A while back, some law firms flirted with the idea of using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology to keep track of physical documents, but soon abandoned the idea as too expensive and unwieldy. In this article Chris Giles outlines how RFID has changed, and explains how it can now be a gamechanger for how paper is managed.
Every firm has it, and can’t do much about it. We’re talking about a repository of paper documents. You’ve likely seen that the volume of physical records continues to decline in our digital world, but those that remain are of increasingly high value or importance. They’re typically “wet signature” wills, real estate deeds, documents relating to trust funds or patents, or copyright and trademark, or possibly some insurance documents. The issue is that the firm must keep them in perpetuity and maintain the capacity to locate and produce them as required by a court or client, and they can’t be reconstituted using electronic means.
In addition, it’s conceivable that some firms hold documents, or other artefacts, that are of historic or scientific value. They might include the signature of a luminary from history; or relate to a landmark trial; or record the first patent on what subsequently became a world-changing innovation.
The point is that the firm must keep track of these things as part of their information governance. Best practice dictates that the firm should perform regular inventories to ensure that documents are where they’re expected to be and are secure – sometimes in safes and sometimes in fire suppression vaults. The challenge is that this can be a highly labour-intensive process. One firm we’ve worked with holds some 40,000 high value paper files, which were taking one full-time employee three months to manually audit.
Yet actually, the checking process can be the least of your firm’s worries if it turns out that documents are not where you expect them to be. It’s then a question of interrogating assistants and lawyers and turning offices upside down to locate documents that have “walked.” Best case scenario is that they turn up. Worst case is that they don’t, and you face the ignominy of telling your clients so, and risk getting sued for malpractice. Happily, RFID now presents a much better alternative.
Livestock and marathons
You’re probably more familiar with Radio Frequency Identification technology than you know. It’s a form of wireless communication that’s been around since the 1940s. RFID tags are miniscule chips containing unique information that can be read remotely by RFID readers. The readers use radio waves to transmit signals that “wake-up” tags which then send a radio wave back. There are low and high frequency systems and active and passive RFID tags.
RFID tags now get fixed to a vast array of things. They’re used to keep track of livestock and vehicles and people, such as the “smart” badges used at conferences and exhibitions, or to track and accurately time marathon runners. They’re used in healthcare, manufacturing and retail sales. And they’re used widely in cargo and supply chain logistics, asset tracking and inventory control.
This ubiquity is possible because tags are now inexpensive – the tags we use cost less than 20p each. Moreover, systems have become more flexible. The big breakthrough is that RFID readers are no longer static. Back in the day systems relied on tags passing through an RFID enabled portal. That model is now obsolete. We now use handheld readers that can locate tags in less than 100th of a millisecond without requiring direct line of sight. This is a gamechanger for law firms needing to keep track of high value documentation.
Quick and easy
The adoption of RFID is straightforward for firms. The first step is to conduct an “old style” inventory, but this time attaching RFID tags to all the necessary files and folders, then scanning the barcode and the RFID tag consecutively. The barcode data is sent by Bluetooth to the device of your choosing: smart phone, laptop, tablet or desktop. The software then automatically compiles an RFID inventory for future use.
Thereafter, inventories are quick and easy. Simply activate the reader in the proximity of the tags, noting that our system has an effective operational range of up to 30 yards, and can work through glass and wood (but not metal). Given the speed at which RFID works, it’s possible to cut a three-month task down to one that takes less than an hour.
For documents that have walked it’s a question of making a sensible guess as to where they’ll be, then activating the reader in that location. It’s not even necessary to disturb piles of paper. Suddenly firms have a sensible, quick, cost-effective and reliable tool – which is complementary to the use of barcode technology – for the management of your critical physical documents.
To find out more about how advances in Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology can offer a highly effective, time saving way to keep track of vital pieces of paper join our ILTA Masterclass where Chris Giles from LegalRM and Chris Francis from Allen & Overy will be offering their experience of efficiently safeguarding documents. Click here to register.
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