Online Exclusive: Digital Files Replace Paper: Six Suggestions for a Successful Conversion

When Brian Cabrera became general counsel of Synopsys Inc. in 2006, the software company had restricted the legal department to the office building’s first floor because its three dozen four-drawer lateral file cabinets were too heavy to move to the floor above.

And that was only part of the paper the department was storing. An Iron Mountain storage facility held the rest.

“Walking into the Iron Mountain warehouse was like walking into a scene from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ with dusty boxes sitting three or four stories high on shelves,” Cabrera says. “There were 25 million paper documents there and 18 million e-mails back on the server.”

Cabrera decided to convert all that paper to digital files. He completed the conversion in six months by having the 20 people in the legal department in Mountain View, Calif., report to the warehouse every other Thursday and/or Friday “dressed down in jeans and gloves. We literally went through box by box, page by page” until all the paper in the boxes was reviewed and important documents scanned and electronically organized, he says. Experts from other departments helped review specialized documents.

Reduced to just four file cabinets, the Synopsys legal department was able to move to the second floor of a new building last year. The department is now almost entirely paperless, with the exception of original tax documents, signature pages and other categories of documents it is legally required to retain in paper form.

Every day the legal industry uses tons of paper on millions of transactions, and some attorneys are still uncomfortable with the idea of digital documents. However, with a goal of implementing sustainable strategies, many legal departments continue to reduce paper production and storage. As a result, they are reaping greater efficiencies and direct cost savings in workflow management and storage and disposal costs, while maintaining increased security with controlled access to critical data.

Enhancing Efficiency

The need for retaining paper documents varies by department and function, but in most situations the efficiency benefits of digital conversion are clear.

“You no longer have to have individuals with offices full of paper,” says Charles Ragan, managing director at Huron Consulting Group. “If there is reason to access an older document, an individual can retrieve it very efficiently, knowing that it is trustworthy, knowing that it is the right document and not worrying about version control.”

Directing one hundred people in seven offices worldwide, Matthew Goodwin, chief patent counsel at Unilever, says his ongoing paper-to-digital media conversion enables him to manage a virtual office from London.

Julie Edgar, manager of law and administration at Boise Inc., mentions another benefit: “It is much easier for a complete file to be electronic so that it can be accessed from anywhere–from the office, on the road remotely, connecting via your Blackberry.” She says she no longer needs to have a file clerk spend hours trying to find a document that has been misplaced or misfiled.

Then there’s the cost savings. Kurt Wedel, vice president of sales and operations at First to File Inc., a web-based document management service for intellectual property organizations, claims some companies have paid for the entire cost of his company’s service based on shipping savings alone. “Half of my customers are focused on space savings as a reason to move to paperless–they need the office space and facilities savings,” he adds.

Organizing Information

Ray Zwiefelhofer, president of Worldox, a document management provider, says the first step in a digital conversion is analyzing your workflow. “Establish your guidelines of business policies and practice. What do you want to improve on? What do you want to enforce?” he says.

Zwiefelhofer says that all files can be scanned and indexed with optical character recognition (OCR) so that any document or e-mail relating to a particular client, matter, or project with any specific words or phrases can be retrieved with a Boolean search, the same process used in Westlaw or Lexis searches.

“Smaller organizations may have a scanner at the desktop, to scan in on the fly [as important paper arrives],” says Zwiefelhofer. “Larger organizations will take all documents that arrive in a mail room, scan them and put them in the appropriate electronic folder.”

Ragan says not all documents need to be captured in electronic form. Documents are scanned either because they have business significance or there is a legal obligation to retain the document.

Experts agree that e-mail should not be used as a workflow and file management system, although that is where most incoming correspondence is stored, often in folders. “E-mail search and management capabilities are much more limited, so e-mail should be uploaded to the document management system along with scanned paper files,” Zwiefelhofer says.

Overcoming Resistance

While Cabrera took an aggressive approach to completing his digital project, others find it more realistic to phase in digital document management.

Faced with limited resources, Edgar focused first on upcoming cases. Her electronic conversion projects have been ongoing over four to five years.

Slower transitions also help overcome resistance from attorneys wedded to paper. Zweifelhofer recommends rolling out the digital system in parallel with normal paper flow until people adjust.

Goodwin says his office jokingly refers to age 35 as a watershed for differing views of technology. Despite his commitment to digital document management, he won’t issue a paperless edict to his staff. But after a period of time, support staff for paper management will no longer be provided in his department.