Taylor: A paperless future? ‘Resistance is futile’


In a world in which physical touch risks infection, the printed word increasingly gives way to its digital variations.

“Resistance is futile,” the Borg remind us.

I’ve tried some new things this past month. So has everybody else.

We’re finding out which formerly paper-only things are just as good online. Some things are better. We’re all experimenting and finding this out at once.

For example, I love going to the library. Also, I have long preferred the look and feel of the dead-tree version of books over e-books. As a result, before COVID-19, I had never tried my library system’s e-reader app, Libby, for borrowing books on my phone. (My Libby app is linked to my library card.) I don’t have a Kindle or iPad, but it works with those as well.

More from Taylor: Chaos of COVID-19 shoving society on fast track to the future

David Burleigh of OverDrive, the company that makes the Libby app, supplied some impressive usage statistics since the COVID-19 shutdowns.

Digital book checkouts through Libby were up 43 percent in April. It turns out I’m not the only one firing up Libby following the shuttering of libraries in mid-March.

The San Antonio Public Library and Harris County Public Library systems have integrated the Libby app, and usage has soared.

OverDrive also offers something called the Instant Digital Card, which allows users who do not have a library card to sign up for their local library’s digital offerings by providing their mobile number. More people signed up for the card in March and April than during all of 2019. That’s 188,000 Instant Digital Card sign-ups since COVID-19 forced libraries to shut down, compared with 144,000 for all of last year.

Through Libby, I also listened to an audiobook for the first time this past month. Audiobook checkouts are up 11 percent versus pre-COVID days. Burleigh speculates that fewer commuters listening during their car commute have kept that number from jumping higher than it already has.

Having gotten over the hump of trying the Libby app, I am certain this is a lifetime change for me. I will continue to read dead-tree books from physical libraries when they reopen, but I will never again hesitate to borrow e-books through my phone as well.

On the trend of moving paperwork to digital work, San Antonio-based attorney John Fahle, a partner in the law firm Fahle & Han, has used the pandemic to create what he and his partner call “A Law Firm In Your Pocket.”

One idea is that in an era of social distancing, technology can save time, travel and hassle. What previously required a face-to-face sit-down with your attorney can now be done more easily via a phone or device. So saving time and travel is the beginning.

“I think this whole crisis will be a wake-up call for people in the law,” Fahle says. “It should have happened a long time ago without a crisis.”

More from Taylor: Thy will be done (and you really should get it drawn up right now)

Estate planning and wills — an evergreen topic that nevertheless should be even more top of mind during a pandemic — can be done entirely through videoconferencing and secure document-sharing. That includes everything from document preparation to final witnessing and notarization.

As Fahle says about estate planning: “The law itself is way behind the times. Texas laws regarding will signings were written shortly after the Alamo fell, and haven’t been significantly updated since. They require two witnesses to stand in a room with the signatory to watch a person make a ‘wet’ signature on something called a piece of paper. You add lawyers and receptionists and support staff into that mix, and pretty soon you’ve violated the restriction on gatherings of 10 or more people.”


Beyond convenience and safety, however, the document security and privacy that technology offers seem to be a key advantage over traditional paper.

After booking an appointment for the next day on the Fahle & Han website, I received a calendar link to an encrypted videoconference call. The conference allows for end-to-end document-sharing, notarization, time-tracking and payment.

Privacy, encryption and secure documentation are at the heart of what Fahle and Han have invested in their practice. Off-the-shelf videoconferencing, such as Zoom, doesn’t work for a virtual attorney office.

More from Taylor: Snowden’s important warning on surveillance

Legal pads lying around a law office (dare I say “ripe for the picking”?) are far less secure than we should tolerate.

“Security — that really is the most important thing, particularly dealing with business clients,” Fahle says. “If you let their information slip, you’ve lost everything.”

Fahle expects that statewide, document-intensive litigation between commercial renters and landlords will grow as the COVID-19 crisis makes its way through the economy. As a firm licensed to do business in every county, he sees their virtual law office as an option for clients anywhere in Texas.

Fahle says they will maintain a physical office as required by law but hope to move all client interactions online, not only during the COVID epidemic but also after it passes.Michael Taylor is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and author of “The Financial Rules for New College Graduates.”michael@michaelthesmartmoney.com | twitter.com/michael_taylor

Photo of Michael Taylor
Michael Taylor

Michael Taylor is the author of The Financial Rules for New College Graduates: Invest Before Paying Off Debt and Other Tips Your Professor Didn’t Teach You. Through his “Smart Money” column, and blog www.bankers-anonymous.com, he pursues the mission of making complex financial topics simple.