Making a Case for Paper

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For years we have championed the drive to­ward a paper -free law office and paper-free court systems. But there is also a case to be made in favor of paper. In fact, without understanding the utility of paper, it may not be possible to reach the shining goal of largely eliminating its use.

So when is paper better than digital?

There’s the simple example of looking up the mean­­ing of a word. Opening up a dictionary used to be an elementary school exercise, though many now choose to type a word into their computer and ask their digital dictionary. But one does not have to know the spelling to find a word in a paper dictionary.

There are also more important reasons to prefer paper. Many documents are created digitally and may never find their way to print–e-mail and electronic bookkeeping are examples. But how would you prefer documents to be produced in litigation? Here the argument is to always look at the paper. Some subtleties may exist on paper that would not be obvious on a scan, like something as simple as a coffee stain or a fingerprint, which could affect the litigation. There also could be some gem buried in a paper production that might otherwise be weeded out in digital production. Even if the weeding out process was proper according to evidence rules, what lawyer wouldn’t want the chance to find a hidden gem?

There is just no substitute for seeing the original.

Why Stacks Trump Screens

David Hirsch remembers a minority shareholder lit­igation years ago where he needed to inspect two rooms of boxes filled with paper documents. It was an enormous task that took days. The ability to visually survey the room and each individual box preserved one’s sense of proportion. Actually seeing the paper made it much easier to focus on what might be important–much more so than dealing with DVDs loaded with intangible digitized documents.

Dealing with hard copies also lets you have more information at hand, like a small stack of key documents that might include an outline of areas of direct examination of particular witnesses or a concise brief of key legal points. No matter how large your screen, or how many screens sit in front of you, that stack of key documents cannot be as thoroughly accessible on screen as it is in your hands. Your thumb can flip through more pages in an instant than your fingers can access digitally.

And you don’t have to boot up a piece of paper–it is already in front of you.

A computer is a tool, and a tool by its nature is a crutch. In general, it is better to walk without crutches than with them. In real time–like in a trial, for instance–one appears more spontaneous and more genuine with no tools or with primitive tools, like pencil and paper.

If the goal is to view a document as it actually is, screen size and screen resolution can nev­er be as good as the document itself. Screens are getting bigger, screen resolution is getting better, prices are getting lower.

I have seen large screens and multiple screens that are phenom­enal. But not better than a sheet of paper. When you not only can, but want to, lie on the sofa and curl up with a computer to read new cases, maybe then digitized information has a chance to replace paper.

While you need to develop your digital systems, and should not avoid doing so just because your paper systems work, digitizing merely for its own sake may be counterproductive. You don’t want to sacrifice the forest to save a tree.

David Beckman and David Hirsch practice in the law firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa.

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