Law firms turning the page on paper

Driven by client demand, old-fashioned legal files are going the way of the typewriter – a move that could have a significant impact on the legal industry’s bottom line
Smart and Biggar
Smart & Biggar’s Elliott Simcoe shows some of the thousands of paper case files the firm once consulted on a daily basis. Photo by Mark Holleron.

Elliott Simcoe is one of Ottawa’s busiest patent agents, though you’d never know it by looking at his office inbox.

Where you’d expect to find a stack of files stuffed with legal documents and urgent correspondence, there is nothing but an empty tray gathering dust. The outbox next to it is equally devoid of paper.

Mr. Simcoe, a partner at Ottawa intellectual property firm Smart & Biggar, isn’t going on vacation or getting ready to retire. In fact, as a senior member of an organization that files more patent and trademark applications than any other firm in Canada, he’s probably got more on his proverbial tray than ever.

But in a literal sense, that tray is now a museum piece. Like the rest of the lawyers at Smart & Biggar, Mr. Simcoe doesn’t do much business in paper form anymore, instead using an electronic file management system designed specifically for the company.

“It is a quantum leap in terms of the ability to serve your clients,” he tells a reporter from OBJ during a tour of the firm’s downtown office on Metcalfe Street.

Before Smart & Biggar ditched its paper file system earlier this year, Mr. Simcoe explains, it relied on “an army of people” to ferry documents back and forth between agents’ offices and its mailroom, where the bulging files were catalogued and stored.

At any given time, up to 8,000 of the bulky cardboard folders would be circulating throughout the office, says director of operations Mike Gore. In an industry where missing a deadline by a minute could theoretically cost a client the rights to a multimillion-dollar patent, time is truly money, and mailroom employees had carte blanche to enter any office at any time to deliver or retrieve sensitive documents.

“You have to treat every file like it’s the Viagra file,” says Mr. Simcoe referring to client Pfizer’s most famous pharmaceutical product. “We live under that kind of time pressure. It’s part of our day.”

A mailroom that once employed more than 30 people who scurried amid the din of constantly ringing phones and fax machines is now silent and deserted. In Mr. Gore’s words, it’s gone from “Grand Central Station” to “tumbleweeds and crickets.”

Thanks to the new technology, Mr. Simcoe and his colleagues no longer have to wait for mailroom staffers to sift through shelves to locate a folder. All the data they need for any given case is available at the click of a mouse.

For an organization with clients on every continent, being able to quickly respond to their requests and inquiries is vital, Mr. Simcoe says. He’ll often answer e-mails he received from overseas during the night while enjoying his morning coffee at breakfast.

“It was abundantly clear that going forward, we had to take a leap in terms of how we managed our files to match them with clients’ expectations and bringing our responsiveness up from what was an acceptable level in the ’90s and 2000s but just wasn’t going to cut it today in a 24-7, Twitter world,” he says.

Keeping pace with clients

Robert Sheahan, a partner at the Ottawa office of Gowling WLG, agrees. He began shifting his health law practice almost exclusively toward digital correspondence several years ago.

“No question, our clients seem to want this,” he says. “I think a lot of our business clients, they are moving in this direction in their own businesses and they look to us to keep pace with that.

“Business in general is becoming more and more mobile. The ability to access your files anywhere and everywhere with a fair degree of ease … is something we’ve never been able to do with a paper file before – unless you want to carry around a huge barrister’s bag full of briefs.”

Less paper also means less demand for mailroom workers, but most firms say cutting payroll isn’t the driving force behind going file-less.

All of Smart & Biggar’s former mailroom employees have found jobs in other departments, Mr. Gore says, where they are learning new skills tailored to an electronic world.

“The focus was never on reduction in that way,” he says. “It was more about client services, speed, efficiency.”

Mr. Simcoe points to Hurricane Harvey and the swath of devastation it left behind in southern Texas to demonstrate the new technology’s worth. In the past, staffers would have had to rifle through hundreds of rows of folders to find each Houston-area client’s file and determine if any crucial deadlines were in danger of being missed.

 

“You have to treat every file like it’s the Viagra file. We live under that kind of time pressure. It’s part of our day ... It was abundantly clear that going forward, we had to take a leap in terms of how we managed our files to match them with clients’ expectations.”

Instead, once Harvey’s impact became obvious, it took only a few clicks to know the status of every affected client’s file.

“The patent office doesn’t care,” Mr. Simcoe says. “The law is clear. If we don’t file something on time, there is no way to save the case just because there was a 50-year flood in Houston. It doesn’t work that way.”

Doing away with physical files is boosting Smart & Biggar’s bottom line in other ways as well. The firm expects to see hefty cost savings on paper – many of the firm’s 35,000 active files contain hundreds of pages. It also no longer needs to purchase reams of specially designed, extra-thick cardboard folders to hold those documents.

The shift away from paper also has the potential to dramatically alter the way firms use their office space – and how much of it they need.

Smart & Biggar’s current 54,000-square-foot office at 55 Metcalfe includes 5,000 square feet dedicated to mailroom and file storage uses. “You free up the file room space and now you have collaborative space where people can work together,” Mr. Gore says.

Eventually, the firm plans to scan the paper files it still maintains and destroy the physical copies. When that day comes, it will likely relocate to smaller digs. Smart & Biggar’s Toronto office, for example, cut its footprint from 26,000 to 19,000 square feet after going file-less about a year ago.

“It just allows you to use your space more smartly, more efficiently, than you did before,” Mr. Sheahan says. “There’s few more wasted spaces than a big file room.”

Still, most lawyers say paper won’t become entirely a thing of the past any time soon.

Sean Bawden, a partner at Ottawa firm Kelly Santini LLP who specializes in employment law, says most courts still require documents to be filed the old-school way.

“The logistics of the courtroom make it challenging, I think most would say, to do anything but paper if we’re going to trial,” he says. “We’re getting there, but I think the real barrier is if the judge feels comfortable doing that.”

Mr. Sheahan, who heads up Gowling’s health law practice in Ottawa, explains that some clients and opposing counsel also prefer to read briefs, medical records and other documents on good old-fashioned paper.

“There’s a lot of people that we have to think about when we’re implementing a digital practice,” he says. “It really does depend a lot on the judge and a lot on the court. For some courts, it’s just not possible. For some judges, it’s just not desirable.”

Many legal documents require signatures, he adds, and not everyone is comfortable with using an electronic tool for that purpose.

“Part of the challenge has been, how do we take those same safeguards that were the reason behind why we had to sign a document and move that into the digital age?”

Going digital also requires rethinking the way people work, a process that takes time, he says.

“Change is gradual because we have to make sure that every step we take along that road doesn’t compromise the integrity of the process and the reliability of those documents,” Mr. Sheahan says.

“In many ways, the decision to reduce paper, that’s the easy part. The more difficult part is, OK, how do we go about doing it and then what’s our digital practice going to look like? How are those files going to be organized? You can’t put sticky notes on the edge of your paper and call that a filing system anymore.”

Still, the move to a paperless world is gaining momentum at law firms everywhere, and it’s not likely to slow down.

“I can only imagine a year from now what this place is going to be like in terms of our ability to meet our clients’ expectations,” Mr. Elliott says. “When they say it’s a 24-7 world, they’re not kidding.”