As an industry, the legal world has dragged its feet too long. We’ve clung to paper even as other businesses, and our clients, have embraced digital transformation. Now we’ve been forced out of our comfortable, familiar routines—not to mention our inefficient, tedious, and error-prone workflows—by a practically overnight shift to remote work.

If law firms and legal professionals are to remain relevant and profitable during the current pandemic and in the future, it’s time to reinvent legal work and overcome our reliance on paper.

The old way of doing legal work

We’ve all done it: you need to draft a contract, so you start from an old version and pore through it to find everything you need to update for the new client. Then you print out all 200 pages so you can go over it with a fine-tooth comb without wearing out the scroll-wheel on your mouse. Later, you drop those 200 pages in a box to be filed with the rest of the client’s records or in a receptacle for bulk shredding.

Or maybe you’ve had to assemble signature packets for a major transaction, printing and collating hundreds of pages and making sure they all get sorted into the right piles. Thank goodness you’ve got office assistants, backed by high-capacity printers, scanners, and shredders, ready to hand off your completed signature packets to overnight couriers.

We’ve known that these paper-centric approaches are problematic—and that it’s possible to go paperless—for a long time. But now, the refusal to adapt is hurting lawyers, who do not have the infrastructure to maintain their paper-based status quo remotely, law firms, which need to cut costs without cutting positions, and clients, who desperately need their lawyers’ help and who cannot wait for the legal industry to catch up.

It’s time for law firms to reinvent the way they work

The legal industry’s digital transformation gained a new urgency the moment that lawyers were sent home to work. Suddenly, lawyers didn’t have the immediate physical support of their assistants. They didn’t have access to high speed printers. Even if they did force their home printer to chug through a 200-page document, they were suddenly left holding 200 pages of confidential client records that they couldn’t just toss in the recycling bin.

This is unsustainable in the current climate. Not only is working with paper slow, tedious, and mind-numbing, but it also misses out on the advantages of automation, such as formatting and checking for errors. Paper-based workflows are inefficient and expensive, as lawyers waste time on non-billable administrative tasks, driving realization rates and law firm profitability down. They’re also frustrating for clients, who see the all-but-inevitable errors and judge the firm harshly for them.

The answer to those inefficiencies isn’t merely to spackle automation technology atop a faulty foundation of existing burdensome processes. Instead, we need to look for ways to reinvent our processes so that we leverage technology in the appropriate places, thereby reducing our workload and improving our results.

The journey to a paperless law office is about more than documents

While the company I work for specializes in document workflows, this transformation isn’t just about documents or client files, which is where most discussions of a paperless law office begin and end.

Yes, technology can help us create, check, edit, and disseminate documents, but I’m also talking about the way we:

  • complete transactions—from creating and updating checklists to assembling due diligence documents, gathering signatures, and generating closing books;
  • control our finances, including invoices, e-billing, time tracking, and more;
  • deal with documents in litigation, particularly during discovery;
  • share and store the firm’s content, through intranets and extranets;
  • handle confidential client records;
  • collate and organize our knowledge resources, including research, case law, and internal memoranda and notes;
  • manage our internal governance documents, such as employee handbooks and policies; and
  • communicate and collaborate with clients and external partners.

Every one of those areas has a tendency to be hung up in paper-based ways of thinking. You might still be printing documents out to review them and circulate them for edits. Maybe you’re asking clients to print, sign, and scan their signature pages during a transaction. Or perhaps you’re tracking lawyer time manually, Bates-stamping discovery documents, and storing boxes of records (and renting larger offices to accommodate those boxes). Many lawyers are still doing all of the above.

The challenges of 2020 have highlighted chronic, longstanding deficiencies in how lawyers work. Our team recognizes the gravity and the importance of this moment, and we believe 2020 is the year to follow through on this change. When law firms fall behind the technology curve, they lose staff and clients to more innovative firms with modern, updated processes.

This starts with forward-looking companies and individuals leading the charge with regular discussions of paperless workflows through their digital platforms and publications. We’re working with our partners in the legal community on bringing the journey to becoming a paperless practice to law firms. We’re also meeting with individual customers to pinpoint where they’re stuck with paper and help them commit to digital transformation. Taking this step is necessary for firms to keep from going under in this tough economic climate and for their services to remain relevant to their clients.

Curt Meltzer joined Litera as an evanglist in 2020, he was previously Vice President of strategic relationships at Workshare and before that, chief of regional IT operations at Norton Rose Fulbright.

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