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Tech Check

Learning from lockdown to become paperless

The last few months have been tough for everyone and law firms have been hit as hard as anyone.

As restrictions were imposed, lawyers all over the world were forced to find new ways of working and find them fast. However, as we now have the benefit of hindsight we are starting to see that amongst the disruption, we actually learned a lot of good stuff whilst working from home.

We found new ways to communicate, most notably using a wide range of accessible video conferencing apps.

We tried new ways to market our services including podcasts, video and ‘virtual’ roundtable sessions.

We’ve also – and largely without even realising it – taken a huge step closer to accomplishing something almost every law firm has tried to achieve for many years, the paperless office.

For the vast majority of fee earners, working remotely has meant working electronically. Files have been shared, reviewed and amended online. Client communications have been sent by email, text, WhatsApp and, most critically, via video call. Even bills have been prepared, sent and settled over the internet. It’s also fair to say, these changes have arguably increased not impacted the level of service clients have enjoyed during these difficult times.

We’ve also had to take a long overdue look at our internal admin and communications. A lot of the forms we used to have to fill in for no better reason than ‘because we always have’ have been shown up for the duplication of unnecessary effort they are and replaced by smarter digital working practices.

One of the reasons the paperless office never quite happened in the past is that once partners got into the detail, improving their firm’s digital workflow began to look like an involved, expensive and time consuming project. However, the last 6 months have shown that necessity really is the mother of invention and the changes we have had to make have genuinely led to greater efficiencies. Billable time has been saved and documents are easier to track, retrieve and, more importantly in the age of GDPR, secure.

But as I said while these practices have been adopted by the vast majority of fee earners, there are still a few who cling onto paper. The say they need to hold something or can only operate if they can drag a highlighter across a contract. Up until now it was easier just to let them get on with it but as we head into what could easily become the hardest legal market for decades, there are two very real reasons why law firms need to work out how they can build on the lessons learned during lockdown and finally move away from paper for good.

Those reasons are the financial cost and the environmental cost.

If we look at the financial first, the most obvious costs are linked to paper, ink and postage. While you may think you don’t actually use that much yourself, if you multiply even the most average print volume by the number of fee earners in your firm, it soon adds up. And that’s before you consider the cost of wear, tear, replacements and upgrades to your hardware.

If this cost could be lost overnight, what difference would it make to your bottom line?

However, it is the price the environment has to pay that could end up costing much more.

I don’t need to tell you that paper production directly and significantly contributes to deforestation, groundwater pollution, the water table (did you know it takes 1.5 cups of water to make 1 sheet of paper?) and global warming. But, when you consider lawyers generate more paper than any other industry (between 20,000 and 100,000 sheets each per year), the direct impact the legal industry is having on the environment is suddenly brought into sharp focus.

And, if only half of the letters being produced are answered in hard copy (the actual ratio is markedly higher), the picture is even more desperate.

If you think the damage stops once the letter is printed, I’m afraid it doesn’t. Letters have to be transported by road and, in the case of international matters, by air.

This all requires fuel and burning fuel releases the greenhouse gases that drive up CO2 emissions. During lockdown this became even more of an issue as a firm’s physical post had to be redirected in order to be dealt only for some partners to insist that from there, certain pieces of post had to be couriered directly to them.

And the picture hardly improved when people were printing out their own documents at home. More printers means more ink and more toner (to give you an idea a domestic printer’s toner needs to be replaced after between 500 and 1000 sheets are printed whereas with an office-based printer it is closer to 20,000). Not only are inks and toners made from fossil fuels, their delivery involves producing even more carbon emissions and disposing of their packaging places more strain on our landfill sites.

The good news for law firms is there are a range of easily implementable changes they can make that will immediately reduce both the financial and environmental costs the way they operate are racking up. Some are behavioural, some are process-driven and some are technological but all are hugely effective and we can help you identify the changes that will work best for you. I know it may sound counter-intuitive for a business that has traditionally managed print for law firms to be encouraging them to abandon hard copy printing but like you, we know the cost of print is simply too high for us to continue as we are.

And if the environmental benefits alone aren’t enough to persuade your more traditional colleagues that it is in everyone’s to take the final step and finally become a paperless firm, let me leave you with a final thought.

With the things the way they are economically formal procurement is only going to become more important for law firms. Almost every call for tender now includes questions about your environmental performance and those questions carry with them an increasingly significant weighting. If you cannot clearly demonstrate your commitment to the environmental you may end up losing out on vital fee earning opportunities.