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Digital Imaging Speeds to Lead in Paper Chase : Technology: Software at the right price means more businesses can dig out from under reams of documents.


SACRAMENTO — Chris Green knows paper.

As manager of litigation support for the California attorney general's office, she helps keep track of millions of pages of legal documents used by the attorney general's lawyers during trial.

One such case has about 140,000 pages, which are stored in 56 cardboard boxes, she said. Another case has a similar number of documents. They are stored on six CD-ROM disks--each about the size of a butter plate.

"If we have to do a search for 50 documents, we go into a storage room, pull down a box and get a document. You un-staple it, take it to the copy room, copy it, re-staple it, then put it back and hope it's in the right place," Green said. The full search could take up to two days.

"With the CD-ROM, you just hit the print button on your computer," Green said, and, depending on the speed of your printer, the full job can be done in an hour.

"I'm a huge fan of this stuff," she said.

Green's office is testing the waters of digital imaging, a process that electronically transfers the images of a printed page into a computer, much like a fax machine scans the image of a page into its memory before transmitting it over phone lines.

That information can then be stored on the computer's hard disk or transferred to CD-ROM disks, each of which can hold millions of words of text.

Another facet of the process is optical character recognition, which allows the user to quickly search documents for key words or phrases. If, for instance, a lawyer wants to find every document that refers to defendant John Smith in a case, he or she can type in Smith's name, and every other reference will pop up.

To anyone who has wrestled with reams of documents, the benefits of digital imaging technology are obvious. And while the technology isn't particularly new, the price of the necessary hardware has plunged, making the service much more affordable.

At least four firms in the Sacramento area specialize in going into offices and scanning documents into computers and eventually CD-ROM disks.

Charges range from 12 cents to about 25 cents a page, depending on the kind of enhancements--such as indexing and CD-ROM transfer--the client requires.

While lawyers have been early adopters of this kind of technology, other firms are catching on, said Paul Scherbenske, owner of Data Scan, a digital imaging company in Sacramento.

His 9-month-old company has scanned documents for lawyers, accountants and construction firms. "Once they get a firsthand look at what it's about, they're sold," he said.

Putting old records onto computers is known as backfile conversion and allows companies to consolidate reams of paper into electronic bytes.

Chris Nichols, owner of Dynamic Pools in Sacramento, recently had more than 10,000 invoices and other documents scanned onto CD-ROM. Not only does it make retrieving information easier, but it eliminated a trio of three-drawer file cabinets worth of storage, he said.

The initial cost of the project, which also involved computerizing his whole invoicing system, gave him pause as he wondered how he could justify the price tag. But he said he has no regrets.

"It makes things a lot smoother and a lot more streamlined; it saves us a lot of time," he noted.

One of the first people in the area to offer digital imaging technology to other companies is Glenn Fine, whose 2-year-old Legal Imaging Technologies puts legal documents onto computers and CD-ROM disks.

For his jobs, Fine loads a scanner, computer and power supply onto a gurney and take it to the offices of clients.

Along with technicians, he takes a team of paralegals to organize files and build a database for his clients.

Legal Imaging has done jobs involving more than 1 million documents, but more typical are tasks in the 125,000-page range, which takes about nine working days.

Fine says lawyers, who generate blizzards of paper, are prime candidates for digital imaging.

"We had about 18,000 pages on disk and wanted to know all of the documents that were written after a certain date," he said. After popping the disk into the CD drive and typing in commands, his staff got the answer it was seeking.

"In seconds, we had a listing of 138 documents, and we could browse them and print them if we wanted," he said. "If a paralegal had to do that, it would have taken them days, or even longer."

As the cost of imaging equipment falls, some firms are buying their own. Tom Chase, executive director of Downey Brand Seymour & Rohwer in Sacramento, said his law firm recently purchased scanning equipment to use on big cases that generate tens of thousands of pages of documents.

"It actually saves the client money because the old manual system is expensive, in that you have paralegals charging at an hourly rate," he said. "I think document imaging will eventually replace the manual work that paralegals do."

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