It didn't take long for attorney Mina F. Diksies to grow tired of paper.
Within a year of becoming a lawyer in 2003, Diksies resolved to do all he could to replace his stacks of paper with bytes of digitized data.
"I realized that having physical paper was just really inefficient," said Diksies, who maintains offices in Jersey City and East Brunswick. "It does pile up and it can really be overwhelming. Having it scanned really allows for so much more flexibility."
Today, Diksies' practice is paperless — or at least as paperless as possible. He reads all of his paperwork on a computer, sends documents electronically and scans everything else as soon as possible.
"Obviously, I can't stop the traditional mail that comes to the office, but ultimately, that too, becomes paperless," he said. "It's scanned and stored on my hard drive."
If he has a document that must be maintained in paper form, he scans it and sends the original back to his client for safe keeping.
Diksies is on the leading edge of a transition slowly taking hold in the legal profession. File cabinets and archive companies are being replaced by off-site data companies and scanners. U.S. federal courts now require electronic submissions, and New Jersey's state courts aren't far behind.
Tammy Kendig, a spokesman for New Jersey Courts, said electronic submissions are already accepted for two case types — certain special civil part cases and foreclosure actions. In each case, participation is voluntary, except for law firms that file the highest number of complaints. Kendig said participation has been "excellent."
"We do want to add more case types to e-filing," she said. "It's really a matter of resources at this point, rather than a lack of interest on our part."
Carol Schlein, an attorney who advises law firms on integrating technology through her Montclair firm Law Office Systems Inc., said the barrier to beginning the transition is relatively low.
"It really depends, but for the most part it's really not very expensive anymore," she said. "Years ago, scanners were very expensive. They were an extra piece of equipment you had to find space for. They also tied up a whole computer — when you were scanning, nothing else could happen on that machine."
Today, a good scanner fits easily on an attorney's desk, and the cost for a quality product is only about $250, she said.
Aside from hardware upgrades, Schlein said firms can often cut paper use significantly simply by changing internal processes.
For example, she said, some firms print all their bills on paper and have an attorney review them before sending out the final, paper bills. Today, that entire process can be done electronically.
Efficiency isn't the only reason to go paperless. Daniel M. Krainin, a principal and chair of the "green team" at the environmental law firm Beveridge & Diamond P.C., said his firm's paper reduction initiatives were motivated largely by the firm's green image and philosophy.
"That's really our brand — environmental law — so it was important for us," he said. "We saw in this marketplace an increased focus (on sustainability) in all industry sectors. And I think, frankly, that law firms were relatively late adopters."
Krainin's firm, which has local offices in Englewood and New York City, was one of the leaders in the American Bar Association's Climate Challenge, a program developed with the Environmental Protection Agency and aimed at boosting the environmental sustainability of law offices. Other facets of the firm's sustainability program include double-sided printing, energy conservation and purchasing renewable power credits to offset their energy use.
Krainin said traditionally law offices have used a lot of paper because the job requires so much reading and writing. Often lawyers would need to print off paperwork to take it home or read it on a plane. Now files can be accessed on computers or mobile devices almost anywhere.
"I think if you ask most people across all generations at our firm, they probably tell you now that they prefer it, because it essentially cuts down the weight of stuff you're taking around," he said.
That's not to say that going paperless is universally popular. Schlein said she frequently sees resistance, though she said resisters don't fit into easy categories, saying she doesn't think it's a function of age.
There are also a number of concerns lawyers need to think about when digitizing records and using offsite, or cloud-based, data storage.
Fernando M. Pinguelo, a partner specializing in cyber-security at Norris, McLaughlin and Marcus P.A., said lawyers' two main responsibilities to clients — confidentiality and competence — translate to the cyber world as well. Attorneys need to ensure their data is protected and private, and they need to contract with service providers that run efficient programs so their data isn't lost or made unavailable by technical glitches.
"I think the bottom line is, again, it doesn't have to be 100 percent effective 100 percent of the time, but lawyers are required to take reasonable precautions and exercise sound professional judgment," he said.
Diksies, who has been paperless for nearly a decade, said he's suffered hardware malfunctions, but his backup service has always come through.
"I would say twice in the course that I've been practicing my computers have died," he said. "In both instances it really was no big deal; a very minor inconvenience."
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