Becoming a "paperless office" is an incomplete countermeasure for governing your firm's data.
You've seen the unprecedented changes information management in legal has undergone; data storage has become more challenging, even with electronic document storage. The infinite retention of all documents is high-cost and unsustainable practice
The four key assets available to any organisation, including law firms, are:
Information assets are the lifeblood of an organisation and 'modern day gold' 1
Whether it's your own firm or those around you've probably noticed there's an apprehension to adopting newer information management software.
In the not-too-distant past Australian lawyers were impaired by only original documents being admissible in legal proceedings. Since 1995, the Evidence Act (Cth.) allowed copies of documents to be worthy and admissible in most legal proceedings.
Source: Commonwealth Evidence Act 1995
A lot of firms reaped the benefits of the "paperless office", increasing the number of (electronic) records or files stored, with an higher speed of retrieval than in the past.
However, the "paperless office" has now produced a 'bloat' of data. Searching for the information you need has become that bit slower, more frustrating.
The capability to store more data without needing shelves in your office has resulted in escalating levels of data retention which have grown unchecked, and inadequately managed.
Legal business owners are in the habit of keeping every piece of data, retaining it infinitely.
Infinite retention might avoid the awkward situation of a client requesting documents which have been destroyed, it creates wider issues for Practices like yours.
Catastrophising is not the way to manage your information.
You have an advantage at hand:
Your firm might have replaced its room of filing cabinets with a server/hardware room, or made the transition to static cloud-based (archival) storage - but your archived data still needs to be organised and accessible.
Saving shelf space has not saved any legal businesses from the issues stemming from chaotic indexing which stretch budgets, timelines for delivery and the patience of your clients.
Law firms like yours are hamstrung by the need to have information be accessible and the liabilities of retaining information for too long or not long enough.
In the event of any data breach (whether under the Privacy Act  or the GDPR) your firm's 'keep everything' mentality is risky.
Because of their duty of confidence to their clients, law firms that redundantly retain electronic information are courting reputational disaster along with serious financial consequences 3
Without attention to sentencing schedules and syncing your archiving accordingly, years of data, worth millions of dollars are vulnerable.
Your firm's Auditors probably dread searching into your archives as much as your experienced solicitors or clerks. Your staff and contractors are spending days, weeks, even months of billable hours at a glacial pace, ineffectually accounting for important data.
This doesn't even account for multiple versions of documents locally saved on your lawyers' devices; nor does this account for any knowledge in the heads.
What can you improve to capture all your information at hand?
Consider the years, even decades worth of data retained by your firm and how it's secured;
Think about the following questions:
Even for top performing global firms, the worst-case scenario involves the difficult and time-consuming process to retroactively account for who has or had access to what data and why.
Proper indexing unlocks this problem. Taking this initiative simplifies the process by which you can manage and further segment your information according to your firm's needs.
Furthermore, updated information management software enables your firm's administrators to set up levels of employee or role-based access and permissions.
You know the importance of backing up your work. "Paperless" offices need backups to protect from threats ranging from malicious deletion, malware or technology failure like a power outage.
A number of firms use hard drives stored locally, provide their own offsite repository or backup to tape. However these solutions offer fail the tests of compliance and affordability.
Infinite retention is a high-cost, unsustainable practice.
The information you already have is your most potent asset.
Your experience and reputation are influential for people seeking your firm's services at a sensitive or intense time in their lives. They place their trust in the quality of your professionalism, knowledge and in the required legal processes.
This process will create avenues for your firm to mobilise your data, the lifeblood of your practice; and managing your information-related costs. The change could be something as simple as archiving your data simultaneously to sentencing schedules.
As you explore your existing internal processes and practices for your data at hand (even in your archives), you're sure to uncover the core needs of your firm and ways to strengthen your services.
If you’re interested in learning more then download our free Information Management Workshop template to bring your team together:
1 McFadzean, E., Ezingeard, J. & Birchall, D. (2007). Perception of risk and the strategic impact of existing IT on information security strategy at board level. Online Information Review, 31(5), pp. 622–660
2 Legal Profession Uniform Law Australian Solicitors’ Conduct Rules (2015), Rule 14.2
3 Grace, "Hidden Compliance Issues for Law Firms"
4 Backblaze, "How Long do Disk Drives Last?"