Ask a law firm if the organisation has a ‘paper to digital’ strategy and the majority will affirm. Then ask if they are seeing a significant reduction in paper in their organisation, and the typical answer is likely to be a resounding “no”.  Law firms are investing significantly in digital transformation projects to minimise paper, make cost savings and enhance data security – but without a full paper lifecycle management strategy, their efforts are proving to be ineffective. Furthermore, they are putting their businesses at risk of non-compliance with the upcoming EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Research by DocSolid, a provider of Paper2Digital solutions, reveals that 57% of all paper in law firms is a printout of existing electronic files stored in their document management system (DMS). This paper matter file would grow another 39% if all the other DMS-printed paper that is on lawyers’ desks, in filing cabinets, scanning rooms and secretaries’ workstations, is collected.  We don’t need or want to file and store these duplicate documents, but we do: we keep filing, re-filing, moving and storing the same paper.

This situation begs the question – if all the documents are stored in the DMS, why are firms printing and storing them in physical paper files? There are two answers – one, that lawyers often like to work off paper (understandable); and two, firms don’t have a process to be a 100% sure that they have the most recent version of the paper documents stored in the DMS and therefore there isn’t a need to retain them. To mitigate the risk of losing matter-related data, they duplicate electronic versions in physical matter files.

The reasons for reducing reliance on paper records include the continuously burgeoning cost of paper storage (which is entirely avoidable), the physical risks of losing critical information (e.g. warehouse fire), the cost of manually managing matter files, and so on.  Although these issues are well known, little has been done to alleviate them.  However, with new regulations such as GDPR, new answers need to be found and pertinently firms now need to be able to answer the following question, in a fast and effective manner, suitably supported by evidence and audit trails – do we know what personal records we hold?

To take steps towards GDPR compliance, firms need a concerted paper lifecycle management and retirement strategy to fill a gaping hole in their current paper-to-digital methodology. Every firm has some form of casual paper scanning solution and / or a central scanning department, but paper lifecycle management is not purely a paper scanning exercise.  The paper lifecycle methodology must be supported by tools designed to ensure that paper is appropriately managed from creation through to de-duplication and retirement.

One such product, which seamlessly supplements the DMS and allows firms to adopt an effective paper lifecycle management strategy is Postmark from DocSolid.  Postmark identifies those paper documents that have been printed from an electronic document that is filed in the DMS, by placing a small bar code in a corner of the printed document. The presence of this bar code on the paper denotes that a corresponding electronic copy is filed in the DMS. After the paper document is used, it can be destroyed instead of being scanned and re-filed. In addition to removing this large segment of the paper burden from a law firm, there are other operational advantages to Postmark. Often, electronically filed documents are printed, and manual notes are made on that paper. The hand notated paper becomes a new document, with new information, and must be filed as the fee earners notes in the related matter file. If a notated document has a Postmark, it can be scanned and auto-filed, because the Postmark bar code is used to automatically link the scanned image to the related client-matter-folder-description without any further data input.

Scanning paper for storage is critical, but only one part of the paper to digital process. Including a paper lifecycle management and retirement strategy within the overall methodology can help firms break the vicious cycle of robotically printing-filing-scanning-electronically storing-physically archiving – regardless of whether it is required or not. Crucially, it will tangibly support GDPR as firms will know exactly what information is stored, where, and in what format.

Such an approach to digital transformation realistically supports a ‘less paper’ strategy as opposed to a ‘paper less’ policy, which as yet, has proven to be unachievable, given lawyers’ affinity to hard copies. With a fully integrated approach to printing, scanning and document management, firms can provide their staff a paper friendly process whilst allowing them to reduce costs and mitigate the risks associated with the ongoing management of paper.