Revisiting the Paperless Office

From time to time fellow Slawyers wax poetically about the paperless office (or the not-so-paperless-office). Seems to me most of us view it as the unattainable holy grail. However, while it is hard for most large firms to envision making the break away from all of the paper we generate, I think it is something we all owe in an increasingly environmentally conscious world.

Remember the promises of the new technology: three or four day work weeks; robotic servants cleaning our houses and serving us daily; and then again, the Paperless Office. The new technologies — the personal computers, personal digital assistants, scanners on every desktop, e-books — all promised to eliminate the need for paper in our lives.

A look back through the literature and you can find all kinds of predictions of the paperless office. Sidney Schaer summarizes some of the classic quotations1:

  • Futurist Alvin Toffler wrote in 1970 that “making paper copies of anything is a primitive use of machines and violates their very spirit.”
  • And in 1975, the head of Xerox Corp.’s Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif., predicted that the use of printed paper would decline dramatically as offices turned to electronic files accessed at the touch of a button. “I don’t know how much hard copy I’ll want in this world,” George E. Pake said.
  • In 1975 Business Week celebrated the arrival of the paperless office with great fanfare ad hoopla.

But … there are those that predict that the paperless toilet will precede the paperless office.

I must admit I was afraid to raise this topic. After all, one colleague at the Faculty of Information said in a side (or was that ‘snide’) remark — “When are we going to give that up?” Then I saw this piece on Business Week this week: The New Push to Get Rid of Paper – Three decades after “paperless office” entered the business lexicon, the financial and environmental need to reduce paper is greater than ever. This article confirmed my renewed feelings that we have to do something about paper usage before we pull down the last tree like the inhabitants of Easter Island.

I could mention the statistics that —

  • Paper usage is doubling (Stats Canada indicates “that paper consumption has doubled over 20 years even as Canadians adopt new technologies. Per capita consumption of paper for printing and writing from the years 1983 to 2003 rose 93.6 per cent to 91.4 kilograms — about 20,000 pages per person”).
  • With the introduction of the IBM PC in 1981, the usage of paper (as tracked by US producers) doubled from 16.1 million tons to almost 30 million tons by 1995 (source: American Forest Product and Paper Association) (Schaer)
  • Lexmark reports that on average, employees print 33 Internet pages every day. For a company with 1000 employees that is 33,000 pages per day or 7,260,000 pages per year. And printing is costing organizations 1%-3% of their revenue.
  • reports paper use continues to grow at a rate of six to eight percent annually. And email is increasing printing volumes by 40%.

Or I could talk about the impact of digital technology — including the personal printer — that has made all of us personal publishing houses. Or the fact that if the emerging economies of India and China consume paper at the rate we do in North America we are doomed to repeat the errors of history.

I remember a discussion with a lawyer who told me his secretary printed every email and the attached documents three times — one for the file, one as a working copy and one ‘just in case’.

My own conversion came unexpectedly and over time. However two seminal events stick in my mind. First, I was in Dublin and had an old 386 laptop on which I had to compose and edit a major proposal for a client. Having no printer, I had no choice, and had to adjust the way I worked and edited the document. By the way, we won that engagement. Second, I was in a workshop where there were 12 participants — 11 of whom had laptops. The 12th was a new hire and this was his first day on the team. As each participant presented their views using a LCD projector, it became evident that this was a paperless session and that I had to adjust and reciprocate as facilitator. Gone were the transparencies and pens and the flip charts. The entire session was conducted for three days paperlessly and as a result all of the documentation was available immediately for all participants.

So I decided instead to revisit a list of suggestions I published in a paper for the Law Society of British Columbia on things we could do to make a difference.

What is required? Technology.

