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Trial Tools

How Setting Up an In-House Imaging Center Can Streamline Your Firm's Litigation Practice

Scanning documents and creating online repositories can improve efficiency and opportunities.

By Kevin Dorse

WHILE A TRULY paperless litigation practice is not likely any time soon, an in-house document imaging center can achieve significant efficiencies right now. Not only can an imaging center control the daily wave of correspondence, pleadings and other documents, it can be used to put images of the lawyer's litigation file online.

How Setting Up an In-House Imaging Center Can Streamline Your Firm's Litigation Practice

Nor are in-house centers limited to large firms. Document scanners are increasingly commonplace and affordable for any size firm. Instead of a single-sheet "flatbed" scanner typically used with a home computer, most law offices will want a commercial-grade, sheet-fed scanner. For smaller offices, a single scanner at a secretary's or paralegal's desk probably is sufficient.

Litigation

Imaging can be especially helpful in litigation, allowing users to capture documents produced by the parties in discovery -- especially in larger cases involving more than 100,000 pages. (Typically, this type of document imaging is "outsourced" to an off-site vendor.)

Often, imaging can be less expensive than photocopying. In cases where the parties can work out a cost-sharing agreement and do not need a hard copy set of the entire document production, the economics in favor of imaging can be quite impressive. The cost of imaging can range about twice as much as photocopying, so if more than two sets of the document production are needed, imaging should be cheaper than photocopying. Imaging also is a necessary step if you want to put the document production online.

There are a number of ways that the images of a document production can be accessed online. Popular techniques for storing images electronically include:

  • A stand-alone computer hard drive

  • The firm's internal computer network

  • An Extranet that can be accessed by both the firm and the client

  • A virtual document repository, usually Internet-based, that is accessible by all of the parties in the case. (There are a number of vendors that can set up an extra-net or virtual repository.)

Links

Another significant advantage is that the images can be electronically linked to a database containing searchable information about the documents. Indeed, creating such a database and linking the images to the database is critical, as it provides the means to locate particular types of documents within the document production by using information such as the date, author or title of a document.

Two general strategies can be used to create a database that could be linked to the document images. One is Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology, where the image is converted into a text file consisting of all of the typewritten textual information in the entire document.

The other is manual document coding, where certain bibliographic information from the document is coded into several different data fields, such as the date, author and title of the document. Typically, manual coding is done at an off-shore facility, often in the Philippines, where perhaps hundreds of people will pore over the documents and code them by manually typing specified information from the documents into a computer so as to build the database. There is even one product that uses artificial intelligence-type software to code the OCR file into the same kinds of data fields that are used in manual coding.

Speed is Essential

For many cases, there are several people on the team, including lawyers, paralegals and client contacts. Imaging and electronic distribution of the daily paper flow can be an ideal means for distribution of information to the case team. But to be successful, imaging must be timely. In other words, distribution of an electronic image must be done in the same "I need it yesterday" fashion that photocopies and faxes are able to be distributed.

While distributing photocopies and faxes may not be especially high tech, they do quickly and reliably accomplish the intended result of distributing documents to a number of people. An in-house document imaging center can provide the most practical way to make an image of a document within minutes or hours of receiving it. It also provides a degree of control and security simply not possible when documents are passed through several hands to be imaged at an off-site facility.

Once you have the image of a document, the next job is to distribute that image electronically to the team. There are (at least) three procedures that could be used to make images quickly available to the case team: (1) e-mail attachments; (2) e-mail links; and (3) e-mail notification.

E-Mail Attachments: At first blush, it might appear that the easiest way to distribute document images would be to attach copies of them to an e-mail. From the end-user's perspective, it is very easy to open a copy of a document image that is attached to an e-mail by double-clicking on the attachment and launching the image viewer software such as Adobe Acrobat.

