On March 9, 2012, an unexpected visitor came through the front door of sole practitioner Catherine Eranthe's office in Marin County. It wasn't a potential client - it was a 1993 Toyota Camry that had jumped the curb, careened across a sidewalk and a courtyard, and collided with her building. No one was seriously injured, but Eranthe was forced to vacate her office on short notice, taking only a few vital items and some recent deposits. Luckily, she didn't need to tote out cumbersome boxes of paperwork - most of her documents were digital, stored in the cloud and on a backup drive she was carrying with her that day.
In the debate over the pluses and minuses of going paperless, it's important to remember that digital searchability and space savings aren't the only advantages. A paperless office with a sensible backup system in place can also allow you easy access to vital documents and paperwork if your office is suddenly inaccessible due to some freak event: a fire, a quake, a sprinkler malfunction, or even an out-of-control Toyota.
Eranthe has since relocated her practice to another building in San Rafael. "I'm on the fourth floor, so there's less of a chance of an automobile crashing into it," she jokes. But she's still just as committed to minimizing the amount of wood pulp that crosses her desk. "I have a very small amount of paper," she says. "I'm in bankruptcy practice, so there's a lot of electronic filing. And if it's not 'wet ink,' if it doesn't require a physical signature, I don't keep it."
She captures documents with Fujitsu ScanSnap scanners, copies them to Seagate external drives, and backs all of that data up using SugarSync, an application that saves the contents of a computer to the cloud, where it can all be accessed online from other electronic devices. "I particularly like SugarSync because it regularly and automatically backs up my files," she says. "Once I thought I'd accidentally deleted a file, but it was there on SugarSync!"
A lot of apps and services promise to help you run your practice. Square allows you to perform credit card transactions using a small doodad that plugs into your Android or Apple smartphone or an iPad (for $275 a month or $2.75 a swipe). Services like Chrometa ($30 per month) and Bill4Time ($20 per month) can help with time-tracking and billing, while software like Rocket Matter and Clio ($50 to $60 a month) can help with many aspects of client and law practice management software. But the most important thing to consider before you go paperless is how you'll back up your data securely.
The trick to safe backup is redundancy - you want to copy information to more than one destination. This means you aren't choosing between a good physical backup drive and a cloud-based backup service - you should use both. Physical backup drives from companies like Seagate and Synology run $90 to $300 and can be set up to regularly save copies of the documents you work with. Meanwhile, services like SugarSync, Carbonite, and IDrive will automatically backup and remotely store the contents of your computer for between $100 and $550 a year.
Set It Up Right
"Paperless is really the future of law practice," says David W. Sparks, who does civil law at a small firm in Orange County. "Before, I would always wander around the office looking for a missing file. And there was one time we had 32 banker's boxes of documents that we needed to make copies of, and getting it done cost more than my car. With paperless, all of that goes away."
"In my discovery work," he continues, "I frequently get reams of documents on CDs. I scan everything in an initial client meeting and give the originals back, and never have that issue where their documents are lost. Clients increasingly expect to get files as PDFs."
Sparks is admittedly biased on the topic - he's a gadget nut who spoke on going paperless at the ABA's recent Techshow in Chicago; he even sells an e-book on the topic. But he says that shelling out for a service or an advice book isn't the place to start.
"A lot of people want to sell you products and services to help you go paperless, but smaller firms can do it without spending a lot of money," he says. "However, you'll still have to invest in it - you have to invest yourself. You have to accept that it's going to take time and effort."
Still, the time commitment up front to establishing a good system and making it routine can quickly start to yield enormous dividends. "The two big things are capture and organize," says Sparks.
The capturing is the easy part - get a decent scanner and get in the habit of copying everything, even things that you still need a paper copy of. (A digital doc is easier to hunt down.) Organizing is trickier. "There are literally millions of files on your computers," he says. "You have to give a lot of thought to where you're going to put things and what you're going to name them."
For starters, devise standard naming conventions for files, conventions that include the date, the name of the source, the name of the recipient, the type of document, and its content. "Use all lower case letters, put the date first for easier sorting, and don't get cryptic," advises Sparks. "Assume that your future self searching for this document will be drunk or senile, and make the names very easy to understand."
All of these coherently named documents need to go into a standard hierarchy of folders. When organizing folders, you'll want to start with the general and get increasingly specific, for example, Records>Work>Clients>Contracts. But Sparks urges against getting so granular that you have folders with just one or two items in them.
Once you have a system you like in place, write it down. "Make sure that everyone understands the system, and make handouts to give to people who are new to it," says Sparks. Even a sole practitioner with no office assistant should prepare a handout, in case they forget their own best practices.
Does the thought of converting to this new, nontactile way of running your office make you anxious? "You don't have to turn your whole office paperless at once," stresses Sparks. He suggests a test run with a just a few cases to establish what works and what doesn't. "Make sure you have the system figured out before you go whole hog."
A quick word about the most important workplace productivity tool ever invented: the espresso machine. One of these can really put a spring in your step, if used in moderation. And a new class of capsule-based systems like Nestlé's Nespresso line make the preparation quick and easy. Buy one of their devices and hook it up (they start around $200), insert a prepackaged pod, and hit a button. Hot beverage.
Java snobs correctly note that a Nespresso machine's output is not as excellent as a drink lovingly crafted at a really good coffee shop. They're right, but it's uniformly good. Better than what you make yourself if you lack expertise and/or time, maybe even better than what you get from a talented barista who's having an off day. According to Nestlé, almost a third of Michelin-starred restaurants use their pod systems. And the same things that make them a smart option for busy, cramped restaurant kitchens make them good for your office: They're quick, easy to clean, and well-nigh idiot-proof.
You do pay for the convenience. The one-ounce pods cost 65 cents apiece, which is ridiculously expensive compared to just buying roasted beans - it works out to about $55 per pound. But if you're shelling out $3.75 a day for a latte pick-me-up, one of these machines will pay for itself in a few months.
Chris Baker is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.