Many of today’s law firms go to great lengths to be paperless in their daily operations. Incoming mail is scanned upon arrival. Electronic document management systems (DMSs) neatly store files in organized, searchable repositories, bringing even unruly emails and their attachments into the fold. Most of a law firm’s documents are generated via computer, leaving no paper footprint unless the user hits “print.”

And yet, despite all this digital efficiency in managing ongoing “live” content, most law firms are still spending thousands or millions of dollars to store paper records either in-house or off-site, a very expensive tradition. As records accumulate over time, the volume of paper continues to grow so ignoring the problem just leads to bigger scale decisions down the line.

Many firms are now facing the final frontier in going paperless, realizing there are several compelling reasons to prioritize scanning the records room. Some major drivers of this are financial. Real estate is expensive and firms spend great sums on square footage to store paper records on-site or they send boxes to off-site facilities whether their own or managed by a document service bureau. By converting paper into electronically stored information, they reduce or even eliminate the need for such costs.

Risk is another great motivator – paper records are highly volatile. Once they are filed and stored, paper records may take time to locate. Retrieving documents from storage is slow, time-consuming and expensive. Even if managed carefully, paper can disappear altogether, never to be found again. Natural disasters present yet another challenge as paper can be destroyed by flooding, fire or poor handling. Imagine if an original will or patent document disappears or is destroyed – firm liabilities may not be far behind.

For these reasons, law firms are increasingly taking on firm-wide records scanning projects, also known as production capture initiatives, so-called because they are capturing the paper files on a production (not one-at-a-time) scale. Production capture projects reduce the costs of storing paper records including real estate, file cabinets and off-site storage and service fees.

Transforming paper records to electronic format increases accessibility of information, especially if the electronic files are scanned into the firm’s DMS to join the firm’s active client files in a centralized repository. Leading DMS programs offer secure desktop and web access so records can be found and accessed without delay. Production capture efforts guard against loss, misplacement or inadvertent destruction of records, providing greater peace of mind for the firm’s clients, lawyers and staff.

Scanning the records room may seem an overwhelming task, especially if the firm has been around for decades and has a vast amount of boxes. Here are tips to make it easier.

Establish a firm-wide records retention policy. This policy can be determined by attorney preferences, practice areas, compliance issues and IT guidelines. It will help determine which records must be kept and which can be safely discarded or destroyed.

Evaluate your options. Production capture methods are as diverse as law firms themselves, each reflecting its own set of priorities and risk tolerance thresholds. The firm’s unique business requirements will determine the scope and timeline of the scanning project. Depending on the chosen approach and the quantity of records, a records scanning project can be implemented in weeks, or it may require several months or even years. Though this may be daunting to undertake, the sooner the firm starts, the sooner the work will be finished and cost and risk problems can be solved.

Three common production capture approaches among law firms include:

  • Scan the entire records room – This ambitious, comprehensive approach is often employed when a law firm is moving offices. Firms must map out their document lifecycle and articulate where their documents reside. Then, they determine how the firm’s document retention policy will be applied to scanning the records room, and develop an ongoing process to manage records in the future.
  • Scan all new paper before it goes to the records room – This “going forward” approach reflects that the firm is content with leaving the legacy paper files stored without scanning unless new interest is shown in a particular box.
  • Scanning boxes upon retrieval – In this scenario, every time a box of paper is requested from the storage room, that box is scanned and the paper content is dealt with in accordance with the records retention policy.

For all three options mentioned above, when documents are scanned, law firms generally run an OCR (optical character recognition) process on the documents so they are text-searchable before they are profiled into the firm’s DMS. Thus, scanned records become searchable via text or document profile metadata, making them much easier to find and saving huge amounts of time downstream. Increasingly, firms are seeing the DMS as a platform to combine their archives with active documents for a complete, centralized place to store all the firm’s files.

Technology should be your ally, not your master. Make sure the software you are using to scan the records is flexible, highly configurable and customizable to synchronize with the way you do business. Choosing software that forces your firm into a workflow that cannot be sustained can hinder the project’s momentum and damage internal credibility of a records scanning project.

Ultimately, the records scanning initiative should have only positive effects. Plan accordingly to avoid any negative impact on client response time, the firm’s corporate reputation, or compliance with government entities.

Once the firm has crossed the frontier and completed its records scanning goals, the final step is to determine a plan going forward. Otherwise, the records room will eventually balloon again. One possibility is to purchase scanning software that integrates with the firm’s DMS and set up procedures for ongoing records scanning in-house so it becomes part of the firm’s everyday operations. The other option is hiring a facilities management company to manage the scanning process on a periodic schedule. This can be ideal for firms that don’t have staff to assign to ongoing records scanning, but it does open them up to factors beyond their control such as personnel they don’t know and scanning shops they have not visited or inspected. Each firm must decide which option suits its unique needs.

Now is the time to conquer the records room frontier. The upside is huge and the downside is minimal or non-existent. By taking control and getting it done now, law firms stand to save money, reduce risk and become more efficient and competitive.

Karen Cummings is executive vice president and Shawn Freligh is vice president of product management and solutions at Omtool, a Massachusetts-based company providing document capture, fax and workflow software.