Electronic vs Paper - A debate as old as Plato

Electronic vs Paper - A debate as old as Plato

  • Blog Post
  • Posted on 15 August 2014

In his provocatively titled blog post,Plato’s cave: Why lawyers love paper and hate e-discovery and what this means for the future of legal education’, US lawyer Ralph Losey argues that lawyers are so entrenched in the use of paper that, like prisoners in Plato’s cave, they fail to see the obvious value in electronic documents. This is perhaps an unduly harsh assessment of lawyers’ attitudes to technology but it is nonetheless an interesting argument to consider.

Every couple of weeks a client requests that we print out large volumes of native electronic documents. By ‘native’ I mean electronic documents in their original format be it email, Word, Excel or other commonly used electronic document formats. This material comes complete with its own meta data (eg creation date, author name and Excel formulas) and the ability to search on the content of the documents. Once the documents are printed, these attributes are lost and the printing process itself is often slow and expensive.

When I am faced with such a request I seek to understand what the ‘end game’ is for the requesting lawyer: is this for a brief? discovery? witness bundle? court book? All too frequently the answer is ‘yes’. I then take the time to explain that whilst we are happy to print the documents, for large volumes in particular this exercise will be more expensive and take much longer than uploading the documents to a database to securely review them on line. An alternative is to produce a simple hyperlinked list of documents to be incorporated in a discovery list, brief or other key document set.

What I have noticed is that more lawyers are embracing the electronic option and recognising the associated time and cost savings. They also recognise the value in retaining the attributes of the electronic documents as a key advantage in the preparation of their client’s case. However, there are still lawyers of all ages who, despite accepting the proposition that it is less effective to print native electronic documents at an intellectual level, cannot make the emotional adjustment to adopt a new work practice. I sympathise. There is a lot lawyers must deal with: managing their client; instructing counsel; meeting court deadlines and deploying the intellectual rigour required to develop their client’s case.

What can be done? From my perspective it is essential that lawyers stand in their client’s shoes when considering whether to work with electronic documents or have them printed. A client will ask: Which is more expensive? Which will enable my legal team to develop and win my case faster? Which option enables me to participate in the case more effectively? The answer is almost always electronic documents.

The challenge for some in the legal profession is to overcome their own ambivalence, try something new and think about document management from their client’s perspective. I suspect this would result in a very different outcome in many instances.

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