Law Offices Get Smaller, Records Rooms Get Digital | DocSolid

Emily Parkin

A Digital Records Room: Now Is the Time

76%. That’s the number of U.S. lawyers who now want to work remotely. Prior to the pandemic, only 37% even considered that option.1 This profound change impacts many aspects of a law firm’s operations, including the big opportunity to shrink real estate expenses. Eliminating the paper records footprint from each office is a crucial part of that plan, and a Digital Records Room is the enabler for this. A Digital Records Room is equally necessary for servicing file requests for attorneys working from home.

Now is the time for the paper to digital transformation firms have been delaying. Law firms today are presented with two key transformational catalysts: 1) attorneys have embraced technology and digital skills to enable their work from home preferences; and 2) firm office lease expenses can be greatly reduced in conjunction with a smaller in-office workforce.

Through it all, law firms need new ways to deliver work product faster, better and more efficiently. These new ways will not be paper-based. In fact, none of the new operations required for the distributed work force can be served by paper-based workflows.

That’s why we are providing this guide about how firms can digitize the paper records footprint in their law firms as a new, structured operation. Specifically, a key action firms must take to eliminate paper records in their operations will be a Digital Records Room.

What is a Digital Records Room?

A Digital Records Room is a firm-wide system of software, workflow and services, to digitize paper records to the DMS, replacing paper file rooms with this new operation. It supports the firm’s strategic plan to reduce real estate expense by eliminating the paper footprint of records rooms and scattered file storage. It is also used to service attorneys working from home when they need records room documents delivered digitally. And implementing a Digital Records Room can finally stop the flow of paper records to offsite storage.

Why a Digital Records Room? Three Reasons

Jamie Blomquist, CIO at Maslon, describes the business objectives met by a Digital Records Room this way:

“There are essentially three use cases for transitioning to a Digital Records Room: reduce costs by reducing the footprint of paper so we can optimize our office space for higher value work; improve productivity and help attorneys have anywhere access to their files; and lastly, driving our paper files into one centralized DMS file helps us govern and reduce risk better.”

Reduce Real Estate Costs

“For new WilmerHale office spaces, there is little to no filing space for paper with the ultimate goal of reducing to no usage of paper. We have been able to do this as the result of a series of strategic decisions: 1. In the early 2000s, when we updated our Document Management System, we decided immediately to drive matter centricity and made the system our electronic file of record and 2. With every office move or restack in the past 15 years, we leveraged the opportunity to educate our firm community and thus have further reduced our footprint for paper storage.” Angela Akpapunam, IGP, CISM. Director, Information Governance and Records, WilmerHale

Real estate is the second biggest expense for a law firm. As firms aggressively roll out their real estate compression plans, they must eliminate the floor space required for records rooms and ad hoc paper file storage.

The majority of firms spend approximately 6 – 8% of gross revenue on real estate costs in major metropolitan areas. Cushman & Wakefield projects that firms will be able to save as much as 3.5% of revenue by renegotiating their leases.

Firms need to run projects to digitize the existing records rooms in each city office, then apply the same solution to maintaining ongoing digitization of new paper records as they are received and used. That means when paper documents get delivered to the front door of the Digital Records Room operation, the paper is scanned to the DMS using adaptable, productive methods.

Cadis Stuart-Hodges, IGP, CRA, Director of Records Services, Drew Eckl & Farnham comments:

“I would say as a records professional with 13 years in the business, my constant push for many years has been space. Space has always been at a premium: ironically, the more space we have the less efficient we are. But now for the legal industry, saving office space is part of the overall real estate reduction plan.”

Office-specific digitization projects should be prioritized in conjunction with lease renewals and office moves, to target the most near-term cost reductions. Overall real estate planning for the firm should include records room digitization in the strategic plan. Remember that such projects can involve significant work and time allocations, so they need to be staged many months (or years) in advance of the actual move. And once an office’s records room becomes digital, the impacted attorneys need to be acclimated to the new culture of digital and DMS-oriented behaviors.

As firms look to reduce real estate, they also are examining new workflows such as hoteling where attorneys will not have dedicated, private desk and filing spaces. In this scenario, attorneys who want to work with paper need a way to do so without filing or transporting it. A Digital Records Room operation at the downtown office provides an ongoing, simple and quick service to scan to the DMS when users are in the office.

Other cost reductions from a Digital Records Room can be achieved by the elimination of paper records being sent to offsite storage.

Attorney Productivity

With 76% of attorneys preferring a continuance of work-from-home options, distributed work is here to stay. At the same time, clients expect their law firms to be equally productive and secure. According to a 2021 study by Colliers, productivity remains a key metric for the transition ahead. “While many lawyers and employees have been as productive, if not more so during the pandemic, uncertainty remains whether these levels are sustainable over the long run.” As compromised standards for security and information governance get corrected for the long run, productivity needs to flow from new and improved operations.

For example, attorneys requesting paper files in their home offices isn’t a sustainable practice. You can’t efficiently send paper files to an attorney’s home, nor should attorneys drive in to fetch them. Whether at home or in the downtown office, waiting for retrieval of a paper record will quickly become unacceptable to the attorneys. Paper files need to become digital and live as profiled documents immediately accessible from the DMS.

