That’s The Way: Managing Risk in the Paperless Office
For litigators and solicitors alike, going paperless is a sure-fire way to increase your law firm’s productivity and it can help reduce your risk of a malpractice claim. How much time do you and your staff spend looking for documents? How often does your tickler system alert you at the very last moment of a deadline, leaving you scrambling? Documents sometimes walk away from paper files and paper-based tickler systems can be improved. Take the stairway to law practice heaven by going paperless.
There are different flavours of going paperless.
At the most basic level, a do-it-yourself paperless system would see incoming documents scanned into PDF format and your own documents created with an office suite like Microsoft Office. A more robust system is to store the documents in document management software such as Primafact or WorldDocs, which allow you to easily organize and search through your documents. Popular practice management software tools like Clio, Amicus Attorney, TimeMatters and ProLaw help you take it to the next level by organizing all your files, allowing you to create and store your documents, docket, bill, and set deadlines and tasks all within the software.
Regardless of which system you use, a consistent naming convention must be used to keep track of your documents. A good system is to name files beginning with “NR” for a document that is not reviewed, then adding the date the document was created and/or received, and a title identifying the document: “NR May 11, 2015 Clinical Notes & Records of Dr. Smith”. At a glance you can identify a document and whether you have reviewed it.
With popular scanners like the Fujitsu Scansnap becoming affordable, the paperless proposition is inexpensive. Most offices choose to go paperless slowly, treating all new files as paperless. Whatever time and investment is spent into going paperless, the payback is a practice that is easier to manage.
A paperless office can help to avoid lawyer/client communication-related errors, which account for one out of three malpractice claims. These claims include the failure to follow through on the client’s instructions, taking action without the client’s consent, and confusion between the lawyer and client about who is doing what. Electronically document your communications. Create a note in the file every time you call a client. Write follow-up letters simply by referring to your electronic notes.
Collaborate with your client efficiently by revising drafts electronically. Document management software offers two major benefits to collaborating: it can extract words from scanned documents so that you can “google” all your documents to find keywords, and it allows you to easily highlight key terms and annotate them.
LAWPRO has found that adjudicating a communications claim boils down to credibility. Without good lawyers’ notes, a court may see the client as more credible because the client typically only has one legal case while the lawyer has hundreds. The client has a very specific memories about the case, while the lawyer has vague no recollection. A paperless office, used properly, can help avoid testing your memory by documenting the file well.
When the Levee Breaks
Practice management software can help you reduce the risk of time management-related claims such as missing deadlines and procrastination. Manage the flood of files and ticklers by using electronic ticklers. Electronic ticklers can advise everyone involved in the file – not just the law clerk – of deadlines and limitation dates well in advance, and can remind you several times as important dates approach.
Electronic calendars also make it easy to update deadlines and limitations when there are rule changes. The recent Rule 48 amendments, for example, will require an action to be set down for trial within 5 years, failing which the action will be dismissed without notice. With few exceptions, an action that has been struck off the list will need to be brought back on within 2 years. A paperless office calendar and tickler can quickly be tuned to match the Rule 48 changes.
How Many More Times
Lawyers and staff typically deal with numerous emails every day. Multiple instructions sent on a file to multiple staff can overload them and cause instructions to be lost. Most practice management software allows you to assign tasks on every file to the responsible person(s) in a checklist or calendar format, and to set deadlines associated with each task. Alerts are sent to those on the file when a task ought to be complete. Following up on a task is simply a matter of responding to the alerts, eliminating the need for more emails.
Our profession is notoriously slow for adapting to new technology. The benefit is that by the time law firms have caught up, the technology is mature and most of the kinks have been worked out. We are at that stage now. Maximize the tools available to you to make your practice more productive and efficient while minimizing the risk for claims.
Ian Hu is Claims Prevention & practicePRO Counsel at LAWPRO. This article originally appeared in the Oct 2, 2015 edition of the Lawyers’ Weekly, published by LexisNexis Canada Inc