Going Paperless – The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth - Part III

This installment is a bit long for a blog post.. but what can I say?  Lots to say!

A Morning in the Life….

John and Jane arrive at work for another busy day of juggling client demands and deadlines.  

John arrives early so he can catch up on his inbox – the inbox full of paper sitting on a corner of his desk.  He moves the stack onto his blotter and starts with the first item.  It’s a resume which he quickly scans and thinks might be ok, so he writes “OK” on the top and drops it into his outbox to return to HR.  Next are several benefits forms which he drops into his briefcase to review on the train.  Next is an expense claim prepared by his administrative assistant – he signs it and drops it into his outbox.  Next is a letter from a client requesting an update on a case.  This is placed in a special spot on his desk for immediate follow up. 

The phone rings – co-counsel calling about a case they’re preparing for trial.  While John begins the call, he moves the remaining stack of papers to his in-box to review “later”.  During the call, co-counsel advises that they’ve mis-placed two documents.  John puts the caller on hold, and goes to the file cabinet to retrieve the two documents.  He gives the documents to his secretary and asks that the documents be faxed to co-counsel.  7 minutes later – he’s back on the phone with co-counsel.

Jane arrives after having finished a breakfast meeting with a prospective client.  She turns her attention to her computer and her electronic inbox. 

Jane scans the list of new inbox items scanning the “document type” column and selects a document type of Client Letter.  The letter is displayed in a viewing window on Jane’s computer so Jane can easily read it – the client is asking for an update on a case.  Jane clicks on a “cabinet” icon and clicks on the client’s electronic case file to see a chronological list of all documents and emails.  She reviews several documents and emails and then jots a note on the letter image with details for the client.  Jane then selects an electronic “route stamp” and enters her secretary’s initials.  The letter with comments is moved to the secretary’s electronic inbox so that she can type the reply letter incorporating the comments added by Jane.  

Jane returns to her electronic inbox to scan the list of “NEW” items and spots a resume.  She’s in the process of hiring a new paralegal she urgently needs.  She clicks on this document and the resume is displayed in a viewing window on Jane’s computer.  She scans the resume and decides this candidate is worth reviewing so she selects an electronic “accept stamp” and clicks on the resume image.  She enters a comment into the stamp which says “please schedule an interview – before 9 or after 6 any day this week”.  The resume disappears from her inbox and appears in the inbox of the HR Director who schedules the interview.

Jane sees a set of benefits forms in the electronic inbox and displays these forms in a viewing window.  She uses annotation tools to fill out the forms, and then uses an electronic stamp to “sign” them.  As part of the signature Jane indicates that the forms should be forwarded to HR and they are removed from Jane’s inbox.

The phone rings – co-counsel calling about a case they’re preparing for trial.  Co-counsel cannot locate 2 key documents.  Jane clicks on her electronic filing cabinet and then the electronic case file, locates the documents, and emails both to co-counsel who receives the documents while they’re still on the phone.

These examples are intended to (a) exemplify the differences between paper and paperless and (b) demonstrate the power of being paperless.  The paperless office is more than just scanning – but should incorporate intelligent scanning which can streamline how documents move through an organization.  The benefits are real and can be seen on the bottom line!

How does it work?
Intelligent scan capture can feed workflow or document management systems so that documents can be easily stored, accessed, and systematically managed through their lifecycle.  A few common elements are:

a) Document Prep
The idea is to make the scanning process as fast as possible.  As mundane as it sounds the first step is to prepare the paper for scanning.  This will typically involve:

- making sure metal is removed.  This is very unfriendly to scanners and means that all paperclips and staples are removed.

- making sure odd-sized pages are accomodated.  Smaller sizes should be affixed to an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, and larger sizes need to be separately batched.

- check for double-sided pages.  These are ok if you have a duplex scanner - but must be copied to single-sided if you're scanner does not support duplex scanning.