Cadis Stuart-Hodges continues,

“A Digital Records Room is a far more efficient tool than putting in a ticket, and waiting while someone looks for the file, often finding out that part of the file is offsite and waiting for that. It’s hours versus the immediate access of a Digital Records Room.”

When leveraging the DMS as the delivery vehicle for file requests, the requested paper records are profiled and scanned to the related matter file, and a notification is sent telling the requestor the documents are available. This method is sometimes called ‘image on demand.’ Matter documents are delivered quickly and digitally from the DMS. Support staff can be copied on the digital delivery so everyone can get to work faster.

Operating a Digital Records Room normalizes staffing and eliminates the cascading work surrounding paper records. Not only is client service improved, but attorneys, matter teams and staff translate improved productivity into improved profitability.

Information Governance and Risk Reduction

The Digital Records Room was a key component of building a truly comprehensive information governance environment.” Deb Rifenbark, CIGO, IGP, CRM, Director of Information Governance, Stinson LLP.

Information governance professionals have been pushing electronic records and DMS adoption for a long time. That is because the governance and security of sensitive client information has always been a top concern of their most important stakeholder: the clients themselves.

Year over year, in the Altman Weil Chief Legal Officer surveys, CLOs report that how law firms govern and secure their information is one of their top 3 main concerns. These concerns have increased dramatically as work shifted to home offices.

Rifenbark continues: “Stinson is a mature firm in that we drive our Digital Records Room, and this helped us have a seamless transition to remote working scenarios; the electronic efficiency is already there to support efficient collaboration.

Brenda Johnson Senior Information Governance Manager at Stinson LLP, adds:

“The fact is all firms face the same IG challenges. We find the ROI when we start converting dollars into time saved in retrievals and risk reduction.”

IG and security requirements for a best practice Digital Records Room include:

  1. Tight DMS / RMS integration with leading industry platforms such as iManage, NetDocuments and FileTrail
  2. Vendor DMS expertise and solution flexibility so that a firm’s DMS customizations can be accommodated
  3. In-house and outsourced staff empowered with DMS profiling-scanning capability without DMS logins
  4. Enterprise software that matches a firm’s security regime
  5. Avoidance of scan-to-email attachments or new operating repositories
  6. Built in auditing of the overall capture process, down to the document level
  7. Paper document disposition-retention-shredding built into the process
  8. Ability to segregate processes for confidential content e.g., HR documents

“Securing sensitive client and firm information in our document management system is far more secure than storing loose files that are vulnerable to misplacement or other security issues.

Sidley leverages the security of our document management system to ensure client confidentiality which clients can also audit to confirm the highest standards are maintained. We discourage requests for paper copies, drive the electronic file as the official matter file and from there we reap a multitude of other high value benefits. Most recently, those benefits are flowing to our Knowledge Management efforts. Images of paper files are keyword searchable; paper files are not. Therefore, ensuring our documents are OCR’d in our DMS means our lawyers and staff can unlock the tremendous value of our information.” Mark Lagodinski, Director of Records Management, Sidley Austin.

Airmail2 Digital Records Room

Airmail2 Digital Records Room runs bulk backfile conversion projects and provides a day-forward operation for keeping file rooms digital. While file rooms and offsite storage are in place, Airmail2 services file requests for in-home and in-office workers by scanning to the DMS, then sending smart notifications of delivery.

Airmail2 is designed specifically for the records room scan capture requirements in a law firm, with focus on productivity, flexibility and process integrity.

Productivity – The solution builds an assembly line for scanning records to the DMS. The physical and digital work processes are batched to achieve maximum productivity and parallel workflows. Airmail2 software manages the entire span of work, from initial file inventory – through profiling and scanning – all the way to the retention or shredding of the paper.

Flexibility – Airmail2’s operating flexibility adjusts to job scope, labor and profiling variances for each project, each practice and each office. Airmail2 customizes the work to fit the project, including innovative ways to use staff and outsourced labor without needing DMS logins.

Process Integrity – Patented quality controls are built into the process to ensure operational integrity. Quality control software checks each document for successful capture, ultimately ensuring confident shredding and tracked disposition. And Airmail2’s help desk, dashboard, audits and reporting enable firm-wide oversight by administrators.

Summary

The concept of a Digital Records Room has appealed to firm leadership and IG professionals for some time. Everyone understands how paper records weigh down on a firm’s agility. Much like an unwanted boat anchor, the substantial costs, risks and inefficiencies of paper records just keep accumulating. This impedes profitability and growth on many fronts. So why does this problem remain unresolved for so many law firms?

The fact is that paper records can be tolerated until the pain becomes unbearable and many stakeholders in the firm gain this awareness at the same time. As a result, the firm reaches an inflection point. Many law firms are at this significant turning point now, and others will follow because the driving forces behind these changes are not new, they simply reached critical mass. The root causes behind many process problems in a law firm involve paper records. The focus on real estate compression and home-based attorney productivity are magnifying the business need. According to the research data and insights shared by those who faced these same challenges, the opportunity for a paper to digital transformation is now.

1Peer Monitor and Georgetown Law State of the Legal Industry Report 2021

https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/law-offices-get-smaller-records-rooms-8469421/

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