Paper chase

John McIlvaine recalls how one of his law firm’s clients in Japan went the extra mile when organizing its files and documents in preparation for a case.

“I was impressed how they really put everything together in excruciating, organized detail, with indexed, numbered folders breaking everything down according to subject areas,” says McIlvaine, a patent attorney with The Webb Law Firm. “That was really helpful to me and the people on our litigation team, and I’m sure it saved a lot of time and legal fees.”

The value of that level of organization and that meticulous ordering of documents isn’t lost on The Webb Law Firm. To help its clients keep their own records in order, McIlvaine’s firm provides them with a file jacket for every trademark or patent application to hold all of the documents related to the action.

Additionally, the firm uses a series of automated systems to track timekeeping, expense tracking, billing, and accounting and docketing, including docketing of patent maintenance fees and trademark matters.

Keeping track of documents of all kinds, from contracts to vendor agreements and leases, is a challenge and a necessity for efficient operations at law firms as well other kinds of businesses. Still, plenty of organizations continue to cling to paper documents for their recordkeeping. In Pittsburgh, the migration from traditional paper filing systems to modern electronic formats has lagged, due in part to resistance to change and a reluctance to upgrade the hardware and software required to support the transition.

“There are people that we’ve seen who have just upgraded from Windows 95, and these are top 25 law firms,” says Steve Shriber, principal in Ditto Document, a downtown document imaging firm.

While the cost of converting to a document management system can be considerable, not knowing what’s in your documents can cost money, too.

“The key is really the information that resides within those documents, and how am I acting on and analyzing the information, because that’s the key to my business,” says Ralph Massaro, executive vice president of Solvaire Technologies.

Solvaire Technologies customizes solutions for its clients that provide, among other features, notification when key events occur and online document storage.

Contracts and other agreements are often dynamic, stating terms and conditions that can change over time, need to be renewed or are kept in force only if certain actions are taken, such as sending a certified letter to renew or serve notice of termination.

But accessing those documents and executing their terms can be difficult if they are in paper form. Staying on top of 500 leases, for instance, all lapsing on varying dates and with different terms for renewal or termination, can be nearly impossible.

“Most organizations have a tough time doing that because (the information) sits on a piece of paper in a filing cabinet,” says Massaro.

Papering over the problem

When legal files reside on paper, storage cost becomes a major expense at law firms. To compound the problem, paper tends to create more paper, which takes up more space and time in handling and filing.

“When you’re dealing with paper, it tends to get copied, which increases costs,” says Karl Schieneman, president of Legal Network Ltd., a legal staffing firm.

Using document imaging that converts paper to electronic images — PDF files, for instance — saves paper and copying costs, delivery charges and storage expense.

“Instead of going from hard copy to hard copy, what we’re doing is imaging the documents and providing the legal team with CDs that have the documents imaged,” says Shriber.

The cost of storing data on a CD, which can hold the same data as several filing cabinets, is less than a dollar.

And there are other advantages to electronic formats. Documents can be stored online on a secure server, where authorized users can access them at any time from a PC. Systems like those offered by Solvaire Technologies and Ditto Document provide search capabilities that can shorten the time required to review documents. If a user wants to find all of the documents that contain a particular keyword, for instance, he or she can extract those from the electronic files.

“In addition to just scanning the documents, we’re able to make their documents searchable, and then help the client integrate those documents into their databases,” Shriber says.

That feature can save time and effort, allowing lawyers to make a faster judgment about a case. Reviewing 10 critical documents rather than sifting through hundreds may allow the legal team to come to a decision faster about how to proceed with a particular case.

Having documents accessible from multiple locations can allow legal “super teams” comprised of lawyers with specialized expertise to work on cases from any location, says Schieneman, a factor that can increase efficiency.

While there remains some resistance to going to electronic formats, industry changes likely will force the stragglers to conform. U.S. federal courts require virtually all documents to be submitted in electronic format. And the long-term cost savings should be enough to justify the initial investment.

Says Shriber: “It’s a little more costly on the front end, but overall, it’s a savings.” How to reach: The Webb Law Firm,; Solvaire Technologies,; Legal Network,; Ditto Document,