THE DIGITAL OFFICE
By Garry R. Appel and Peter J. Lucas

Many of our friends and colleagues have expressed tremendous interest in our new "digital office." This article is the result of their urging that we share with all of the members of the Bar what we have achieved and how we did it.

First, we have a digital office, we do not have a paperless office. In fact, we still receive and generate copious quantities of paper. But we have no traditional paper client files, and we use only electronic or "virtual" files. Think of it this way: paper is one way to store an image. However, it's not the only way and in many circumstances it's not the best way. All of our images, those that nearly all of you still store on paper and organize into paper files, are stored and accessed electronically. We can view the image on a computer monitor or, if we want, we can print the digital image and view it the old fashioned way. For example, if we want to edit a brief, we can print out the draft, mark it up and give it back to our secretary to make the changes. If we need a document to use as an exhibit at a deposition, it can be printed out for that purpose.

On the other hand, at a recent deposition in New York, we copied the entire client file to a CD and carried only the laptop to the deposition. By the way, the client file in this case would have consisted of twenty-five lineal feet of paper. While preparing for the deposition at the hotel the night before, something unanticipated came up. However, since we had the entire file, it was a snap to locate the pleading filed sixteen months before or the document produced by one of the many other parties in the case. 

When a client called the other day and wanted to discuss the draft of the contract we faxed them yesterday, it was literally only a few clicks away. We didn't have to put them on hold or call them back after searching through the stacks of paper on our desk or, worse yet, trying to sort through the foot-high stacks of unfiled papers on the secretary's desk. 

Don't think of the digital office as "paperless." Think of it instead as organized, flexible and accessible. 

Our Plunge Into Madness

We confess to being techies of a sort. Both of us have been interested in computers and software for a long time and have kept abreast of software and hardware developments for the workplace in general and for the law office in particular. We had talked about "going digital" for a number of years, both at the national firm with which we were affiliated and the smaller spinoff that resulted when the national firm dissolved (not our fault). There were always a dizzying array of reasons not to pull the trigger. It's too expensive. We don't have time to implement it right now. It will be too complicated. What systems should we use? How reliable will it be? Will our staff be able to use it? Inertia prevailed and we continued to just barely keep from drowning in the sea of paper. Like so many others, we were aware of the problem and had thought about solving it, but there really wasn't a model to follow and we didn't have the time or incentive to create one.

That all changed on July 1st as we prepared for our move from the 24th floor of the Tabor Center to a renovated 1890's tannery near the corner of 19th and Market Streets. In the Tabor Center we had lots of extra storage space to hide things in. Our new space was open and smaller. As part of the move we had already decided to upgrade our computer systems. Packing our files for the move, we were literally surrounded by box upon box of paper. We looked at each other and knew that the time had come to see if there wasn't a better way. After a short discussion, we threw caution to the wind and agreed to build an integrated digital infrastructure from scratch. 

Getting Started

Our goal was modest: to be able to electronically store and retrieve all pleadings, correspondence, notes, memos, research, documents and other materials that we would ordinarily put in a client's file. Of course, we already had digital copies of some of these documents. The pleading, letter or contract that was produced on our firm's word processing system was a digital file. Typically, you print the digital file to paper and then store the paper in a physical location that theoretically gives you the ability to retrieve the document at some time in the future. E-mails (both incoming and outgoing) are another example of digital files. Increasingly this is becoming a substitute for the traditional letter? How do you store it currently? Some people print them out and file the paper with other correspondence. More typically, these communications are not captured at all and remain in the "sent items" or "deleted items" folder of your e-mail program. 

These digital files already existed on our system. All that was lacking was a way to store them and organize them for easy retrieval. But what about the documents you receive from someone in paper form or the manually signed copies of the pleadings or letters? Those would need to be converted to an electronic format. That is where a scanner becomes a necessity. Scanners come in a variety of speeds and configurations, ranging from flatbed scanners that process a few pages a minute to industrial strength scanners that can capture 120 pages a minute.

Since we needed a new copier anyway, we first opted for a digital copier/scanner/network printer . The cost of this device was approximately the same as an "old fashioned" analog copier. However, it had the added ability to scan documents and also served as a high speed network printer.

If we were really to turn all of our information into electronic data, we had to face the challenge of figuring out how to distribute, organize and access our new digital files. Distribution of the files within the office turned out to be easy. Our digital copier automatically distributed files to people within the office via e-mail. Thus, we could scan a letter, pleading or other document we received and e-mail the scanned file to anyone in the office.

