Paper files in the towers: lost and (maybe) found

Lawyers work with old e-mails and CD-ROMs to restore hard copy lost in the World Trade Center.

When the World Trade Center collapsed, every last piece of paper and bit of evidence at the law firm of Thacher Proffitt & Wood simply disappeared.

In the weeks since, the firm's 300 attorneys and staff have put thousands of files back together again, using old e-mails and previously scanned documents.

But no one could reknit the garments a fashion designer provided for a trademark dispute. So Thacher Proffitt attorneys hunted for similar clothing in the aisles of Macy's and Manhattan boutiques.

Only 10 years ago, both public and private attorneys say, it would have been almost impossible to reproduce whole file rooms full of paper - often 50 or 60 crates' worth in a single complex lawsuit or merger. Now, technology allows firms to replicate and electronically access their files with relative ease.

But even the most techno-savvy American businesses still can't work solely in a virtual world. And perhaps no profession loves paper and tangible evidence more than lawyers, who collect documents by the crate and churn out briefs as if they were paid by the word.

"What law firms sell are documents," says Ross Kodner, president of MicroLaw Inc., a Milwaukee-based legal technology consulting firm. "By their nature, law firms are the most paper-intensive business on the planet."

That's what 14,000 attorneys who worked in and around the World Trade Center discovered Sept. 11, regardless of whether they were based at the biggest firms or practiced alone.

In some legal offices, all paper was destroyed - including wills or the only records of clients' names. Other attorneys couldn't reach their intact files for weeks.

How well attorneys recover depends in large measure on whether they prepared in advance and how much they spent on technological wizardry.

For some lawyers, the difference between losing everything and quickly starting up business again was as simple as forgetting to put a CD-ROM into a briefcase the night before.

That's the regret of Roman Popik, who before Sept. 11 worried more about computer crashes than catastrophic fires. He left the CD-ROMs backing up his files in his office on the 21st floor of One World Trade Center, which was completely destroyed in the collapse.

Reconstructing those files full of business contracts has cost Mr. Popik more than $20,000 in photocopying alone. "It's very time-consuming and costly," he says.

Attorneys have had only a slightly easier time at the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where manila folders were the filing method of choice prior to the attacks.

The EEOC lost 1,500 workplace discrimination case files stuffed with handwritten notes and witness statements that were housed in 7 World Trade Center.

All that remained was a database at the EEOC's Washington headquarters containing the names and addresses of parties and a computer code indicating their complaints.

The office's 35 investigators wrote down whatever details they could remember about each of their 40 cases and asked complaining employees, employers, and courthouses for copies of files.

"It's slow, very slow," says Harold Wilkes, the EEOC's enforcement manager in New York.

In contrast, Thacher Proffitt was able to retrieve most of its files from e-mails sent to clients and from its document-management system, which includes regular off-site backup, says managing partner Omer "Jack" Williams. Attorneys for adversaries also provided copies of court filings.

Sophisticated document-storage software couldn't protect against every contingency, but did help replace all the vanished paper quickly, Mr. Williams says. As a result, the firm's lawyers were able to review $4 billion worth of clients' mergers between Sept. 11 and Sept. 30.

Since Sept. 11, the firm has bought additional data-storage equipment worth several hundred thousand dollars to back up data off site continually.

And the EEOC, too, is considering more complete document archiving.

"Everyone is finally paying attention to what you should do if disaster strikes," says Stephen P. Gallagher of the New York State Bar Association, who is still getting calls from lawyers asking for help reestablishing their offices.

Electronic document filing can eliminate the need for libraries full of law books and file rooms that soak up expensive real estate. Thacher Proffitt hires high school students to scan and burn records onto CD-ROMs that contain indexes or full-text searching.

But it's still not cheap: The data from a single complex lawsuit may fill as much as a trillion bytes. (A 20-page college term paper takes up about 60,000 bytes.)

Only within the last five years has the price of such technology fallen so that smaller firms can afford it as well, says David P. Whelan, director of the American Bar Association's legal-technology resource center.

Even the smallest firms should back up their electronic data each night on tape. This can be done for a one-time expense of as little as $300, says Mr. Kodner of MicroLaw.

Small firms can also protect against the loss of paper documents by scanning them; the equipment that can do this costs around $15,000, Kodner adds. "There is no economic justification for a firm not to do this," he says.

Few attorneys, however, expect their profession could completely abandon paper any time soon.

Lawyers still have to file documents with courts and law firms with incompatible technology. And many lawyers prefer working with paper to staring at a computer screen. "We like to hold it in our hands, underline it, dog-ear it," says Thacher Proffitt litigator Jerry Ferguson. "It's how we get inside."

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