Law Firm Clears the Paper Jungle

Law Firm Clears the Paper Jungle

An optical jukebox and document imaging software reduce costs and space requirements and improve client response times.

By Ron Levine

The practice of law generates lots of paper, and paper filing systems are expensive to operate and maintain. One law firm, Berding & Weil, took a look at its paper jungle and, using a combination of document imaging and optical storage, cut its way through the thicket. Now both the law firm and its clients are benefiting from the change.

Like other law firms, Berding & Weil generates many types of documents, including client reports, court filings, research summaries, billing statements, and documents from clients and opposing attorneys. Whatever the source, all the documents have to be filed and retained for future reference, so the paper builds up.

"Law firms really sell time, and time is too precious to waste searching for client records and documents," says Alfred D. McKelvy, Jr., chief financial officer and former MIS director at Berding & Weil, in Alamo, CA. Moreover, if documents are misfiled or misplaced, an attorney`s case may be delayed for days until the documents are found or recreated, wasting even more time.

Wanted: Faster Access

Berding & Weil`s problems were accentuated by the volume and nature of its clientele. The firm represents more than 1,500 California homeowners associations, and these associations represent almost six million people. Some clients only need advice once in a while, but others need it every day. All of them generate paperwork. Finding that paperwork would quickly increase a firm`s productivity and reduce costs--a savings that could be passed on to clients.

McKelvy summed up the problem and the possible solution this way: "We have so many clients and we have to access their files as quickly as we can. To do this, we had to find a new way to retain and archive records, a way that allowed us faster access."

Before joining Berding & Weil, McKelvy founded two software firms and helped create the Bay Area Paradox User`s Group. At the law firm, he created their bulletin board system and a World Wide Web site. Now he decided to take on the challenge of implementing a document storage and retrieval system to replace the paper-based system.

McKelvy wanted a system that would "provide our attorneys and staff with information access from anywhere within our organization, at any time, and at an affordable cost to the client." Toward that end, he added a document imaging system and an optical jukebox to the firm`s 140-workstation PC LAN.

This was a high-risk decision for the company, since reliability was critical. "If the jukebox goes down, our 140 workstations can`t get to client histories and that hurts customer service," says McKelvy.

Using its existing LAN as a base (running DOS and Windows applications under Novell Netware 3.1), the firm added a document imaging system using Soft Solutions Inc. software and a 20GB Hewlett-Packard SureStore optical jukebox. Because it needed to add and delete documents freely, the firm chose erasable read/write optical disks instead of write-once read-many (WORM) optical disks. Then it began the process of moving documents to the new system.

The law firm started with less than 20,000 documents, but now stores more than 153,000 documents in the jukebox, which was purchased through a systems integration firm. The systems integrator handled hardware integration, and the law firm tackled the task of integrating the Soft Solutions software with imaging software from Pegasus Imaging Corp.

Now that the system is fully operational, all of the firm`s internal documents and publications are stored in the jukebox. Written correspondence from external sources is scanned into the system. However, whenever possible, clients and lawyers from other firms are asked to send documents on electronic media, and these are input directly, bypassing any intermediate paper form.

Once data enters the system, it is organized, indexed, and archived by the Soft Solutions software, ultimately ending up in the optical jukebox. The firm`s hard drives are barely affected, since they only hold documents briefly as they proceed from the input process to final storage in the jukebox.

Document retrieval times from the primary server`s hard disks occur in milliseconds, while retrieval from the optical jukebox generally takes 3 to 10 seconds. That compares to 10 minutes to days for the paper-based system. Berding & Weil stores 10,000 to 20,000 documents on the primary hard disks and the remaining documents in the optical jukebox. Pegasus software handles file migration between the two types of storage devices.

New System: Big Benefits

The benefits of the new system are many. The optical system reduces file space by 30% and total office space by about 10%, says McKelvy. In addition, fewer files need to be stored at expensive off-site facilities, and valuable hard disk space is now free for other uses.

More importantly, the new system has improved client service. "It has reduced our client response times down to same-phone-call response, and it has lowered costs and charges," says McKelvy.

And document archiving, always an issue for legal firms with mandated retention periods, is no longer a problem. The jukebox stores documents indefinitely, and some original documents can be returned to clients.

"With optical storage on our network, the documents are always available to our attorneys--in our offices or on their portable computers," says McKelvy. The delays in producing and distributing multiple documents to the firm`s five offices are now history.

Berding & Weil`s paper jungle is history too. With its successful use of document imaging and optical storage, it has cut its way through and opened a path, which others can follow.

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CFO "Tod" McKelvy

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MIS director Jim Wade

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Records administrator Chris Bee

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Attorneys Michael Barns and Sue Roberts

Ron Levine is a freelance writer based in Carpenteria, CA.

This article was originally published on December 01, 1997