The next question was how to store the digital files. Each type of file is in a different format and requires different programs to be able to view them. The scanned documents are normally stored as TIFs or Adobe Acrobat "pdf" files. The word processing files are stored as Word or Wordperfect documents. Spreadsheets are usually in Excel or Quatro Pro formats and e-mails can be a combination of different formats. The lack of a common format would make it very inconvenient to use the files later on. It would be a little like having some of the documents in your files in English, and others in French, Spanish and Portuguese. Fine if you read all those languages. Inconvenient if you need a translator for each one.

The Adobe Acrobat PDF file format has become the de facto standard for use on the Internet and is quickly becoming the standard electronic document storage format. We were familiar with the Adobe Acrobat Reader, which is available for free from a variety of sources, that is used to view PDF documents. It was the full version of Adobe Acrobat, however, that allowed us to integrate all of the various different file formats and convert them quickly and easily to PDFs. Virtually any text or graphic file format can be converted to PDF. A significant bonus of using Acrobat is the simple but powerful set of tools packaged with the program. You can OCR documents, highlight portions of documents, write on them in long hand or attach electronic post-it notes , among many other types of "annotations." As we worked more and more with the system over the months, the Acrobat tools became an indispensable part of our digital office .

Finally, we had to decide how to organize and store our digital files. Although expensive and complex document management software exists, we took a simpler and more flexible approach. All of our electronic client files are stored in the firm's electronic "file room," which is a separate drive on the firm's server. The digital files are organized in approximately the same way as our paper files were. That is, there are separate electronic folders for each client and separate sub-folders for each client matter. Within each matter, we have electronic folders for pleadings, correspondence, notes, memoranda, legal research, documents and so on. Within each of those folders, subfolders can be created however you like. For example, within the documents folder, we may have subfolders for documents provided to us by the client, documents produced to opposing counsel, documents produced from opposing counsel and privileged documents. You can organize the "files" in whatever way you want. New folders are created instantaneously and documents can be moved between folders.

Putting it All Together

Our initial configuration consisted completely of off the shelf software. Microsoft Outlook for e-mail, Wordperfect for word processing and Adobe Acrobat for creating and viewing the digital documents. What we were missing, however, was a simple way to manage the scanned images before they were placed in the virtual client files. We discovered there was really no software available that provided the ease of use and flexibility we wanted.

As a result, we had the software written for us by a software development firm with a local office. They were able to integrate all the other software components of the system through an interface - a central clearing house - which allows the user to do all sorts of things with the scanned file. Although simple, the software is crucial to making the system effective and easy to use. The software (which has been dubbed Digital Advantage) is an interface between Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Outlook. All scanned images end up in your Outlook inbox, right alongside your e-mails. The interface enables you to view the scanned images, quickly file them in the appropriate client folder, calendar any dates or deadlines, forward the file to others in the firm or outside (like your client or co-counsel), create a task item or delete the image entirely. The Digital Advantage interface also allows quick access to the files and to information regarding the files.

The final piece of the paper puzzle was what to do with the original paper documents which we were both generating and receiving. The newly revised rules of Civil Procedure allow electronic filing of pleadings but require that the signed original be maintained. We needed a way to organize the original paper documents so that we could retrieve the paper if necessary, but without the necessity of creating traditional paper client files. The new software provided a remarkably efficient solution. All of the paper documents generated or received each day are placed in a single daily file. As the documents are scanned and filed, the Digital Advantage software automatically records physical location information for each document. As a result, we end up with both a complete index of each daily file and an easy way to locate the paper copy of a document should it ever be needed.

How it Works

Here's an example of how the system functions. The mail arrives at the front desk and is opened by our receptionist. After sorting the mail by recipient, she scans each piece and the new digital copier sends the document to the intended recipient via e-mail. The paper document is then put in a daily folder (along with all of the other incoming paper for that day) and ultimately moved offsite. The e-mail with the attached PDF image then appears in the recipient's Outlook inbox. By opening the e-mail, the Digital Advantage interface is activated, displays the image and allows the user to process the document in whatever way is appropriate. For example, if the document is a letter from opposing counsel, you would read it and then file it in the appropriate client folder. The filing process requires only a couple of mouse clicks and takes only a few seconds. In fact, the process takes less time than telling your secretary where to file the document. In addition, you can simultaneously e-mail a copy of the letter to your client or, if you wish, print a copy so that you can look at it at home in the evening. If you want to dictate a response to the letter but don't have time that second, you can create a task item in Outlook from the Digital Advantage program to remind you to respond later. If the letter imposes a deadline, you can add the item to your calendar at the same time. When you're done with the electronic document, the Digital Advantage interface sends you back to your Outlook inbox. You can now go on to the next piece of mail or do other work and come back to the mail later.

Of course, you are not limited to reading your mail from the computer in your office. With this system, you can read, file, forward and retrieve documents from your home computer in the evening or from your hotel room 3,000 miles away. The only difference you'll notice will result from the speed of your internet connection.

