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Solo practice attorneys don’t have luxuries — no in-house IT staff, no technology budget. Just making ends meet is uppermost in our minds, and all of this talk about a paperless office sounds like fantasy, something for the big firms. So, the question is: Can you be convinced to change to a system that uses less paper? The answer is: Of course. All the motivation you need is contained one sentence: “I will have more than $50,000 more in my pocket this year than I had before going electronic.” Here’s how I did it. Our firm is a solo practice specializing in consumer bankruptcies. We have one office in College Park, Ga., (outside of Atlanta). I also work as a Chapter 7 trustee for the court. Back in 1997-’98, we filed about 30 cases per month. We had one attorney (me), one office manager (my wife), two paralegals and we contracted out the “Section 341″ creditor hearings. Our rent (including varying utilities) was about $2,500 monthly. The paralegals cost about $4,000 monthly and the contractors cost about $1,000 monthly. Copier cost and paper ran about $500 monthly. Storage cost was $50 per month. We had other expenses but they were in greatest part unaffected by ECF. The Electronic Case Filing (ECF) Project started in 1997 in the Northern District of Georgia. We were one of three consumer bankruptcy firms chosen to participate. We were the “low water mark” in terms of technology (we were still using DOS). I did not have a cell phone or beeper, I didn’t even have a wristwatch. I still don’t have a cell phone or beeper and I still don’t wear a wristwatch. This is to say you don’t have to change your lifestyle, you only have to change the way you file cases. The coordinators talked with us about the Internet (we weren’t connected), Windows (we didn’t do those), Adobe Acrobat, Netscape Navigator, PDF, DOC, TXT, DSL — you get the idea. Our eyes glazed over. But we decided to go for it. There was a painful learning curve from 1998 through 2000. We had to drop DOS, acquire Windows and follow people who were also finding their way. You see, no one was sure how ECF would work. So we had to use tons of a precious commodity — mental energy. Additionally, the ECF work became duplicitous and burdensome. For example, in the early stages of the project we had to transmit a new case electronically to the court — and then re-submit it in paper. The same was true with amendments and modifications. All of our cases (because the ECF case numbers were higher than non-ECF cases) were at the end of any trustee or court hearing calendar. Having this to bear while learning a new operating system and all of the concomitant software, upgrading the hardware and trying to make a living at the same time was no fun. But don’t stop here; there is a happy ending. The transition to Windows was completed, software and hardware were updated and the court’s ECF system began to take shape. Beginning in October 1999, we could file a new case without submitting the paper copy to the court. The “neato” factor was high but we wanted to know how could we use this system to make/save money? Using the new technology was the answer. The transition began with voice recognition technology. We used Dragon NaturallySpeaking. We found it cut down on the things we needed to send to the typing paralegal (i.e., letters, briefs, memorandum, input of initial case information, etc.) to the point when the paralegal left for another job, there was no need to replace him. This saved $2,000 monthly. Next we tamed the phones using voicemail technology. Several times a day we did not answer the phone, letting all the messages go into the voicemail. We would then return the phone calls in batches, saving a tremendous amount of time. The ECF system began to e-mail the users an electronic link to all pleadings entered in our cases, which if exercised would produce a free electronic copy of the same paper pleading sent by mail. At that time we didn’t see any particular use for it and we waited for the paper. So now in early 2000, we were fairly pleased with the ECF system. Not standing in line to file documents at the clerk’s office saved a few hours per week. We saved time and to this point about $2,000 monthly. It occurred to us that a scanner had a function other than a short bookend, and could be used to copy client documents into the computer, as well as scan in important mail. Around this time, someone showed us how to set up client files on the desktop of our computer. Aristotle called entelechy the actualization of potential into a usable and understandable reality. Ishmael Reed, the writer, called this process “Jes’ Grew,” as in, where did jazz come from — it Jes’ Grew. So this is how entelechy jes’ grew into an electronic office: � The transmitted electronic case is the same as the paper file. � Any pleading docketed by the court would be made available by e-mail link, which could be saved in the client’s electronic file and be the same as in the paper file. � Any other documents sent by mail or brought in by clients could be scanned into the computer and would be the same as in the paper file. � All of this could be stored under the client’s name on the desktop of our computers for instant retrieval. So why keep the paper! SLAIN DRAGON From the end of 2000 through early 2001, all of the paper files in the office (and in storage) were converted to electronic files. After the paper dragon was slain, the filing hobgoblin was the next target. Filing had always been a problem in our office. There were always piles of errant paper roving around the office. Filing is now more like a video game — well maybe not that much fun — but the high tech appeal makes it feel better and more important. It is unlikely a document is not where it should be, and even if that happens, the entire hard drive can be searched in a matter of moments. Before, if a document was misfiled it was lost forever. We found we didn’t need the other paralegal full time, so that position was reduced to part time (saving about $1,000 monthly). Also, we no longer needed as much office space, so we moved to less than half the space. We moved into a part of our building no one would rent (but we still had to pay for). Then we rented out our old space. This reduced our rent from about $2,500 monthly to about $600 monthly. To better handle workflow, we increased the contractor work to cover confirmation and motion hearings (to about $1,700 monthly). The copier/paper cost diminished to about $175 monthly and storage cost was eliminated completely. We now file about 20 to 25 cases per month (a little less than in 1997-’98, because we eliminated advertising costs of more than $3,000 monthly — the offset was well worth it). Along with the economic reduction in overhead we have streamlined our practice and simplified our lives. So, should you convert your practice to digital? You would be crazy not to. But be prepared, the transition will not be simple or pain-free. However, we can say after the transition you will have a more efficient practice and more money left over at the end of your month. Milton Jones is a solo practitioner in College Park, Ga. Mary Jones is the firm’s office manager. E-mail: [email protected].

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