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How an international law firm moved from paper based operations to an electronic system.

Engineering & Technology: The goal to reduce paper in your organisation is a very broad one. How have you broken it down into technology projects?

Nathan Hayes: We have been involved in what is essentially an electronic file project this financial year. And there are three other, ongoing projects around business process re-engineering and intranet,
as well as infrastructure redesign.

We want to use paper in a more appropriate, effective fashion. That means seeing it as a very transient media, and not as the primary mechanism for storing records.

E&T: People are proving highly reluctant to dispense with paper records altogether.

NH: [It's] not to say paper doesn't have its uses. It can provide a subset of documentation taken to a client's offices, for instance, with full alternative electronic access to the rest.

And, in comparison to the costs saved in not having to store it and the issue of risk involved in storing it, there are significant other advantages to taking as much paper out of the organisation as possible.

E&T: Does business process management (BPM) come into it?

NH: Business process management (BPM) comes into this vision when you consider that essentially everything we do is part of a process, from matter inception to client billing.

We can certainly automate a lot of the process and take a lot of administrative work from our people, which also has advantages in terms of the resilience and consistency it offers.

E&T: So the modernisation process is one that is constantly being developed?

NH: Yes. When we first piloted BPM, it was with an in-house system, and we found it reduced the amount of administrative work our people were doing.So much so, they wanted more automation. But that would have continued to have been coded internally. So we felt it was time to scale to a commercial package. And now we're in the process of transitioning to Metastorm's BPM software and enhancing our processes around it.

E&T: What other applications surround this?

NH: Other technologies have also encouraged our people to move away from a reliance on hard copy. For example, we replaced our entire printer fleet with multifunction devices, thereby delivering scanning services throughout the firm.

The use of eCopy [document imaging] software, integrated with our document management system and our [Microsoft] Active Directory means staff can easily log in to these devices, give the document a title, and tell its touchscreen exactly where they want the electronic version to be stored within our systems.

E&T: Was it difficult to implement?

NH: We were able to achieve much of this with a straight upgrade to the Interwoven WorkSite document management system.

The other piece - email filing - allows our people to simply drag and drop emails into relevant workspaces and for all subsequent emails in any particular conversation to be filed automatically.

This, with the integration of eCopy, offers a mechanism for semi-automating the management of emails so that, for instance, if an email is copied to another member of staff, the system automatically knows if it has already been saved. It also saves time in terms of providing access to documentation on a remote basis, where we're just completing the roll-out of the main system to the whole company, while some partners are piloting the use of BlackBerrys to access these systems.

E&T: What kind of cultural changes have had to be managed alongside the technological changes? Can you say something about those?

NH: The work we are doing is trying to move our people away from seeing the paper file as the primary record of our matters, but that's an enormous change to working practices: lawyers have to adhere to a whole slew of guidelines that involve a duty or care and obligation to keep a record of our matters.

E&T: Lawyers have been relying on paper for decades, centuries…

NH: It can be a difficult task to move away from the confidence lawyers have traditionally built up around the paper file, and the regulatory implications associated with it.

Scanning and then destroying paper in favour of electronic records requires that a whole host of guidelines be satisfied before it becomes possible.

Nowadays, it's not unusual for the IT function to be entirely electronic. But lawyers find it harder to let go of their reliance on paper.

E&T: They must be aware that a transition is inevitable.

NH: The entire legal business is knowledge-based and, therefore, one suited to technology transformation; but there are a number of regulations and guidelines that must first be satisfied in order for any new electronic working practices to be compliant.

It's also important to put new practices in place in a relatively timely manner through the introduction of a capable document management system and easy scanning process that everyone can use. We now have a document production team that offer a centralised scanning facility.

E&T: What's the most important skill needed to make projects like this a success?

NH: The technology selection is also just as important as finding people who can bridge the IT-business gap, which can be quite difficult. As long as
you can straddle that gap, you can do the job. Underlying traits are the persistence to get people to change and some understanding of where that change will take them.

E&T: OK; outside of work what are the pursuits that help you bring a different perspective to your day job?

NH: I have a particular love of skiing, as well as throwing myself off mountains and climbing back up them, in my spare time. It can help give you a new perspective on challenges. I've also worked with the charity Scope [a UK disability organisation whose focus is people with cerebral palsy] for some years.

Later this year, in June, I will get the chance to combine the two, when I'm climbing Mont Blanc in aid of the charity.

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