approach that encompasses digitisation and process change. This will prevent legal professionals from slipping back into bad habits when they return to the office, either part or full-time, in the months and years ahead.