In praise of paper as an information management tool

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Published on 7/10/06

Technology advocates regularly proclaim that we will all soon use only plastic to pay our bills, and read our news only on the Internet. Similarly, as electronic tools from BlackBerries and cell phones to word processing and billing software transform the practice of law, pundits in our profession sometimes contend that the documents and records common to all law firms face extinction.

Disks, online databases, computer hard drives - these, so the argument goes, will replace textbooks, written memos and hard copy files as information management tools.

My own research says this is unlikely. In surveying law firms, I've found many perceptual barriers to replacing paper with microchips: cost, time to learn and implement the new technologies, lack of certainty that new technology will increase efficiency and quality of work, worry about adapting to new technology without interrupting business.

Paper is not dead; we have more of it than ever. Copies of faxes and printouts of e-mail messages are tangible evidence that paper has a definite attraction. Consider these reasons why:

  • Sense of touch
    Touch is one of the five basic senses. We learn by touching things from the time we're infants. That may be why as adults we retain emotionally positive feelings toward touching warm and familiar things like papers and books. People do not touch computer screens, and most of us view touching keyboards as a necessary evil.

  • Spur to creativity
    People over the age of 40 may know and understand computer technology, but they remain more comfortable with the use of books and paper records as creative tools. A major reason for that is the free association that is made possible by glancing through printed pages. Facts and concepts leap off the printed page quickly and can be processed in different ways readily. Computer search programs follow a linear logic in processing information that makes developing a new concept much harder.

  • Need for fundamental skills
    A cross-generational mix of communication skills is always best. Dictation to a secretary, who then creates a paper document, is often cited as an example of skill obsolescence. Yet, clear, distinct dictation is required for effective use of voice recognition software, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, and many younger practitioners find the knack of dictation hard to acquire.

  • Advantage of permanence
    Unlike a digital file, paper cannot be imperceptibly altered. That's a big reason why lawyers are required to maintain physical copies of important client documents such as original notes or securities, original wills and settlement agreements.

  • Avoidance of cost
    The use of familiar paper documents is often less costly in the long run than the expense of hardware, software and training. In many law offices the staff prefers physical documents, is resistant to new technology, and has no emotional investment in its use. The paperless system languishes, with little of the expected savings or profits.

Some of these arguments have a strong generational element. This is a practical recognition that paper will not begin to disappear until the youngest members of the profession reach the age and numerical preponderance that professionals over 40 have today.

Precedent is the foundation of the law - and the precedents for paper mean it will be around for a long time to come.

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