Your Current Work Environment

Before you can change your office environment, it is important to first understand the way your law office currently functions. Although no universal description of every law office is possible, the following composite contains many elements that are common to all law offices. You will probably recognize many of the features of our hypothetical law office.

Information Flow

Think of your office as a clearinghouse for information. Information enters and exits by a variety of different paths. The communications revolution has complicated information flow in the modern law office and introduced complexities in the storage, retrieval and processing of that information. By "information" we mean all forms of communication, written, electronic and oral. 

Information Inflow

Information enters your office in many ways. The principal ones are: 
  • Mail and hand deliveries (written documents). The length and complexity of this information is varied. It may range from a one-page letter, check or invoice to many thousands of pages of documents given to you for review in connection with a business transaction or litigation. In terms of the number of discrete deliveries, 98% of what your office receives is documents of less than 50 pages in length and most of those are just a few pages long.
  • Faxes. Facsimile transmission of correspondence and other documents is still very common. You probably have a fax machine that receives images electronically over a telephone line and then prints that data to paper. When you review a fax, you are reviewing the printed image created by your fax machine. It is also possible to receive faxes directly on your computer "desktop." Various brands of software are available for this purpose. When the fax arrives, you can review it on your computer monitor and save it electronically and/or print out the fax for review or filing.
  • Telephone. You receive information in your office (and outside the office) by telephone. Clients and opposing counsel call to discuss matters. You may negotiate terms of contracts or settlement of litigation or obtain dates for hearings or trial settings. All of this is accomplished over the telephone. Ordinarily, telephone calls are not directly recorded. However, attorneys often take notes of the information received or conveyed in a telephone conversation. These notes can either be handwritten or recorded in your word processing or other computer program. 
  • Notes of Events Taking Place Outside of the Office. Attorneys do not sit behind their desks all day long. The attorney receives information at various events and typically records that information by taking notes on a legal pad. The attorney then returns to the office, bringing the recorded information with them. It is also possible to record this information electronically on the attorney's laptop computer or other similar device. The attorney then returns to the office and brings that recorded information with them in electronic form.
  • E-mail. Electronic mail messages are in widespread use. E-mail may substitute for more formal correspondence, for telephone calls or for other forms of communication. E-mail typically is received by the attorney in a program such as Microsoft Outlook. E-mail may also be accompanied by electronic attachments. The attachments can be word processing documents, photographs, spreadsheets or virtually any other type of electronic file.
  • Magnetic or Optical Storage Media. Documents may be provided to you on diskettes, CDs, zip discs or the like. These documents may include pleadings, contracts, deposition transcripts and others. 

Information Outflow

Information flows out of your office in many of the same ways it enters. You type or dictate letters, print them out on your original letterhead and mail them to parties. You do the same with pleadings that are then filed with the court. You may copy contracts, pleadings or documents to be produced to opposing counsel and then mail or deliver those to their intended recipients. You fax letters and other documents to a variety of different parties. You probably have an e-mail system and communicate with your clients and other attorneys by sending them e-mail messages. You may also attach documents to your e-mail messages, such as a word processing file, so the recipient can review and make changes to the draft contract, settlement agreement or discovery request without retyping the entire document. Thus, information exits your law office in most of the same ways that it enters. 

Storage and Retrieval of Information in a Law Office

Outgoing and incoming information must be stored for a variety of different reasons. Typically, we store information to create a record of an event or occurrence, for use of the information in the future or for archival purposes. Different portions of our client files are stored for different reasons and serve different functions. 

We keep copies of correspondence sent to and received from other parties in a case in order to document what occurred and to refresh our recollection about a particular event at some time in the future. Pleadings are kept chronologically in spindles and indexed so they can be used in preparing for hearings or trial. Documents produced in a litigated matter are reused as exhibits at depositions, hearings or trial.

The retention of client files and related documents may be compelled by ethical rule, fee agreement or other contract, or your professional liability insurance carrier. Although the requirements vary from state to state, attorneys typically store files for years after a matter has been concluded. Some attorneys never discard anything (but, the ability to retrieve a particular saved document is another matter). 

File storage is usually divided into active and inactive matters. Active matters are stored in the attorney's law office so that they are "readily" accessible. Files for matters that have been concluded and therefore do not require ready access are most typically boxed and moved to an offsite storage location. Hopefully, records are maintained about the contents of the offsite files in order to permit their future retrieval, when and if required.

Creation of Client Files

Attorneys typically create a separate file for each matter handled for a client. When an attorney is engaged to represent the Acme Manufacturing Company in defending a lawsuit brought against them, a file is established specifically for that case. Typically the file will include a pleadings spindle (an expandable binder) that is tabbed, numbered and indexed. The pleadings spindle is the permanent repository of all of the pleadings in the case. Pleadings spindles are kept in volumes, sequentially numbered. When a pleading is prepared and filed with the court, a copy is retained and placed in the pleadings spindle behind a sequentially numbered tab and the pleadings index is manually updated. When a pleading is received from another party, the copy is punched, placed in the spindle, numbered and the index is updated. 

The matter file will also include a subfolder for correspondence that is sent out and received in connection with the case, a subfolder for attorney notes, and one or many subfolders for legal research, documents received and produced and such other subfolders as the attorney or law firm staff desires to create. As one folder is filled, it is numbered "volume 1" and a new folder is created to begin "volume 2." Ordinarily, the manila folders are all placed into one or more expandable file folders and each of the subfolders is labeled and perhaps numbered in some fashion. In a larger case an index may be prepared to facilitate the retrieval of documents and subfolders.

