Rethinking the Law Office

Office shelves full of files and boxes

The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency.  The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.
Bill Gates

Like all lawyers my age or older, I came up at a time when paper was the lawyer’s stock in trade – boxes upon boxes of paper.  There was even a feeling that the more paper, the bigger and more important the case must be.  I certainly succumbed to that thought when carting back-breaking stacks of file boxes into a courthouse on the first day of trial or when attempting to bolster our request for attorney’s fees by pointing out to the judge how many boxes our file consisted of.

Email and the Internet didn’t show up until I was a few years into practice, but, for most of us, didn’t really make much of a dent in the avalanche of paper until quite recently.  There was still the feeling that the paper file was the real file and the stuff on the computer was secondary.

The past couple of months have been a terribly frightening period for the world.  But one small silver lining for lawyers has been the opportunity it has afforded to slow down a bit and reassess how we do things.  Most trial lawyers live their professional lives from deadline to deadline.  It is difficult to squeeze in time for long-term planning, much less a full overhaul of your firm’s procedures.

Fortunately for our firm, we had started the process towards a less paper-oriented, more organized office a short time before we had heard of COVID-19.  This has involved a couple of different steps, which for the technology advanced among you will seem ordinary and old hat, but which for us have been nothing short of revolutionary:

 1. Case Management Software.

I had heard of case management programs for years, but never really understood what they were or how they could help us.  I’m sure I still haven’t scratched the surface of exploiting their usefulness, but already the change has been dramatic.  The basic idea is that you run your cases, and much of your office communication, through one website (we use Filevine) that everyone has access to.  So, for example:

  1. All communications with clients, opposing counsel, experts, etc. on a particular case, whether through letters, faxes, emails or texts, are immediately saved on the page devoted to that case and are easily accessible.  No more organizing and wading through hundreds of emails, and no more being out of the loop because someone else on your team didn’t tell you what they had been doing on the case.
  2. If you give someone on your team (including yourself) a task, it is documented, along with the deadline.  When you complete the task, you click the “completed” tab.  Otherwise, when the deadline comes up, the people who gave and received the assignment are reminded.  You can easily track who is keeping up with their work and who is falling behind, and it is much less likely that things are going to slip through the cracks.
  3. Tasks such as setting up files and keeping track of statutes of limitations are simpler and require less employee time.  The process begins when the case first comes into the office and is largely automated.
  4. Some common tasks (e.g., paying the jury fee deposit) are automatically generated as the case moves into different phases.
  5. Basic information, such as how much money has been spent on a case or an expert’s contact information, to name just a couple of many examples, is much more accessible.

2. Cloud-Based Email and File Storage

One of my fears about technology was that if the computer crashed, everything would be lost.  Paper seemed more secure.  But with everything now saved on the Cloud, that is no longer a valid concern.  Our documents are stored either on the case management program or on Microsoft OneDrive.  Email is Cloud-based and therefore more accessible.  Your entire office, essentially, is available to you wherever you are and whether you are using a PC, a Mac, a smart phone, etc.  It is far easier to share documents with others.  No more file server in the office or worries about backup systems, etc.

Benefits of the “Paperless” Office
The move away from paper has naturally led to better organization.  I used to collect hundreds of little handwritten notes on big cases.  I would quickly scribble out a note, throw it in the appropriate file section and then revisit it months or years later.  Oftentimes, I couldn’t read my own writing, couldn’t understand what I meant or realized that half the notes contained ideas that were not that good or were now irrelevant.

A much better approach is to keep ongoing electronic lists of things such as discovery requests to serve on the other side, issues to prepare an expert on and ideas for closing argument.  Those lists can be refined, not just by you but by other members of your team, as the case proceeds and evolves.  This leads to more efficiency and more collaboration.

Of course, electronic-based files can also eliminate that age-old office annoyance of roaming the halls for 10 minutes looking for the file folder or document that you need.  Paper can only be in one place at one time, and sometimes it’s not the place you would think to look.  If you are vigilant about adopting a logical, consistent file organization electronically, it should almost always be easy to find things.

What we’re discovering now is that remote working, in any productive sense, is impossible over the long haul without some comprehensive electronic file system.  For those of us who find that it is easier to fully concentrate and do meaningful work away from the distractions of the physical office, the ability to access anything and everything we need when working from home is a Godsend.

One criticism of technology is that it diminishes real, person-to-person communication.  While that is certainly something to watch out for, we are finding that technology can actually lead to more meaningful communication and collaboration.  When all of us are working from the same electronic case file, we are more likely to be working in tandem, rather than in isolation from each other.  Nothing completely replaces the rambling, thought-provoking strategy sessions that trial lawyers love, but with a good electronic file system in place, you are more likely to be all starting with a similar knowledge base when you have those discussions.