However, document image files are notorious memory hogs, and chances are that your firm's e-mail server was not designed to work as an online document repository. To make matters worse, an e-mail to five people in the firm probably means that the document image file is sitting in five different places on the e-mail server. Can you say e-mail crash?

E-Mail Links: Probably the best alternative to e-mailing a copy of the document image to everyone on the team is to e-mail a computer link to the document image. In this e-mail link technique, the e-mail contains a hyperlink to the document image, such that the e-mail itself does not contain the image but instead a means to access or view the image. Thus, the e-mail attaches an icon or address that can be double clicked to take the recipient immediately to the location of the document image on the central document image server.

For the end-user, this is as easy as opening an e-mail attachment, and it does not have any of the drawbacks of sending a copy of the image as an attachment because the document image is never copied or stored on the e-mail server in the distribution process. While the e-mail link should work well for distributions within your firm's internal computer network, it probably will not work for anyone that is not on the firm's network, such as clients or co-counsel.

For them, e-mail may be the best alternative, most likely using a compression utility such as WinZip. Obviously, you would want to work out a specific protocol with each client or co-counsel, and you should be aware that some companies have limits on the size of e-mail attachments that could screen out all image files.

Using the e-mail link technique does require that a human being must create the link and include it in the email to the case team, so there is some manual labor involved before the case team receives the e-mail. In a small office this person could be a secretary or paralegal, and in a larger office with a document imaging center it could be a technician working potentially full time.

E-mail notification: This is the least high tech means of the distribution options discussed. Essentially, the case team would receive a form e-mail informing the team in substance that "a new document has been imaged in the Widget case." There would be no copy of the image attached to the e-mail, nor would there be a link to the server where the image was stored.

The e-mail notification would simply alert the team that they should go to the central image server and review the latest additions. While this is not as end-user friendly as an e-mail attachment or e-mail link, it is not necessarily a bad option. The process could be streamlined. The e-mail notification could be placed in the e-mail subject line, so there would be no need to open the email.

You could keep an icon shortcut on your computer desktop that would open to the specific location on the central document image server where documents for a given case are stored. Upon receiving a new e-mail notification, all you would have to do is double click on the icon short-cut and look for the newest document.

Case Files

While it is now commonplace to image discovery documents, especially in larger cases, lawyer litigation case files often include voluminous hard copy documents. Typically, these include unwieldy, multi-volume, tabbed pleading folders; voluminous "chron" correspondence files that can span years; and hard copy files of research memoranda and other documents.

While the same considerations that favor using computer images of discovery document productions also support putting you case file online, an in-house document imaging capability is the necessary ingredient to make it work.

Imagine having access from the desktop or a laptop computer to images of every pleading, written communication, research memoranda and other document residing in the hard copy case file.

For the lawyer, this could mean no more calling around for paralegals or file clerks when you are out of town -- or in town -- and need to find a pleading or letter. (For paralegals and file clerks, this could mean less unscheduled interruptions and lawyer-created emergencies.) No more searching through unindexed correspondence files trying to find that crucial one letter.

This all could happen within your lifetime, or even this year. In multi-lawyer offices, an image copy of the case or deal file would likely be maintained on a central server that is part of the firm's centralized computer network.

For example, images can be maintained on an Extranet that is accessible to the firm and other authenticated users, and can even be placed on the Web. To access the electronic case file, the lawyer simply keeps a shortcut icon on his or her desktop which takes them to the case home page.

That home page is a PDF file which provides shortcuts to search and browse the case file images using Adobe Acrobat. One or more home pages can be stored on a user's desktop as icons so that access to the case files is only a click away.

The images in the case file are in PDF Adobe Acrobat format. Acrobat is a free image manager that includes a "hidden text" feature that converts textual information into searchable full text through the use of optical character recognition (OCR) technology.

The hidden text can be searched for key words or names and can be used to locate and retrieve specific images. It can allows users to copy and paste text from the document, which cannot be done from an image file alone.

Kevin Dorse is a litigation partner at Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, based in Los Angeles.

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