photo by Mourad Ben Abdallah
In a world going paperless, investigators face challenges with agencies fumbling through (or not even near) the costly and time-consuming process of digitization.
by Eli Rosenblatt
A recent presentation (and series of articles) by Brian Willingham of Diligentia Group discussed the various aspects of extensive public records searches that investigators take on. This got me to thinking about the countless sources of these types of records and the incredible mountain of paper they represent.
58 Bankers Boxes
A recent case I worked was a great case in point. When I came on, one of the first tasks was creating a detailed inventory of more than 58 bankers boxes packed full of jumbled paper files collected and generated by prior attorneys and investigators.
Along with this flotilla of manila, there were huge stacks of mailed handwritten letters, newspaper clippings, and court transcripts. Not a CD-ROM or flash drive in sight. But there was a box of potentially crucial micro-cassettes – remember when those were the hot new productivity tool?
Courthouse Archives: Mountains of Paper
While much of the filing done in federal court is now required to be in an electronic format, the primary domain for information retrieval for most investigators continues to be county courthouses. Though some state and local courts are becoming digitally integrated, the majority still have quite a bit of work ahead of them.
For those entities that do require electronic filings, documents are processed online and are available for retrieval almost immediately. As cases are litigated and closed, pleadings and exhibits are stored in easily-accessible digital archives. Many courthouses are currently undertaking the arduous and expensive process of scanning files of public records, going back many years.
As the process continues, more convenient and immediate access to public records is steadily increasing. The methods for accessing these records, however, are as diversified as the 50 states. Many records at some digitally-integrated courthouses are available remotely through the Internet to the public at large.
Some sensitive records, though considered public, may only be available for viewing through public terminals located at the courthouse. Other courthouses allow only registered attorneys and their designated staff to remotely access digital public records.
Assorted charges also apply for accessing the system at some courthouses, such as $20 for a name search, while other states’ public records can be viewed online for no charge at all.
Filing Cabinets vs. Memory
Though the convenience of easier access is certainly a perk, the primary reason courts and other governmental agencies are pressing toward a paperless system is to save space. As investigators, we know very well how much space case files can take up in an already cramped office.
For courthouses and law firms, storage space for archived cases is a real issue that cannot be ignored.
Document warehouses across the country are used to store thousands of tons of paper documents every year. Storing records electronically not only saves on the cost of renting storage space; it also reduces consumption of paper, toner/ink, and time.
For example, a county in South Dakota spends an average of $43,000 per year for public records storage and retrieval. That figure doesn’t include the thousands of files stored in the over two miles of shelving actually located at the courthouse or the 400 boxes of files that are stored at the county jail. That’s one county.
A county in South Dakota spends an average of $43,000 per year for public records storage and retrieval...That's one county.
As optimal as the idea of digital public records seems, the current reality for investigators is that we will likely be required to sift through huge file folders full of paperwork for quite a while yet. Dealing with files containing documents with original signatures and notary certifications, faxed documents (yes, some people still do that), and other types of official papers will remain part of the job.
However, as the paperless push continues, you will probably find that more and more case documents are being presented to you in digital format, especially when you’re hired by an attorney.
For lawyers and investigators, time is money. Whether you receive documents from attorneys, investigative teams, or fact witnesses, all that paperwork must be processed and filed for convenient retrieval and use.
Having all of these documents scanned and easily accessible for review in electronic format can not only organize and streamline your investigation process; it makes sharing and discussing applicable documents with your client much more efficient. Things are no longer mysteriously lost in the mail, significant storage space is saved, and duplicate electronic backups can be made.
Tools for Going Digital
There are lots of options for smoothing the transition to paperless. If you wish to have someone else scan your paperwork, the larger office supply stores will do it for a fairly reasonable charge. Many times, your client will be happy to cover this expense if you are willing to handle the footwork.
Another option for digitizing documents is to purchase your own scanner. Ranging from about $400 to $500, two popular models are the NeatDesk for Mac from Neat and the ScanSnap iX500 from Fujitsu. With mobile scanning features as well, like the Doxie Go, these types of scanners can considerably ease the process of dealing with random documents and free up space in your filing cabinets.
Even a quick picture using your smartphone can help with reducing paperwork. (Search the Apple or Android app stores for the best scanning apps—these can save you buckets of time and energy out in the field.) Many mobile apps, like Evernote, have their own document integration tools built in.
For in-depth suggestions on tools for going paperless, see Paperless: A MacSparky Field Guide, by David Sparks. Sources like PC World and SMB CEO have also published introductory pieces on the whys and hows of migrating to a paperless practice.
In the same way that wireless devices took a while to become the accepted norm, the idea of transitioning from paper to paperless will happen in fits and starts. Obviously, all investigators cannot be expected to go totally paperless, or at least not for a while yet, but we can use the technology currently at our disposal to make more efficient use of our time.
It really is a personal process. If a given tool or solution doesn’t actually save you time, you certainly shouldn’t use it. If it saves you even an hour per case (though it will likely save you much more), every 48 cases pays off with 48 saved hours of time to spend with your family and friends (or, for you workaholics, an extra 48 hours of job opportunities).
With the many clear advantages to moving toward a paperless office, investigating what some of your competitors have already discovered may give your practice a real boost.
But as I discovered in that recent case with the 58 bankers boxes, don’t expect the rest of the world to be up to speed just yet.
About the Author:
Eli Rosenblatt is an investigator, CFE, and forensics expert in Portland, Oregon. He owns Eli Rosenblatt Investigations and Core Service, LLC and has, quite possibly, the best-designed business card in all the world.
Follow him on Twitter at @pdxinvestigator.