Why Paper Still Matters: A Contrarian View of the Paperless Office

Published on 1/06

From BlackBerrys and cell phones to word processing and billing software, technology has transformed the practice of law. Once common law office tools like dictating machines and letterpresses have become virtually extinct thanks to the digital revolution.

More than a few pundits argue that paper documents and records face a similar fate. Online databases and computer hard drives so the argument goes, represent the future of information management in a law office. Textbooks, law journals, written memos, and hard copies of files all are or soon will become obsolete as communication and archiving tools.

Well, I'm not convinced. Paper is not dead; we seem to have more of it than ever before. Copies of faxes and printouts of e-mail messages are anecdotal yet tangible evidence that paper has an attraction that will not diminish for years to come. I believe the paperless office will not become widely used for two reasons — one philosophical and one practical.


The first reason is philosophical and encompasses such ideas as these:

The Importance of Touch

Touch is one of the five basic senses. We learn by touching things from the time we're infants. Studies show, in fact, that babies who are not frequently touched will sicken and possibly die; babies who are touched and held frequently stand a much better chance of being healthy and well adjusted. 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. Emotional attachment to tactile paper will prove hard to overcome.

Environmental Correctness

A superficial argument for the paperless office is that it is more environmentally responsible: eliminating paper saves trees and reduces the pollution from paper production. However, there are equally strong environmental arguments in favor of paper. Recycling has reduced the need for new paper from freshly cut trees by at least 25% to 40%; some paper products are now made from 100% recycled materials. Conversely, the disposal of old computers, computer monitors, and related equipment has become an enormous environmental problem. Paper, in the end, may prove to be the more environmentally friendly product.


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 screens provide only linear searching and processing; developing a new concept is much harder when you have to follow the logic of the search program. Similarly, the devotees of RSS (Real Simple Syndication) as a means of securing information from the Internet lock themselves into their own precise knowledge specifications. They receive only the information they sign up to receive, and lose the creative burst that comes from finding something unexpected on page five of the daily newspaper.

Fundamental Skills

Generational skeptics sometimes seem to imply that anything other than computer skills are unnecessary. 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 NaturallySpeaking, and many younger practitioners find the knack of dictation hard to acquire. The point is not whether computer skills are more important than dictation skills. Rather, each involves fundamental communication skills that work best in harmony, as part of a cross-generational recognition that a mix of communication modalities is always best.


The second reason paper will not soon disappear is a practical one that involves the nature and requirements of legal practice. Here are some of the important points to remember:


Unlike a digital file, paper cannot be imperceptibly altered. That's one 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. The rules and specific time periods for storing or destroying such client files vary by jurisdiction. Some states, for example, require a lawyer to securely store a client's file and documents for 10 years after completion or termination of the representation absent other arrangements. That requires secure storage of physical records.


Paperless technology is billed as a great cost-saver, and it does offer some relative advantages. For example, the cost of computer memory is considerably less than the cost of physically renting storage space to keep paper records. But the use of familiar paper documents is often less costly in the long run.

Take the example of an attorney who had a large personnel turnover and decided to improve the productivity of the new staff by purchasing software specific to the attorney's practice. The cost of the new system and training would amount to $15,000, but the productivity of the staff would double, allowing for more work, fewer people, and greater cash flow. The calculated net increase in savings and in profitability would amount to $30,000 in the first twelve months alone: an ROI of 200% in the first year, with a payback period (recouping the initial investment) of six months.

The decision seemed easy and the purchase was made, but the ROI was thwarted by human considerations: the staff preferred physical documents, was resistant to the change, afraid of the new system, and had no emotional investment in its use. The software languished until it became obsolete, with little of the expected savings or profits.

Efficient Alternatives

There are a variety of low cost technologies that enable a law office to enjoy the best of paper's advantages while reducing the record storage burden. You can, for example, image all old files and then destroy everything but original documents. Some photocopy machines scan documents without charge if paper is not used to print the image. The scanned documents are then stored on electronically searchable disks. The result: storage costs are lower, documents can be found more quickly, security is enhanced, and the paper and paperless concepts coexist.


I freely admit that a number of the arguments in favor of paper have a strong generational element. It's purely a practical recognition that significant paperlessness will never truly happen until the youngest members of the profession reach the age and numerical preponderance that professionals over 40 have today.

Bear in mind that change happens slowly in law — precedent (stare decisis, in the language of 2,000 years ago) serves as a fundamental driver of what we do. Perhaps it won't take 2,000 years for paper to disappear from law offices. But, for very valid reasons, the transformation remains a long way off.

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