Without careful planning at the outset, this filing system can become unwieldy and quite unmanageable. Even with the best systems and advance planning, locating a particular document in a large file is very much a manual operation and a time consuming process. For example, try locating a particular letter written a year ago in one of your files and see how long it takes. 

When all of the information coming into and going out of the law office was contained on paper, one could be fairly well assured that with a decent filing system and files that were up to date, the information you were looking for would be located in the file. However, as the sources of information into and out of a law office have multiplied and extended beyond paper documents, paper client files have become a significantly less reliable repository of information. For example, when an e-mail is substituted for a letter, how is the information contained in the e-mail reflected in the paper client file? Certainly, it can be printed out and then the printed copy can be filed in the correspondence subfolder of the client file. However, many attorneys do not do that and even those that try do not do so every time. As a result, the client files are at best incomplete.

In practice, the condition of paper client files is less than ideal. Paper is lost, misplaced or misfiled. E-mails are not printed and do not find their way into the client file. Drafts of documents are kept in the computer's word processing directory. It is rarely possible for the attorney or staff to remain current on filing every day or even every week. 

In our hypothetical but typical law office we have an abundance of paper scattered around in different locations waiting to be filed. There is the stack or stacks of unfiled materials on your desk or your secretary's desk. There are the documents placed in the alphabetical accordion file, awaiting placement in the client files. There are documents in the lawyer's office that never make it to their secretary's desk (until weeks or months later) or get passed from lawyer to lawyer and never find their way to the secretary for filing. In most law offices, it is a constant struggle (and generally a losing one) to keep up with the filing. 

The Characteristics of Paper Files

As the volume of information that flows through a law office has increased geometrically over the years, client files have grown as well. Paper files exhibit the following common characteristics: 
  • Incompleteness. Paper files are typically incomplete. There are always unfiled materials. In addition, some of the information relating to the case, such as e-mails, is probably not located in the client file at all. 
  • High Costs. Paper files are extraordinarily costly to create and maintain. And the costs don't stop when the matter ends. Your storage expense continues into the indefinite future. The costs arise from three principle sources: personnel cost, supply and material cost and storage expense. 

A large proportion of law office staff time is devoted to filing and retrieval of documents. Because personnel costs in a law firm are by far the largest overhead expense, cost of filing and retrieving paper represents the largest part of an attorney's overhead expense. The supply and material costs of creating paper files is often overlooked, but not insignificant. Expandable files cost $2.00 to $3.00 each, manila folders are 50 and pleading spindles are $2.00. The material cost for a foot of files is in the range of $20 to $30. Those laser printed labels cost a lot more than you think. File storage, for both active and inactive files, is also significant. Storage includes the rental cost for your office space, your offsite storage costs and the costs of purchasing file cabinets. 

If you total all of the costs of creating, storing and retrieving paper files, it will exceed fifty percent of your office overhead, including staff salaries and benefits (excluding partner\shareholder salary and profits). 
  • Lack of Portability. Ordinarily, you work with your client files in your office. You may take parts of a file home, but rarely do you take the entire client file, except with the smallest of matters. When you want to prepare a witness for trial, they come to you because you have the documents in your office and it's too inconvenient to take all those documents to the witness. When it comes time for trial, you ordinarily need a two-wheel dolly of some type to transport the files to court. 
  • Lack of Redundancy. You have only one set of client files. A fire, flood or other natural disaster would probably put you out of business. There is no backup set of your client files maintained in a secure location. Only one person can use your files, or at least the same part of them, at a time. If you take the correspondence file home with you, no one else will have access to those documents.
  • Lack of Searchability. For the most part, your paper client files can be searched only one way: manually and one at a time. You have not infrequently spent several hours of time you could not bill looking for that letter you know you received a couple of weeks or months ago from opposing counsel in a case. 

In summary, paper files have become extremely unwieldy, inefficient and cumbersome.

Managing Paper Flow

Apart from the staggering costs associated with the creation, storage and retrieval of documents in paper form, the management of paper communication is equally costly and cumbersome. For example, when paper comes into your office, your staff will ordinarily not have to deal with just the original document. If you receive a letter from opposing counsel in the mail, typically the mail will be routed to you after it is opened and sorted. You review the letter and then determine what needs to be done with it. You may then return the letter to your secretary with instructions to file the original in the client file, make a copy to be mailed to your client for their information (sometimes with a cover letter and sometimes without), and perhaps make another copy to return to you so you can make notes on it for the conversation that you intend to have with the writer in the next day or two. Thus, your secretary has made two or more copies of the letter, printed an envelope with your client's address, placed postage on the envelope and then caused the envelope to be mailed. You may or may not bill the copy and postage cost to your client. The cost of the supplies and your secretary's time are part of your overhead and are not directly reimbursed. 

A similar situation arises with documents prepared by your office. For example, assume you prepare a notice to set a matter for trial in a case involving three other parties. An original of the pleading (and the appropriate number of copies) are made for filing with the court. Copies are made for each opposing counsel and for your client or clients. Envelopes and postage must be prepared in order to assure delivery of the pleading to its intended recipient and the envelopes must all then be mailed. 

The time, supply cost and wear and tear on office equipment of these simple examples of paper office transactions typically go unnoticed. However, in the aggregate, these costs represent a significant portion of the overhead in a law office.

Summary

The cost and inefficiency of dealing with paper in today's "modern" law office is a condition that has crept up on us slowly over time. Although we are all aware of the problems, we have come to tolerate them. However, the cost of paper management has substantially contributed to the spiraling costs of maintaining a law office. In addition, these problems have taken a toll on how satisfied (or dissatisfied) lawyers are with what they do.