Wednesday 22 January 2020

Tech-focused lawyers deliver their verdict and consign paper to the bin

In an industry dominated by documents and filing cabinets, the paperless office makes more sense than its seems, lawyer Larry Fenelon tells Adrian Weckler

‘The people who are holding it up [the move to digital] are lawyers and civil servants,” says Larry Fenelon. Photo: Adrian Weckler
‘The people who are holding it up [the move to digital] are lawyers and civil servants,” says Larry Fenelon. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Where might one least expect to find a 'paperless' office?

Many would point to a law firm.

Yet in Dublin, going paperless has become the motif of one of the capital's faster-growing solicitor companies, Leman Solicitors.

"Our solicitors have 20 cents' credit per month for the printer here," says Larry Fenelon, managing partner of the 40-strong firm.

"We don't send physical letters. We simply send everything by PDF or by email. If we receive physical correspondence, in many cases we destroy the original and simply hold the scanned copy. We don't keep big filing cabinets."

To an outsider, this might sound like an impossible task. A serious, growing law firm in Ireland that eschews paper-based transactions in favour of digital ones? How does that work in a country still addicted to scanners, printers and fax machines?

A million questions come to mind.

What happens when legal correspondence comes in the door?

"We date-stamp it, scan it and then it goes into an online in-tray where it gets named, dated and assigned to a file," says Fenelon. "And then we destroy the original. There are certain exceptions to the paperless system where we're forced to keep originals because of the jurisdiction we're in. These include pleadings and proofs, documents that clients may have produced as evidence. But even with these, we scan them too."

What happens with client meetings, notes and telephone calls?

"I'm often typing as I'm talking," says Fenelon. "But it's all digitised. If I have a thought, it goes in the [digital] file. If I have a conversation, it goes in the file. If I take a call, my notes from it go in the file. This is a way more efficient system than taking notes, then dictating, then having to type and file. The commitment to this is total."

What about briefing barristers?

"They get e-briefs from us. Barristers tend to be very conservative but we tell them they can print off their ebrief from us if they want. But we're not doing it for them."

Fenelon says that his firm's war on paper is saving the company considerable money and time.

"Being a paperless office makes us way more efficient," he says. "We don't pay someone to do our filing every day. I worked out that the time I spent filing documents in my last job was worth about €65,000 in billable time. It was bananas. The square footage of the office was wasted too, because of filing cabinets upon filing cabinets clogging the place up. There also wasn't a week that would go by without someone saying they had lost a critical file or document. Everyone would have to stop what they were doing and search for it. The stress and time wasting involved was unreal."

Clients would often experience delays because of the paper system, he says.

"When a client called me up to ask 'what's happening with that file?', I'd often have to call them back because it wasn't filed properly. And then there was the wastage of team time. How can four people work efficiently in a team on one physical file?"

Today, Fenelon says that his firm lets clients into the system to digitally see anything they want that's attached to their case.

"They can simply log on and see what we see," he says. "Most aren't bothered to scroll through 300 pages of legal jargon. So what we do is prepare a single page of vital statistics, a one-page summary. This would be what stage we're at, what fee level we're at, who's working on it and what the next steps are. That's what people want."

One other advantage of this approach is that it allows for quick continuity on cases if people take annual leave or are caught out sick.

"If any team member falls under a bus or if people go on holidays, there are no three-page memos to be drawn up and handed around. We keep a system of flagging and highlighting red dots for key reference documents. It makes it much quicker for other team members to pick up the case if needs be."

Not everyone is enamoured with this type of digital approach. But Fenelon says that it is almost always other legal practitioners who block digitisation of the legal practice and not business clients.

"Since the Ecommerce Act of 2000, almost everything has been subject to legally binding digital signatures," he says. "But 17 years on, the greatest opposition to digital signatures is never from the client, it is from other lawyers. Other lawyers are bamboozled. You'll see strong pushback from constituencies like the rural sole practitioner. Many are men in their late 50s or 60s with one eye on retirement. In general, the less commercial the firm the less prospect you have of transacting digitally."

The Law Society, which regulates solicitors in Ireland, has also had a mixed record when it comes to adopting a pro-digital legal environment. Lagging badly is the area of conveyancing and property transfers.

"The people who are holding it up are lawyers and civil servants," says Fenelon. "The Law Society have had forever and a day to introduce econveyancing. It's gone on way too long."

Some companies outside the legal sector are trying to innovate. This week, Savills introduced a new transaction system aimed at creating binding digital buttons to replace long, drawn-out 'sale agreed' arrangements on property sales.

Fenelon says that Leman is trying to encourage the industry with its own 'iConvey' practice.

"We're acting for developers who are selling apartments or houses," he says. "It is the most inefficient system where you create this paper book of title, send out and receive letters involving various purchasers, doing it all done hundreds of times. What we're saying is let's create an online portal where all the titles can be viewed just like any database."

Some of Leman's ability to pursue a paperless office comes from the areas of law it covers. It's not dealing in elderly farmers' wills. It's tackling fast-paced, relatively high end dealings in financial litigation, disputes, corporate activity and commercial development. Fenelon describes the firm's specialty sectors as technology, services and property.

Nevertheless, Fenelon is convinced that his firm is on the right side of history.

"It's high time that the Law Society got behind the digitisation of law," he says. "The inefficiency of paper ticking, printing and all that scribbling is just a giant waste of time and resources for everyone. Singapore has operated its court system as a paperless entity since 1999. If they can do it, why the hell can't we do it? We're a country that can get our act together when we want to."

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