New Zealand Law Society - Lawyers ending their love affair with paper

Lawyers ending their love affair with paper

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Lawyers and paper have a long and mutually rewarding (enabling?) relationship. Walls of paper carefully hole-punched and filed (or more probably still waiting to be filed two months after the transaction is over) seem to make us feel safe.

Even so, I managed to convince my colleagues in the legal team at NZ Post to end their love affair with paper.

Inspired by the NZLS CLE Ltd seminar The Paperless Office led by WRMK lawyers, who went paperless using only off-the-shelf technical solutions that they already had, I proposed that we go “Less Paper” (“paperless” seemed a bridge too far!)

My manager bravely agreed.

First tip: get top-down commitment, and make sure the team sees that commitment.

We brainstormed what wasn’t working for us – minimal administrative support, doing our own filing and knowledge/document management (with filing at the bottom of the list when busy).

Knowledge management is even harder now that so much information arrives via emails – which need printing and filing, or stay in inaccessible individual inboxes. Flexible working is harder when relying on hard copy files and a shared drive infrastructure.

I investigated the full potential of the IT tools we already use (Google, LEX), and the real boundaries of compliance requirements (particularly the Public Records, Electronic Transactions and Evidence Acts)

Second tip: learn about and use, to their full potential, the tools you already have.

We spent a week “being aware” when and how we printed, filed and otherwise used paper, experimenting with reading and marking up on-screen, noticing what we would need to be “less paper”, recording our findings and ideas. Then a team workshop produced some agreed principles:

  • hard copy files are not necessary: this gives permission to NOT print, or to shred;
  • work towards the goal at your own pace: agree the goal, but no guilt trips for slower movers; just keep moving; and
  • if it’s in soft copy, don’t convert it to paper.

Third tip: make everyone part of the solution, but be clear that no-one has special privileges.

Other crucial elements were:

  • everyone getting two screens (analysing contracts on-screen is hard work without this);
  • regular team check-ins, and in-depth training on our IT tools;
  • helping each other over the hurdles (real or perceived);
  • everyone committing to “make the effort”;
  • not dealing with legacy hard copy files (these are gradually being archived as they become redundant); and
  • agreeing a consistent nomenclature for documents and protocols for document management.

After six months, we still maintain a couple of hard copy files, and need to print reference copies for meetings (until the promised tablets spread to the legal team). But the “linear metres” of files can be measured in centimetres, desks are almost bare, team members report a feeling of “lightness”, and stationery supplies are almost unnecessary.

There’s easier access to matters worked on by others; filing’s easier (“drag and drop is fun!”) so it’s done more regularly, and more information is more accessible; no more paper cuts!

Our Group General Counsel, Malcolm Shaw, comments: “The ‘less paper office’ is something whose time has come. Sure, one or two had to be dragged kicking and screaming but the end result is a happier – and more efficient – legal team!”

Jeanette Watson is a senior legal counsel at New Zealand Post and advises on a full range of commercial law matters. Jeanette first went in-house in London in the 1990s, working for the British Coal Corporation after a stint with Slaughter and May. Once back home, she re-joined Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, but while on maternity leave, realised her true calling and returned to working in-house for independent petroleum explorer Austral Pacific Energy. She joined New Zealand Post in 2009.

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