Paperless Paths – A New Business Dynamic for Law Firms

As electronic tools and databases transform the practice of law, pundits contend that the documents and records common to all law firms face extinction, as scanned files or cloud databases replace hard copy law texts, briefs and client documents. British technology consultant Richard Susskind even claimed in his book, The End of Lawyers?, that the ongoing development of new paperless technologies will so commoditize legal services as to make traditional lawyers irrelevant. But rather than “the end of lawyers,” paperless technology is really the start of a new law firm business dynamic. Consider these three examples of what is to come.


Doing more work by less expensive labor has been the law firm’s past profitability strategy. In the future clients will demand leverage through a staffing/technology mix, so that databases – not paralegals or associates – provide the cost efficiency. Firms must learn to staff accordingly, or have far more lawyers than they can support. Some work will be forever commoditized. This is already happening to litigation, as e-discovery software can analyze documents at a fraction of the time and cost for lawyers to do the task. File search programs find documents with relevant terms at high speed, and even extract relevant concepts and deduce patterns that lawyers examining paper copies may have missed. Inescapably, many lawyers who used to conduct document review will no longer be billable. Profitability for the firm will come from the ability to swiftly analyze the millions of equivalent paper pages that electronic documents represent.


Knowledge management (KM) databases combine the work product of all lawyers into a single unified database that can be accessed by each lawyer to the benefit of all clients. Clients no longer want their lawyer to reinvent the wheel: once the research is done or the form is created, clients do not want to pay for others in the firm or for their own lawyer to re-create it (and charge for doing so) in another matter. But the focus on shared knowledge indicates where the secret weapon lies: the efficiencies from computer technology. Online database management has the potential to turn a lawyer’s or law firm’s knowledge into a high volume commodity. With a lower price through fixed fees, client demand could increase volume and profits likewise could rise.


The popularity of ebooks and tablet readers adds a philosophical dimension to the paper issue. I have long felt that, because we learn by touching things as children, we retain positive adult feelings toward the tangible touch of papers and books. Moreover, paper documents offer free association made possible by glancing through printed pages. Facts and concepts leap off the page quickly and can be processed in ways different from a search engine. Now, an ebook or tablet reader offers these same advantages. You can hold it, leaf through it and use it anywhere at any time. Accepting the positive implications that this change brings to the analytical process is now a necessity for any lawyer, including one as devoted to paper as I am.

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