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Many lawyers believe the nature of their profession necessitates the hoarding of paper–a lot of paper–a misconception that through time has made them the enemy of tree

Matt Den Ouden used to belong to this school of thought. A national director of CT Tymetrix, a provider of matter management technologies, Den Ouden has worked side-by-side with legal departments and law firms for about 15 years and was shocked at the sheer volume of paper lawyers forced their companies to keep on file.

“I remember once working on a discovery project, and I had to gather records from corporate counsel and their company’s manufacturing plants,” Den Ouden says. “When we requested the documents, they took us outside to these sheds where there were boxes–literally hundreds of square feet–of paper.”

Thanks to the advent of certain technologies, in-house counsel don’t have to be paper packrats anymore. Document imaging, e-billing software and matter-management systems have become much more commonplace in the corporate environment, and all help lawyers reduce their carbon footprint. This helps save the environment and also save on costs.

“What I find most striking is that the most expensive course a law department can take is printing everything and being paper-centric,” says Ross Kodner, president of MicroLaw, a legal technology consultancy. “Focusing on building electronic case and matter files actually yields the least expensive operating approach, not to mention the inherent greenness. It just makes sense from all perspectives.”

Paper Packrats

What doesn’t make sense is why in-house counsel are so reluctant to relinquish their grip on paper, especially because they’re constantly told to reduce their spending.

“Law is about precedent–being able to come up with the correct documents and resources at will,” Den Ouden says.

With modern technology, however, lawyers can not only find that specific letter without having to waste paper, they also can find it much faster. By imaging documents and hosting them on a matter- or document-management system, in-house counsel can share an endless array of materials across the network without ever having to use additional paper.

“E-mail threads are notoriously some of the most wasteful documents,” says Mitch Taube, CEO of Digiscribe International, a document imaging provider. “Even if you only need one page, you often end up printing the whole thread. If you imaged that document and put it into a document-management system, not only would you save on printing, but it’d be full-text searchable, shareable and preserved.”

According to a study by Coopers & Lybrand [now PricewaterhouseCoopers], the average hardcopy document gets photocopied 19 times within its lifetime. If the average four-drawer file cabinet holds about 20,000 pages, that equates to 360,000 additional pieces of paper. By using document imaging and document- and matter-management systems, as well as some print-button self restraint, counsel can do their part to go green.

Digital Bills

It’s not just internal documents that create paper waste. Outside counsel and vendor bills are a huge source of paper waste too.

According to Jeff Bolke, senior vice president of field operations for DataCert Inc., an e-billing software provider, his company’s clientele average about 1,000 bills per month. However, this doesn’t account for any discrepancies in the bill, which tacks on even more paper usage.

E-billing eliminates the need to use any paper. Law firms and vendors electronically send their invoices to the legal department, and the legal department then either electronically accepts the bill or makes adjustments using software. The software then transmits these revisions back to the initial source, which then can send a revised invoice electronically.

For a company that processes the average 12,000 invoices a year–an average of about 36,000 pieces of paper if printed–using e-billing would spare three-quarters of a ton of paper annually, according to the Department of Energy. This equates to about 17 trees. Further, because paper production uses energy and oil, this provides additional environmental savings of more than 333 gallons of oil and 2,880 energy kilowatts.

Fringe Benefits

But there are more benefits to going paperless than saving trees, oil and energy. For legal departments that need a business case to go green, there are plenty.

“For law departments that become centered around digital files, the biggest benefit is time conversion,” Kodner says, which refers to the significant amount of productive time wasted searching for paper files and information that can only be found in paper files.

Kodner, who developed and teaches CLE courses on “The Paper LESS Office,” a now 15-year-old approach to reducing paper in law firms and legal departments, says he sees lawyers and staff waste as much as 25 percent of their time looking for information that can only be found in paper form.

But to truly reduce paper output and become a paperless department, in-house and outside counsel will have to work together and share technologies. After all, if a legal department uses an e-billing system that one of its law firms doesn’t use, the benefit of the system is lost. Currently legal departments tend to be ahead of the pack, and it may take some prodding to get outside counsel to follow suit.

“I see more effort made by my corporate clients regarding recycling than I see in private law firms,” Kodner says. “It’s probably due to the trickle-down effect that comes from a companywide set of educational initiatives. But from the perspective of the environment, who cares where the push comes from as long as it exists.”