The Hardware

We began with new computers, for the most part, when we started this process. Pentium III-600 processors with 128 megahertz of RAM processed the images just fine. However, the aging Pentium 166 that one of our paralegals had was painfully slow processing image files. As a result, everyone in our office has at least a P-500 and the most intensive users have P-800s. We also bought a new server and backup systems and some larger monitors. Everyone has at least a 17 inch monitor. Some of us have upgraded to 21 inches.

The equipment costs are surprisingly modest. An excellent work station costs in the range of $1,400 and a good server is in the range of $5,000. A serviceable scanner can be purchased for $2,500. Additional hardware includes a tape backup and backup power supply.

Working in the Digital Law Office

The digital law office has changed the way we work - for the better. There are no longer those panicked moments searching for a document or pleading when trying to get ready for a hearing or meeting, looking through the piles of unfiled paper. All documents are immediately filed. No more shuffling around looking for your notes of the conversation you had yesterday. Notes are now appended to the document you were talking about and available to you with a mouse click. No more "I forgot to bring that" when you're at a meeting, in a deposition or in court. You can bring it all on a single CD Rom.

We have found that the principal characteristics of the digital office are organization, flexibility, simplicity and reduced cost.

Organization

We have pointed out a number of examples of organizational benefits of the digital office throughout this article. However, the reason things are organized is that everything is "filed" practically as soon as you receive it. We do not have the stack of today's mail waiting to be punched, indexed and put in paper folders. We do not have the piles of last week's mail that never got put away because our secretary or file clerk was out sick or too busy. We do not have those boxes of unfiled papers from last month or last year that never got filed for some other reason. Instead, we have virtual client files that are automatically and instantly complete and up to date. 

Flexibility

Organization does not mean that the system is rigid, which was one of our chief complaints about the several storage and retrieval programs that we considered in the transition. We did not want to be forced to work in a way that some else dictated and we wanted the ability to accommodate different working styles in the future. In our digital office, the "filing" function can be done by whomever you want and however you want. If you want to place all of your documents for a particular matter in a single virtual folder, not differentiating between correspondence, notes, legal research and contract drafts, you can do that (although, we don't know why you would). If you want your secretary or paralegal to screen your mail, the system works fine that way. Simply tell the scan operator to direct you mail to your secretary. If you want to forward copies of a pleading you received to others in your office for them to review, you can do that with ease. If you want to take all the files with you on your laptop, either download them or burn them to a CD which you can read on your laptop. If you have a recalcitrant partner who insists on paper files, that can be accommodated within the system simply by printing the scanned images. One of the beauties of the system is that it accommodates your working style. You are not forced to conform your working style to the system.

Simplicity

The system is really simple and seems very familiar from the start. It is designed that way and mimics the paper files with which most of us are familiar and comfortable. There are no complex commands to learn, remember or to use. You don't need to enter a lot of information to store or retrieve a document. Everyone finds the system straight forward, simple and easy to use. 

Reduced Costs

We don't have to tell you that your highest costs in a law firm are your employees. We also don't need to tell you how much employee salaries and related costs have increased lately. We have estimated that our staff has become a remarkable 40% more efficient as a result of the digital system implementation. Filing time (which they no longer need to spend) makes up some part of that. Paper search and retrieval missions is another part. But, perhaps the bulk of the time savings is in the little things you wouldn't even think about. For example, how much time does your staff spend creating pleadings spindles? With the digital system, a pleadings index is created automatically. How about bates stamping documents? How much time does it take your staff to perform this routine task? With Adobe Acrobat, we can bates stamp any number of documents in less time than it took you to read this sentence. Our staff rarely spends time copying documents to be produced to opposing counsel in a litigated matter or making copies of documents from a real estate closing. Instead, the documents are "burned" to a CD Rom, which we then send to the other party along with the free Adobe Acrobat Reader. Total time to produce the CD is under a minute. Total cost of the CD Rom: 30 cents or less. We do the same thing when we want to provide our client with a copy of documents that have been produced to us. All the documents are imaged, copied to a CD and the CD is then sent to the client. These are but a few of the examples of the employee efficiencies and cost savings that are inherent in the digital office system . 

The Drawbacks

We thought long and hard about this, but honestly haven't found any drawbacks to working in a digital system. Nothing has ever been lost. We are more organized, much more efficient and more responsive to the needs of our clients. Our operating costs have significantly declined. This may not be a revolution in the practice of law, but it's an evolutionary change of the same order as the copier or fax machine. Perhaps most importantly, we found that implementing a completely digital office has changed something else. Our attitudes. This has really made the practice of law a lot more fun.