Docufree Acquires Advanced Imaging Systems (AIS), a Strategic Information Management Company – Learn More

Dan McCarter

Dan McCarter

In-House Counsel and Director of Legal Solutions at Docufree | Specializing in Digitally Transforming Legal Processes

Documents to Data Part I: The Information You Need to Run Your Law Firm Efficiently

Law firms at their very core are driven by content and information. Data is the lifeblood of the law business, and the industry produces a staggering amount of data and content every day. When most of us think of a law office, we envision filing cabinets filled with critical case information stationed throughout the building and often, that is the case.

However, much like other businesses, law firms have found themselves facing unique challenges due to the pandemic. This includes work-from-home and hybrid work options that require a way to navigate and securely access critical data. In fact, a recent report by Upwork indicates that 40.7 million American professionals will be working fully remotely in the next five years. That, along with the digital speed of today’s economy, are driving law firms to look for ways to increase efficiency.

Time is Money

If you speak to support staff at any busy law firm, you’ll find a lot of overwhelmed workers. Keeping track of all the incoming documents, then sorting, filing, and forwarding them to the responsible parties leads to a lot of cluttered desks and overflowing inboxes. According to a 2020 Thomson Reuters State of Small U.S. Law Firms report, 74 percent of small law firms say they are spending too much time on administrative tasks instead of practicing law, rating it as at least a moderate challenge. According to Corp! Magazine, businesses in the United States waste $8 billion on managing paper each year, with an average price tag of $20 to file a document, $120 to find a misplaced document, and $220 to reproduce a lost document. Imagine the ramifications in a law office that traditionally runs on paper documents.

All of these factors–along with many others–are causing law firms to adopt new technologies for remote work and digital collaboration. Truthfully, firms that are utilizing technology to manage these processes are ahead of the game, especially in the wake of COVID-19 when every law firm had to operate remotely. Paper-based law firms are simply no longer a sustainable office model. But the great news is that with innovation comes efficiency, and we all know law firms could benefit from that.

Take a Step on the Digital Transformation Journey

What if your law firm hasn’t yet started the digital journey? Most are at the beginning of this path, so don’t be discouraged. But, it’s time to get started.

I have been a practicing attorney for over a decade. I know the comfort of doing things the way they have always been done, but I have also experienced how transforming these new digital processes can be, increasing efficiency and providing better access to the information lawyers work with on a daily basis. The key is to take action, and start now.

Involve Key Stakeholders

The first step is to secure executive sponsorship for a digital transformation program. It is easy for the staff at ground level to see the benefits of digital data, but this must be communicated to those who have the power to bring it to fruition. Once the firm has made the decision to digitize its operations, the next step is finding a partner that delivers secure, reliable, and cost-effective digital solutions. Once everyone is on board to investigate technology options, then the process is just a matter of choosing a path that is right for your firm. To know which path to choose, you need to identify your key documents and any current problems with the paper-based process.

Key Documents Worth Digitizing

The type of data you are dealing with significantly depends on the firm’s specialization. Generally speaking, we can think of law firms as litigation based or transactional. Litigation firms send and receive pleadings, motions, discovery, correspondence, and document production among other things, while transaction firms lean toward correspondence, contracts, and financial or business records depending on the type of transaction (i.e., restructuring, acquisition, dissolution, etc.). The essential thing here is to identify your key documents and determine where they reside, and how they get there, whether in paper form or digital. Once you establish this framework for your law firm, look for vendors that can not only digitize paper documents, but provide workflow and automation capabilities to streamline processing these critical items.

A key feature in this digital transformation is the vendor’s ability to integrate with the technology your firm is already using. These days, law firms use software solutions for most work functions. Key functions might include:

  • Email
  • Timekeeping
  • Billing
  • Dictation
  • Calendaring / docketing
  • Task management
  • Document management / storage
  • Document creation / automation
  • Customer relationship management
  • Case management system
  • Digital signatures
  • E-filing

In the last ten years, case management systems have evolved to perform a lot of the functions listed above, all from the same software. Instead of an attorney using six to eight different programs daily, they’re now using two or three. That’s why it is critical to look for a digital transformation vendor that integrates with your case management system to minimize the number of applications your team needs to use.

Digitization of Documents

We’ve hinted at the problem with maintaining paper-based records, but let’s dive a little deeper. Prior to the pandemic, I only knew a few local law firms that could operate entirely remote. Most law firms still required access to some type of paper copy case file and/or physical presence in an office to ensure access to all the documentation associated with a particular matter. Very few firms were prepared to switch to full-time remote operations when the pandemic struck. A lot of my colleagues were unable to work their files and meet billable hour requirements because they could not access the documents they needed from home.

Mail was frequently at the center of these operational headaches. Skeleton staff at offices were charged with opening, scanning, sorting, filing, and forwarding mail to various people at the firm, while also printing, stuffing, stamping, and sending mailouts for various departments. All of which led to substantial delays in receiving and sending mail. We’ll talk more about digitizing mail in part two of this series.

On the case management side of things, once it became apparent the pandemic was not going to end quickly, firms that did not have network-accessible or cloud-based document systems had to implement them in a hurry. In many cases, firms developed new workflows and processes on the fly, doing just enough to get crucial work done but without regard to the additional burdens of learning and implementing new software and systems. It was great to finally have remote access to files, but the process of receiving, sorting, and indexing documents from various sources into these digital filing systems was yet another chore for staff. Consider looking for partners to help in the process. Again, it’s great to have case management software and digital document management systems, but these tools are only as good as the people charged with driving data into them. As mentioned above, it is valuable to partner with a vendor that can not only digitize your documents but integrate them directly into your case management system to make the process as efficient and remotely accessible as possible.

Benefits of Digitized Documents for Law Firms

The benefits of going paperless, especially for law firms, are many. Here are just a few to consider:

  • Automating the process of receiving invoices/bills and routing them to the proper department or legal team is much faster and more efficient than manual methods.
  • Digital signatures expedite the process of mailing documents for execution. This saves at least one step as you won’t have to scan the document, and it automatically sends copies to all parties involved.
  • Sensitive documents can be securely shared (for example, to share medical records with an opposing attorney or an expert while remaining HIPAA-compliant). Some solutions offer the ability to generate a secure, password-protected email that includes the documents they want to share.
  • Data files can be automatically created for things like postage and copy charges and can then be passed directly to customer billing systems. This allows firms to quickly add these charges to their clients’ invoices.

Additional benefits include:

  • Automated workflows
  • Reduced administration time
  • Visibility
  • Accessibility
  • Compliance
  • Audit trails

These may appear to be small things, but added together, they can be substantial. Imagine being able to quickly reference a document on the fly while on the phone with a client, or while working remotely on a case, rather than shuffling through file cabinets–all because your office is paperless. And let’s not forget the perks of people being able to work from anywhere at any time.

In our next blog post, we’ll make the case for proactively digitizing the influx of data coming into your law firm on a daily basis.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

More to Explore