Using Imaging and Document Management – One Firm’s Experience

April 30, 2003

Having qualified in 1983 and having worked in several offices in County Tipperary which were old practices, I gained an early appreciation of the need to retain files and information but I also learned about the difficulty in doing so in a cohesive fashion.

Before I embarked on my own practice, I spent eight years in an office which had records going back to 1918. Indeed the person who initially set up the indexing system and whose handwriting appeared in the ledgers in 1918 was, when I joined the firm in 1987, still working in the firm. A numerical indexing system had been set up in hand-written, alphabetic-tabbed, hard cover books in which the client’s surname was indexed by letter and a numeric reference given. Because the practice was a large probate and conveyancing one, there were many occasions on which old files had to be accessed for items of history to do with a title or taxation, mapping changes etc. It was a most valuable resource. However, its accessibility to somebody like me who had no prior knowledge of the client base depended to a great degree on the knowledge of the lady who had managed it for so many years. It was also quite extraordinary to see the amount of space taken up by archive files. Then there was the whole issue of the time spent seeking the file from ‘the Store’ and retrieving it.

When I decided to set up on my own, in or about 1993/94, peer-to-peer networking was becoming established. I set up a small network and initially constructed a series of folders and sub-folders as a means of governing my precedent bank and client files. This allowed me to identify the potential for having the information accessible across a network. I embarked on a search for software that would allow me to capture the correspondence and documentation produced within the firm but also that coming into the firm.

At the time there were not very many alternatives. I eventually distilled it down to two possible programmes and decided to acquire ADEST ( from Software Dimensions (Adest) Limited. The clincher for me was that this allowed the documents that we created in Microsoft Word to be indexed directly from that application. As you will see later, this facility has now been developed so that there is an indexing link within Microsoft Outlook and Excel so that e-mail messages can be indexed directly to the Document Management System and there is a similar facility for spreadsheets created in Excel.

Overview of my system

I computerised my accounts some years ago and that system generates a master number for each individual client. As each matter is opened for that client it receives a sub-number off that master number. For example, John Smith is set up as a new client and given the number 100. His first matter is the sale of a house and that file is opened under 100.1. His second matter is the purchase of a new house which is opened under 100.2. His car accident is 100.3 and so forth.

I find this numeric system to be useful in its simplicity and I required my Document Management Software to allow me to use this system and not be forced to use a numeric or indexing code that would be developed or produced by it.

When I open the post in the morning it is sorted into the appropriate bundles for each fee earner or legal executive. It is worth noting that when I first set up my imaging system I used a dedicated scanner. Since then (five years ago) I had reason to replace my photocopier and moved to a digital copier. It was suggested to me that an add-on module might be available to allow the copier to double as a scanner. It was and it does, which has meant that I have limited the number of machines littering the office. In any event, having scanned the post, the receptionist who does our scanning then spends approximately 20 to 30 minutes indexing it. Each item is captured as an image and, in the course of indexing, is sent to the file record for the correct client.

When I wish to establish the nature of our post for the day, I do not have the hard-copy post. I prefer that it is filed. I access my post through the PC. I work from the post and, as each item is dealt with, I designate the image on screen as having been answered by a single button click which inserts a notation on the image record. This means that when I later search for unattended items of correspondence I will only have returned to me those outstanding matters.

Having dictated the response, my secretary types it and, before printing, I can review it across the network. Any required changes can be made. The hard-copy letter is then printed but our ‘carbon copy’ is not printed but rather is indexed to the appropriate client matter.

Over the course of a file, all of the documentation is captured either by digital scanning or by creation within our own office.

Perceived Benefits of System

1. Accessibility of documents – all documents on the file are accessible from any work station and by anybody with log-on privileges to the network.

2. Flexibility – the programme adapted to my existing filing system and did not impose its own on me. Furthermore, I decide the index fields and search criteria.

3. Immediacy – time is saved seeking paperwork and the file. Even if I have handed out a file in the course of dictation I do not have to retrieve the file in order to check something on it. It is available to me from the system.

