The ‘paper-light’ IP office: A myth or reality?

Offices that successfully implement paper light strategies are yielding a high return on investment and competitive advantage

Walk into the offices of many intellectual property practitioners and you’re likely to see stacks of paper, thick case files, and an inbox full of documents to be processed. On the basis of such evidence, any belief that a successful “paper-light,” let alone “paper-less” IP office is a myth would not seem far-fetched.  

There have been numerous failed initiatives in this area by companies big and small, accompanied by horror stories of huge financial investment being made, only to result in a few digital documents being saved to a file server.

However, where many have failed to create a truly paper-light IP office, an increasing number of companies are enhancing efficiency and productivity through the successful deployment of electronic Document Management Systems (DMS), which, in turn, are yielding a high return on investment (ROI) and competitive advantage.

In addition to freeing internal resources to work on higher-value assignments, paper-light users also report more direct, hard cost savings. For example, by going paper-light, the IP group of a global consumer products manufacturer has been able to handle a large and growing patent portfolio without adding new support staff, while another major consumer products company was able to reduce two support positions immediately and expects to save five positions over the next year.

DMS-enabled efficiency improvements are also allowing IP practitioners to save resources by increasing the ratio of attorneys supported per assistant from 2:1 to 3:1. For one 12-attorney organization, this represented an annual saving of over $100,000. Reducing paper also reduces the need for courier services, which led one company to save over $150,000 in the first year.

The best-practice based rules to help deploy a successful DMS program are:

  • Keep it simple — avoid scope creep
  • Don't just solve the paper problem, only to create new ones
  • Start the journey today

Keep it simple

Most projects fail because of scope creep. Therefore, focus on what the end goal is and be disciplined in pursuing that goal. An effective IP DMS system will help:

  1. File documents faster and more consistently
  2. Find the “right” documents faster
  3. Automate simple, low-value, and repetitive IP processes
  4. Position IP strategically to respond to company and market needs, flexibly and rapidly (i.e. helping manage the innovation supply chain).

All of this should save money, while also enabling in-house IP practitioners to focus their time on more strategic issues — which, ultimately, means better IP management and higher quality IP.

Take a closer look at paper-light projects that have failed, and you’re likely to find projects that either didn’t have a few, clear objectives or that became bogged down in defining the minutia of exactly how the solution will work. So, the first step in “keeping it simple” is to clearly identify the problems needing to be solved.

It’s easy to think that going paper-light is an IT project. The assumption is that it’s all about document management and software, so let the IT team figure it out. Unfortunately, deferring the solution decision to IT is probably the most common mistake, no matter how good they are. IP is a unique and complex practice that requires IP-specific knowledge, know-how and functionality.

To a great extent, the belief that paper-light is a myth is founded in the misconception that IT can build a great IP solution with a generic DMS platform. The market and technology has evolved to a position where IP practitioners don’t need to settle for the same DMS system used for accounting, marketing, sales, and even other parts of legal. They can select one that is specifically tailored to their needs in managing IP.

The second consideration in keeping things simple is the user interface of the DMS. If attorneys, who tend to be the most expensive part of the collaboration mix, are to consistently use the paper-light system, be sure to choose one that’s simple, familiar, and mobile. The benefits gained — and ultimately the ROI — will be inversely proportional to the complexity of the system. Simply put, the more complex it is, the less it will be used… and there are a lot of complex, user-unfriendly, systems available. So, be choosy.

Don't just solve the paper problem…

Going paper-light is not just about solving the current paper problem. Three key business trends in the IP and legal world are mobility, virtualization, and networking — being able to connect smarter and faster, however and from wherever required. Therefore, choose a paper-light system that is flexible to accommodate these and other trends that are likely to impact IP management going forward.

The bottom line is: Don’t just develop a paper-light solution for current users. Find a solution that will facilitate communication with inventors, legal counsel, affiliates, agents, partners, and management — and be sure it can easily extend to a network beyond the limitations of the current ‘need to know’.

Start the journey today

Successful IP prosecution in a paper-light environment is completely possible. Many corporations and law firms, who tried and failed with DMS solutions in the past, now have even die-hard paper lovers extoling the virtues of paper-light offices.

Start by considering:

  1. What are the top five things the paper-light system should achieve?
  2. Can all documents be saved and logically organized on a network server, today?
  3. Can we start consistently naming our documents?
  4. Where can IT add value in evaluating and deploying the solution?
  5. How much time is currently spent on (no-value add) inbounding of case file documents?
  6. What other tasks are repetitive which could be automated?

While there are still those who would argue that “paper-light” is a myth, there are many attorneys and other IP professionals who have made, or are making, it a profitable — and enjoyable — reality.

Contributing Author

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Kurt Wedel

Kurt Wedel, Vice President, Operations at CPA Global’s First To File, is an IP operational professional, who has deployed workflow-based, business process management solutions...

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