Environmentally conscious e-mail signatures are in vogue these days. Almost everyone has seen that little graphic of a tree along with the admonition, “Please consider the environment before printing this e-mail.” Regardless of how one views the morality of harvesting farmed pine trees to make paper, at least part of the sentiment expressed by tree-hugging e-mailers is worth considering: Do we really need to print e-mails? Do we, in fact, need much of the paper we maintain?

The paperless office seems something of a holy grail. Some lawyers declare they already have achieved this goal, although I suspect their claims are somewhat exaggerated. Original signatures must be maintained for wills and for certain agreed motions and settlements. The weaknesses in a draft brief are easier to spot by reading a printed copy. And that glowing screen can get tiresome when there are reams of cases to review.

But it is possible to shrink dramatically the volume of paper a firm stores, while at the same time reducing the hassle and expense of storage and retrieval, making more efficient use of staff time and, yes, even saving thousands of hapless trees from the chainsaw.

How to begin? Where to begin? If accomplishing all this seems like a mammoth task, it might be, depending on firm size and length of operation. Instead of an all-or-nothing approach, a large firm, or one with decades’ worth of archives, might simply resolve to discontinue paper storage on a going-forward basis. Most firms already use scanners and PDF software — the two components comprising the backbone of the paperless office. They can make the transition incrementally, with minimal inconvenience and expense. And breaking the paper habit is, in many ways, easier than maintaining it.

1. Stop printing e-mails . Folders crammed with paper copies of e-mails are not text-searchable, they are not secure, and they cannot be quickly sorted by subject, sender or date. E-mails for active matters can be stored more efficiently in Outlook or using practice management software. When a file is closed, all relevant e-mails can be written to an archive and added to the electronic file for posterity. Related e-mails can also be bundled into a single, searchable PDF that can be sorted by date, sender or subject.

2. Stop routinely printing copies of electronically filed pleadings . There rarely is any reason to squirrel away paper copies of filed pleadings. Like e-mails, pleadings are more useful when stored electronically in some manner that uses keywords and is date- and text-searchable. The only paper documents a physical pleading file should contain are the original signatures of opposing counsel on agreed or joint filings and the originals of supporting declarations or affidavits. Many federal courts no longer accept paper filings, and if digital documents satisfy the courts, they should satisfy everyone.

3. Use the copy machine sparingly. Scan and shred incoming paper correspondence and documents. Distribute internal copies of incoming mail by e-mail. Use electronic letterhead with a signature image and eliminate the necessity of printing and mailing letters. Consider whether copies of interesting newspaper articles really must be circulated, or whether e-mailing a link to the article on the newspaper’s website might serve just as well.

4. Do not bombard others with excess paper . When an outgoing letter is e-mailed, do not also send a physical copy. This is not only wasteful, but it inconveniences the recipient, who must process the same letter twice. Never send a paper service copy of an electronic court filing unless paper is the only valid means of service under applicable rules (a rare occurrence in federal and some state courts). E-filed documents are served electronically, and those recipients who want paper copies will already have printed them by the time paper copies arrive days later.

5. Do not operate a mini-warehouse for clients . Scan client documents upon receipt and return the originals. The firm saves on storage expenses, and the client need never wonder what became of his important papers.

Reap the Benefits

The (almost) paperless law office consumes less time, less money and less office space. Staffers have more time for productive work because they no longer spend hours printing documents and stuffing them into folders. Properly organized, digital documents — even those from long-closed case files — are instantly available with no frantic searching and no paper cuts. There is no need to wait hours or days for the retrieval of files from an expensive off-site warehouse.

Electronic files also are easier to safeguard than paper. Encryption enables the protection of sensitive documents from unauthorized eyes, and firms can easily store backups off-site, saving money and providing invaluable disaster recovery insurance.

Combined with pervasive cellular data service and remote access tools, electronic files let lawyers work when and where they want. Documents are available from almost anywhere without the need to lug around bulging briefcases and banker’s boxes. Best of all, no digital document has ever disappeared beneath the piles on a lawyer’s desk.

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