Traverse City firms commit to going digital

TRAVERSE CITY – On a desk about the size of two large pizza boxes, Enrico Schaefer has his entire office at his fingertips. Literally. Schaefer, founding attorney of Traverse Legal, runs a completely "digital" office. He built the firm that way just 16 months ago.

While you may have heard people talk of "paperless" offices, the professionals in town who are actually doing it concur that "digital" is a much more accurate description of their business processes.

Digital evolution

A "digital" office captures any information critical to a company's operations electronically. The goal is to make every important piece of paper in an office available in a digital, searchable format.

When a piece of mail arrives in the office, it is opened, reviewed, given a "routing cover sheet," scanned, and uploaded into the company extranet or emailed to the appropriate person. Additionally, any verbal communications related to the documents are also recorded, resulting in "talking" documents or files.

Whether mail, other paper documents, or voice, it is all accessible with a click or two. Where your clients are concerned, that's powerful stuff.

"These efficiencies mean everything to these clients," Schaefer said. When a client calls, all the information related to the case is available within seconds. And clients have access to documents via a secure company extranet.

"It's a technology generation we're in, and clients are starting to expect so much more," said Schaefer.

Traverse Legal was even recognized as a "tech setter" in the February/March 2006 issue of Law Office Computing for his digital business model.

But what of the costs of going digital? Obviously there's an investment upfront for the technology infrastructure, but the payback is pretty quick, said Schaefer, once those efficiencies kick in.

From the top

While a 30-year-old public accounting firm may not seem a likely candidate to take on the digital revolution, if you've got people at the top clamoring for it, then why not?

Dennis, Gartland, & Niergarth, P.C. of Traverse City started thinking about the digital transition four years ago, and began implementing it three years ago under the guidance of its technology committee.

"One of the greatest things was the commitment from the partner group," said Greg Harrand, DGN's computer consulting manager. He said problems other firms have had implementing the digital process are from people not being fully on board.

"You have to have full buy-in from the top level," said Shelly Bedford, a partner with the firm who led the project initiative. "There's no putting one foot in and testing the waters."

Like Traverse Legal, the digital evolution at DGN was primarily done in-house. Except for some technical consulting with the document management software, the digital business processes put in place were homegrown.

"We used (the transition) to re-evaluate the entire system," said Bedford.

By the end of this year, DGN's file room will be completely gone. Bedford said a key part of the implementation was a written set of policies and procedures.

"You need to have consistency," she said, and strongly advised that businesses considering a move to digital make that step an integral part of the process.

While the hardware and software may seem like the tallest hurdle, it isn't so.

"The people are the challenge," Schaefer explained, or more specifically, the process the people will use. "You are asking staff to rethink the way they operate. We are constantly evolving and growing with technology. You have to commit to the evolution of a new business process available because of technology."

Is the digital office a trend that will stick?

"I do believe that we will see an acceleration of the transition to 'digital' workplaces in the next five years, all across the country and in our little corner, as well," said Ian Jones, president of GLIMA Northwest. "Our state is undergoing a true paradigm shift, from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based service economy, where information is the prime commodity." BN