Paper-less Office or Less-paper Office?

For a decade or so marketing hype has promoted the paperless office. Courts have begun to accept and in some instances require filings to be digital, on diskette, and/or on paper. According to a recent study 41 states now allow digital copies of documents into evidence. Late in 2002, the Supreme Court of Florida ordered mandatory filing of documents on computer diskette. Similarly, some federal courts, including the Eleventh Circuit, require electronic filing. Some civil and a few criminal cases are generating digital evidence and digitally imaged documents.

A typical white-collar criminal case can easily involve several gigabytes of data and/or several thousand printed pages of documents. Prices for Computer storage devices have plummeted. Storage capacity has sky-rocketed. A single gigabyte of storage can hold around 50,000 pages. Storage costs less than $1.50 per gigabyte. The costs associated with converting paper records to imaged and indexed data: around 24 cents a page.

To digitize or convert paper records to digital information includes high-speed imaging or scanning each page, followed by optical character recognition of the text in the documents, and finally associating the text of each image with the image files so that all of the documents could be searched by computer rather than trudging through the boxes that can fill a downtown conference room. This database containing the documents can be a deadly weapon in your arsenal. Offensively, patterns can be discerned and statistically relevant information can be easily analyzed. Defensively, smoking guns can be found and their problems addressed.

At first light, the most useful result of creating a digital copy of documents is analytical. However document imaging can also be useful for depositions, hearings, and trials. Once digitized the documents can be easily displayed on an ordinary television set, a computer monitor, a liquid crystal display projector or large screen plasma monitor.

While at the office much of the time, we do not need the original document. In such instances the digital image can be retrieved and reviewed on-screen or printed off the network printer. Document sharing and transmittal of copies is easier than ever once the digital copy of the documents has been produced. Simultaneous access to imaged materials by many users is a snap.

While away from the office, the document image can be retrieved and reviewed from a remote log-in to the network. The images or data can be stored on a notebook computer or on compact disk. Whether a desktop computer from another office, a notebook computer in court, or on a wireless device on the way to court, once the documents and files are accessible from anywhere, your handtruck and its cargo of banker’s boxes may be on its way to the junk heap. In the event of a disaster, copies of the data can be retrieved from storage and restored without missing a beat.

Adobe Acrobat has become the international standard for imaged documents. The program that creates the documents is around $250.00 per license. The program that reads the documents, Acrobat Reader, is free. Acrobat can be installed on almost any operating system, from Windows, to McIntosh, to Unix, to Linux, to Windows handheld devices, and Palm handheld devices. This yields documents that can be reviewed by anyone who receives a document and who obtains the free reader software.

Acrobat documents can be password protected, encrypted, digitally watermarked, made to be read-only, and digitally signed. Once created, an Acrobat copy can be authenticated and there can be high-level assurance that a copy has not been altered.

Can we eliminate the records center and empty our filing cabinets? Can we now eliminate putting pen to paper to sign documents? Do we really want to? What if the client wants his paperwork returned? Answers: Not yet; Yes; No; Oh-oh.

The paperless law office does not address the practicalities of the analog world. Clients may justifiably want their original source documents and courts may require them. This article was created paperlessly and was submitted to the publisher electronically via the Internet. There is not a paper copy of the article in my office. Notwithstanding the utility of digital record storage, and the promise of a paperless office, we are more likely approaching a less-paper office.

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