The promise of the paperless office has existed as long as computers and the Internet. It's likely that when the earliest computers were being built, someone looked at these room-sized collections of vacuum tubes and transistors and said proudly, "Someday this will replace my file cabinet." Thanks to advances in practice management software, the (practically) paperless office is possible in the legal profession.
Document Control Capabilities - Then and Now
Saving trees is a laudable goal, but law offices need to know if paperless law practice software makes good business sense. And it does. Paper documents are inefficient. The manpower involved in sorting, filing, retrieving, re-filing, misfiling and searching for misfiled documents becomes astronomical.
Early efforts with electronic documents had challenges as well. Emailing the large files bogged down the network. Version control became impossible because there was no longer an original, just dozens of copies. No one knew who was responsible for changes, and the audit trail became muddled. Changes in one version weren't carried over to other versions because an attorney was working off an old copy.
Today, all of these problems are eliminated by using the document control capabilities in modern practice management software. A single copy of the electronic document is stored centrally on the law firm's server. Sequential versions are created, but changes are made to a single source with no danger of parallel versions.
Document Distribution Models
The simplest electronic document distribution system is the 'hot potato' method. A document which needs to be reviewed is passed to each person on the distribution list; the person looks at it, makes any needed changes, and passes it to the next person on the list. This system is simple and maintains a single version, but document editing is slow since each person has to wait for everyone before to finish.
A 'wide net' distribution system uses practice management software to simultaneously assign specific tasks to everyone who needs to review the document. Reviewers look at the document, complete their tasks, and then sign off on it. Document review is faster since attorneys and other contributors work simultaneously; but review status is more difficult to determine and the line of responsibility can become complicated.
Advantages of Practice Management Software
Advanced law practice software automates many document management tasks, reducing errors and improving audit trails. A new document is scanned, automatically named and stored in the correct folder, and distributed to applicable recipients. All changes are tracked. The original document is safely stored away, with all modifications made through the practice management software.
The paperless office no longer has to deal with misfiled records. Document searches that used to take days are done in minutes, if not seconds. Electronic files are both more accessible and more secure than paper. They are more accessible because authorized users have access to the firm's entire library at the click of a mouse. They are more secure because each document can be assigned permissions, so only people who need to see the information have access to it.
After many years of chasing the goal, features of today's law practice software like document control, automated distribution and access permission have finally made the paperless legal practice a practical reality.