Let’s consider a number of technology considerations:

  1. Consider your network infrastructure. Make sure you have the bandwidth in place to deal with electronic media (beyond documents to video and audio) — even at home.
  2. Get disk space — I recently bought two terabyte external drives for about $300 each.
  3. Get good scanners — perhaps one with a sheet feeder that will read multiple page documents on one pass.
  4. Buy large monitors (19″ plus) or monitors that can display a page at a time. Some flat screen monitors rotate to provide this capability.
  5. On the software side, set yourself up to easily produce PDF’s.
  6. Organize yourself — you may also want to have a database of document management system in place to organize these documents and provide indices for them.
  7. Make sure there are adequate controls and security governing access and use of your digital documents.
  8. Consider how to electronically replicate the trust that is now invested in paper records, through the use of such tools as PKI and digital signatures.
  9. [Some tips here are from “Going PaperlessThe Art of Legal Technology” (Herrmann & Biek, 2001)2]

What is required? Mindset.

Going paperless requires a change of mindset. You have to consider the work flow and work processes around the specific document and organize your electronic equivalents accordingly. We have not been trained to work with electronic documents — but the next generation has. They will change the marketplace.

Our ability to review and work with documents online requires a change in mindset and behaviour.

Tips for doing with less paper personally and in your law firm

Change begins with you, if you are serious about going paperless. If you are looking for ways, allow me to suggest the following:

  1. Consider making your prime machine a laptop.
  2. When someone gives you paper documents, ask if they are available in electronic form. Ask them to send you the soft copy versions.
  3. Use email as your prime form of correspondence. Most people will send you soft copy routinely in this medium.
  4. Give up your paper calendar in favour of an electronic one.
  5. Convert your incoming documents to electronic form (those you want to keep or file away).
  6. Take your laptop or PDA with you to meetings — record your notes electronically.
  7. Convert outgoing documents to electronic form and use email to deliver them.
  8. Use Portable Document Format (PDF) files as a way of preserving the integrity of files when distributing them.
  9. Implement computer based fax technology so that incoming files can be received in electronic form and handled accordingly. Outgoing faxes can be sent from the desktop using similar technology. Not only can you eliminate the handling of paper, but you can also reduce long distance costs dramatically by moving this traffic to email rather than fax.
  10. Consider creating a central repository for documents — using DM or collaboration tools.
  11. Instead of printing out web pages, save them to a file and organize these for easier retrieval. Tip: use the MHT (Internet Explorer) format to combine the page and all of its images into one archive.
  12. Consider voice mail and other messaging traffic that results in paper: these can be digitized and stored / archived.
  13. Look into to eBook readers for your PC, laptop, or PDA.
  14. Read newspapers and magazines online and scan hard copy clippings to make them electronic.
  15. Use your data projectors for meeting more often.
  16. Consider using electronic whiteboards or old fashion whiteboards and your digital camera to record images of what is written.
  17. Pay bills electronically.
  18. Do your banking online.
  19. Learn to use the technology better. This is usually the single largest barrier.
  20. Work on the screen; train yourself how to work with documents in this medium.
  21. Consider the use of outsourced help in scanning and indexing documents.
  22. [Some of these tips were derived from A.K. Roberts web site (Roberts, 2001)3]

To be honest, paperless may not be achievable, but each of us can set a goal to use less paper every day. Take the jump now and start your journey to a paper-free world.


Herrmann, R. K., & Biek, M. A. (2001). Going Paperless – the art of legal technology. InRe Magazine. [back].
Roberts, A. K. (2001). Quick Tips – for going paperless. from [back]
Schaer, S. C. Writing Off Paper Files. originally reviewed from [back]


  1. A very good read is “the myth of the paperless office” isbn 0-262-19464-3. It argues that paper will be with us and rather than keeping on with the battle of the paperless office, embrace what is good about it, but deal with the issues that paper brings….

  2. As someone who build a house of straw, I am obviously of bent a bit green. I love the idea of lessening environmental impacts with a paperless office, but I have to admit that I see this movement as moving in baby steps. I personally just figured out the paperless airline boarding pass.
    I hope that librarians and legal researchers, with our technology capable hats on, can lead the way.