- affix a barcode or cover page to "separate" documents automatically (see "d").  This will allow you to scan a batch of files together - and end up with separate scan files.
c) QC the Scan Output
Your scan process must include a review of the scan output.  This is a process which involves a human who will examine each page for quality (alignment and clarity primiarily).  Examining thumbnail images of the scanned pages will easily show mis-alignments but closer examination for readability may be needed.
d) Bar-codes
When barcodes are “read” by a scanner (using optical character recognition or OCR) they are converted to electronic information with 100% accuracy or not at all.  Barcodes can transmit details about a document or simply tell a scanner when a “new” document has started – so you can feed an entire stack of documents into a scanner which can separate the stack into separate electronic files based on a barcode “separator”.

e) Zone OCR
Zone OCR gives a scanner the ability to see a specific part of a page (a zone) and convert what it finds into electronic information.  This makes it possible to take information from a location on a page and feed that information into a system.  This works especially well when with documents that are formatted alike (pre-bills, purchase orders, etc.) but can be adapted to a number of workflows.

NOTE: that zone-ocr works with paper documents that have been scanned OR electronic documents being loaded into a system (pre-bills or new-matter form or conflict form are just a few of many examples).

f) Workflow using Stamps
Imagine taking a piece of paper and using a rubber stamp to print the words “approved” or “forward to ____” or “Paid on ____ “.  Then imagine that the piece of paper flew off to a destination simply based on the stamp.  That is what you can accomplish in an entirely electronic world! 

Electronic HR FILE:  Employment often begins with a resume and these often arrive in paper format – but may arrive as an email attachment.
a) hard-copy resumes arrive in the mailroom where a bar-code is affixed (or use a coversheet to keep the original paper document unmarked). 
b) the document is placed in the ‘to be scanned’ inbox
c) the mailroom takes the to-be-scanned stack and loads into the scanner.
d) the mailroom reviews each scanned document for integrity and then applies a “send to” stamp adding the recipients initials (rather than carrying the paper around the office for delivery).
e) the recipients see mailroom items accumulate in their electronic inbox – including the HR Director who receives the resume.
f) the HR Director opens the resume to see that it is a paralegal resume.  The HR Director applies an electronic “send to” stamp entering the initials of 3 attorneys who are hiring a new paralegal.
g) the resume is routed to each of the attorney’s electronic inboxes..
h) the resume is returned to the HR Director who arranges interviews while the resume is placed in an electronic “pending” file.
i) the paralegal is hired – and the resume is then placed in a new electronic HR folder for this new employee.
Imagine routing a Conflict Form using the same methods described above – and this document started out as a Word or PDF document and was never paper.  The same methods work – and the conflict form moves to several of the reviewing attorneys simultaneously – and the status of the form can be checked at any time (who’s holding up approval of this new client?!).

Culture Shock
So why isn’t the world paperless?!  Going paperless requires using new tools to do the work we're already doing.  Often the steps can remain the same - but are easier and faster when automated.  But even the slightest change can be hard to implement.  Without the enthusiastic participation of everyone involved, going paperless will fail.  Electronic Case Files won’t have all the documents in them (“I’m keeping just a few paper documents on the floor next to my desk because they’re really important”), processes will be interrupted (“I’m not reviewing that resume on line – just print it for me!”), and frustration will abound.

Recruit a sponsor.  Unless you have a named partner, senior executive, or department manager on board – you’re going to find it much harder to go paperless.

Start small.  Identify a simple process that touches many in the organization – and use it to show the power of going paperless.  Perhaps HR forms, or an Electronic Correspondence File which can be the foundation for an Electronic Case File. 

Notice that there is “back office paper” (HR, Benefits, Accounting) and “front office paper” (client correspondence and other client content) which may impact your decision on where to start.  Back office paper tends to be more routine and easier to automate – but automating front-office-paper can often deliver a bigger benefit.  Ultimately you’ll automate both.

User Support.  Users must have confidence in going paperless which means confidence that they will Always Find Their Document.  Implement tools that make it simple to find a document (searches that execute automatically for example) and give them enough training to assure they know how to find a document.

Going Paperless.  It can deliver hard-cost savings and can transform your organization to be substantially more efficient – delivering another healthy dose of profitability to the P&L.

Share your experiences by posting a comment!   

Here is an excellent resource:  

How to Start and Run a Paperless Office

American Bar Association:  written by Nerino J. Petro Jr.