4. Client relations – I would say it has enhanced those relations in that I have often been able to locate the phrasing in a letter or document while a client has been speaking to me on the phone. I have had very positive feedback on the immediacy and efficiency of that capability.

5. Reduced file size – literally, the depth of a file has been reduced and this has positive implications for storage space needed whilst files are being worked upon and for files when they go to archive.

6. Holiday control – when a colleague is absent, either on holiday or at court, if a query comes in that cannot await his or her return, it can quite easily be dealt with by the remaining fee earner in that the file is available across the system. Even if the query is not fully dealt with, a phone call or short letter to the querying client or opposite side can be generated from a position of some knowledge of the file.

7. Ease of communication – within the software that I operate there are facilities for printing, faxing and e-mailing any document that is captured. This extends to the incoming images of letters etc that are scanned and the Word documents formed in the office. I regularly send clients copies of letters that have reached me together with my reply and I can do this from my own desktop by e-mail. That has had a positive impact on the amount of copying paper that we use. It also allows a client get a very immediate update in that the bottleneck of dictation and typing can be by-passed.

8. Productivity – whilst I cannot put a figure to it, I am of the view that, for a firm of our size, our productivity level is high and this is aided by the availability and searchability of our document database.

9. Office image – again it has oft been commented to me that our office is tidy and does not have piles of files lying around on the floor or stacked high on desks.


It involves computers! I am convinced of the benefits of technology in a practice but I have also learned that technology brings it own level of expense in the annual overheads. Whilst I outsource my network management to a professional national firm who provide a very useful helpline and a short time response, nonetheless there are regular instances of errors occurring on one PC or another in the office. I am reasonably technically proficient and can usually sort things out fairly quickly. For those who would not have that capacity, increasing one’s dependence on software might have certain disadvantages. In this context I am addressing not just the occasions on which my document management software may fall over but those in which the operating system and/or other programs on the computers involved on the network might also generate problems.

Technical considerations

1. Network – operates best across a network. A network can be as small as two PCs between a fee earner and a secretary.

2. Server power – the system involves continuous reading and writing to a database and as such the server must have the power and memory to deal with that level of query. Most modern servers should have.

3. Storage capacity – because scanned images take up more room than documents generated in Microsoft Word, space can become an issue. That said, after some five years of using the software with almost 120,000 documents on it, I find that the space taken by the document database is running at about 3.38 gigabits. This excludes the space required for the actual software which of itself is not huge. Obviously, when you add the demands of the modern Microsoft products, you need to be talking about a hard drive with capacity for 18 – 25 gigabits and upwards at the very least. If your firm is bigger then you will have to factor in the extra documentation generated.

4. Backup systems- I cannot overstate the importance of this issue. With all your outgoing mail in a document management system, you must have it safe from error or destruction. There are many options to choose from beyond the scope of this article.

5. Scanner – In previous discussions with colleagues on this subject, it appears that one of the biggest concerns is the time the scanning procedure takes. As I have mentioned, we use our digital photocopier doubling as a scanner. Its rated capacity using the sheet feeder is only 15 – 18 pages per minutes in black and white. This is by no means fast. Indeed, I suspect that if any of you were to express an interest in buying a scanner you might well be advised to go for something stronger. If you do, there is a commensurate additional cost.

My practice, having two fee earners and a third member of staff doing elements of legal executive type work, operates very successfully at that level of power. We find that the post combined with the document exchange mail is scanned and indexed in well under an hour each day. The duty is carried out by our receptionist/telephonist who also operates our Debt Collection Department and assists with accounts management.

6. Screen size – I strongly recommend buying at least a 17-inch monitor . You will be spending more time in front of the screen with this system and you should be comfortable!


The views expressed within are personal to the writer. The writer is not a qualified computer expert and all hardware/software purchases should only be made after advice from professionals in the field.

© Neil Butler

Neil Butler is principal of Neil J Butler & Co of Thurles, County Tipperary.