JHA | A paperless future for the legal profession?

A paperless future for the legal profession?

May 3, 2018

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For anyone old enough to remember the mountains of paper that clogged up offices in the 90s, the idea of a paperless working environment may seem revolutionary. Keeping paper files has been the rule for so long, particularly for law firms, that there are vast quantities of records that need to be dealt with.

What does a ‘paperless office’ actually look like, beyond IBM’s early marketing slogan? It would probably be unrealistic to assume that we can eliminate all paper – though progress is being made. And why is a move to a paperless office actually important? The easy answer is that it saves on physical space, important in big cities such as London, where commercial property prices are significant.

Less paper can also mean fewer resources being expended on document management – less processing, organising and destroying of paper, which typically requires a lot of (relatively expensive) human input. The environmental benefit of using less paper is also considerable, and would greatly assist with firms’ corporate responsibility and carbon footprint. And finally, failing to maintain and update paper files can be a breach of anti-money laundering (AML) rules; it is reported that as many as 37% of UK law firms rely on paper-based records to fulfil their AML reporting obligations. This is worrying, and mandates drastic improvement of record-keeping processes.

A move towards keeping less paper seems like a no-brainer. Even the largest academic institutions have jumped on the bandwagon. The London School of Economics is leading the way in digitising its archives and improving accessibility to material which is of public interest. For law firms, however, eliminating paper may prove more difficult. This is in part to do with an engrained pro-paper mentality in the legal profession, but also with issues around data security and client confidentiality. Lawyers need to learn to trust digital repository systems, and understand how to use them. In particular, cloud storage (whereby data is effectively stored online) is routinely used by companies in other industries, and comes with built-in data security features, which is all the more vital given the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Law firms can and should consider using digital storage platforms, and should do so responsibly, by monitoring access and visibility to the uploaded content, as the Law Society itself advises. Moreover, such platforms support flexibility in working practices by enabling robust mobile and remote working. In the words of Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems, ‘We believe we’re moving out of the Ice Age, the Iron Age, the Industrial Age, the Information Age, to the participation age. You get on the Net and you do stuff’. Given you are most likely reading this on your desktop or device, it’s hard to argue with that.

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