Though talk of the paperless office has tended to date to raise a hollow laugh, it is fast becoming something to be taken seriously even by small practices

Many people who are asked to recollect classic television from their youth will have some memory of “Tomorrow’s World”, wherein some seemingly nonsensical prediction of the golden age of technology that was just around the corner would be trotted out. Depending on the subject’s age, this might be the future run by robots, the diet pill that would replace food, the indestructible compact disc, or the paperless office. That last prediction was perhaps the most utopian of the lot – conjuring up images of a future where we would all be free from the shackles of administration. Needless to say, it never happened, and the common experience is that more IT just means more paper.

In the legal profession at least, there was some reason for this. What was the point of having electronic files when clients had to be sent letters, paper documents had to be lodged in court and electronically held information had questionable status?

But the paperless office is becoming something of a reality in other spheres of business. When you phone your bank, or insurance company, or any other organisation that forces you to make contact through a call centre, you are calling an office that operates almost totally without paper. And now the reasons which made electronic files impractical in the legal profession are beginning to disappear.

Email, the new fax

For one thing, the days when the only way of communicating with clients was by second class mail are long gone. Many commercial and private clients insist on the use of electronic mail. Email has the advantage of being as formal as you want it to be – it can have all the gravity of a long letter, or the informality of a phone call. It is immediate, and a copy is always retained for future reference.

For some firms, email may seem an unnecessary luxury (just like fax machines and photocopiers used to be). But consider this: before long, virtually everyone in the country will have email access, either through their digital television or their mobile phone – and remember there are now more mobile phones in the UK than people.

Email does not have to be an expensive investment. All you need is a computer (and if you don’t have one of those, you can get one for little more than £300) and a connection to the internet (ranging from free for a slow connection, to about £17 per month for fast broadband).

Court work: strictly legal

A few months ago, the Rules Council consulted on its proposals to alter radically the way in which civil business is conducted in the sheriff court. In summary, it recommended replacing the current paper-based system with an electronic one. The only people who would still be allowed to lodge paper documents would be party litigants. It is not known when such a change will be made (if at all), but the fact the Rules Council has consulted suggests it may not be far away.

How might all this work in practice? Let’s take an example of a family lawyer visited by an upset client, who wants a divorce along with a non-molestation interdict. At present, the solicitor would have to produce a paper writ, take it to court, book it, appear before the sheriff and seek an interim order, and then send the principal papers to sheriff officers for service. Under the new system, the solicitor could prepare the writ and send it electronically to the court. The clerk would immediately send it to the sheriff’s computer (wherever the sheriff might happen to be), and, if appropriate, the sheriff could grant the order sought. The interlocutor would then be sent electronically back to the solicitor, or direct to nominated sheriff officers. The solicitor wouldn’t have to leave his or her desk. The legal work is unchanged (the drafting of the writ and its lodging at court) but the administration is substantially removed. The result is a quicker service for the client, and less work for all involved.

From the court’s point of view, the benefits would be considerable. All processes would be instantly recoverable (no more shopping trolleys being pushed up to the ordinary court!). Sheriffs and agents could view processes from their desks. Hearing dates could be assigned automatically, cutting the overall time taken to deal with actions and applications.

Breaking the taboos

There is a very clear shift in the law towards recognising the validity of electronic copies of documents. This process began in earnest with the Electronic Communications Act 2000, which, amongst other things, provided that no new primary legislation would be required to allow for electronic systems where paper systems had previously been mandatory. Subsequent legislation reflects this movement. The governments in London and Edinburgh have adopted the “Modernising Government” agenda, which aims to provide governmental services (applying for a driving licence, claiming benefit, etc) by electronic means. Large amounts of money have been paid out to public bodies (such as SLAB) to develop systems for e-commerce (doing business electronically). Even that most traditional of procedures, registration of title to heritage, is in the process of being redeveloped through the ARTL (Automated Registration of Title to Land) project. Nothing, it seems, is sacred.

Swim with the tide

Investing in computers has become something of a mass-participation sport in recent years: what used to be a luxury purchase for large commercial firms has become a necessary tool of the trade for all practitioners, whether for cashroom or case management, word processing or document management, internet access or knowledge management. There are forces pushing the profession in this direction: the changing market, greater competition, tighter margins, and more demanding clients. As developments like SLAB E-business, ARTL and the computerised civil court begin to take off, so the pressures to invest in IT become all the greater. There will come a point where there is no real option, just as no-one can avoid having telephones or fax machines at present.

But we shouldn’t look upon this as something negative, something which we are forced into. Technology, if applied properly, should allow us to reduce the time we spend on administration, and thereby increase the time we spend doing other, more valuable things: using our legal knowledge, attending to the needs of clients, or going home to spend more time with the family.

Further down the line, there is the real prospect of achieving the truly paperless office. Some firms in the commercial sector are close to this already. Surprisingly, the technology required is fairly straightforward. Everything in your paper file today will have begun life on a computer, before being printed out. Why not forget about printing it out, and keep it on the computer? Incoming mail can be scanned quickly, and attached to the computer file.

With such an arrangement, files can be viewed anywhere without having to be looked out. If a client calls, you press a button and his file appears on your screen, whether you are in the office, at home, or at court with your laptop. Instead of countless boxes of random files, your computer will show you today’s mail, yesterday’s mail, and any outstanding mail you haven’t yet responded to. No more mail going missing behind the filing cabinet. No more expense on office juniors who are paid to file, locate and (more often than not) lose files. There would be major savings on stationery. Your work can be done where and when you want it to be. Outsourced typing becomes much more effective, as your typists can see the files when they’re working on them.

Of course, such a system would require proper safeguards. There would have to be comprehensive off-site backups taken frequently. But you may well have that for your case management system already. For most firms, a single computer would have more than enough storage space for all your files. There would of course be inconvenience if the computer were to fail, but firms already take this risk with their other IT systems. The way to minimise such a risk would be to have a good maintenance agreement with an outside firm and to have a backup server available in case anything went wrong. No system, whether paper or electronic, is risk free – the best anyone can do is to sensibly manage the risk.

At the risk of making a rash prediction, I suspect many of us will be working in paper-free environments within the next five years. If it doesn’t happen, we may as well give up and leave it to the robots...

The Author
Stuart Munro is a partner in Livingstone Brown, Glasgow, based at the Shettleston office
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