Financial advisors are facing increased regulation and, in some instances, overlapping regulations that will constrain business and also increase their workload, add to their storage needs and require them to do additional staff training. Never has there been a greater need for electronic document management (sometimes called electronic content management, or ECM).

Most firms look at document management as filing, whether they use paper or electronic files, and it's often likely that they've set up informal procedures for handling them. A properly designed ECM system integrates work-flow procedures and controls, which usually means it is tied into a database (client relationship management software, for instance). Other firms set up a stand-alone indexing system-a folder tree like the one you find on a computer's operating system. But without specific, strict controls, informal systems pose problems. One is that documents can be misfiled, or worse, that employees unfamiliar with the folder trees can simply create new folders for items that should have been placed elsewhere. This makes document retrieval difficult and frustrating, to say the least.

A common mistake made by some firms is to use a system that saves documents in a PDF instead of a more secure format such as a TIFF. This means documents can be altered after the fact, and the firm risks potentially violating federal regulations. While some scanner manufacturers have addressed this issue with post-imprint symbols and other coding mechanisms to ensure authenticity, there are still lingering doubts about the security of the original documents.

It may be tough to justify additional expenses nowadays, but the simple truth is that those advisors boasting an efficient document management system can bring their costs down over time-way down. These lower costs can soften the blow of any up-front expenses and fully justify the time commitment necessary to implement the systems.

If you're associated with a broker-dealer, chances are it is already offering some level of document management (form capture, forms you can fill out, outsourced electronic storage, etc.). If not, there are a host of available systems that can transform your financial practice into a highly efficient operation by helping you go paperless.

The SEC and FINRA have both ruled on the acceptability of paperless storage, retrieval and recovery. They have even ruled on the acceptability of electronic signatures (with specific guidelines). Among other things, a planner's document management process must comply with SEC and FINRA rules, Sarbanes-Oxley and the USA Patriot Act. There should also be a way for him to provide an audit trail.

So what is stopping you? It's likely two things: the cost and the knowledge you need to get the job done right. A typical system such as Laserfiche Avante (, for example, can cost about $4,000 for the initial outlay to serve an office of four staffers (and the Avante system was designed to be affordable).

While it sounds like a lot of money, though, consider what such a system could do in shaving off staff time and increasing productivity and profitability. With such a system, there would be a much faster document storage and retrieval process. The office can also go paperless, allowing a planner to save a great deal of office space and reduce staff time enough to equal the salary of another employee. So you may wish to ask yourself, would I be willing to spend $4,000 to save up to $40,000? Also consider that the annual renewal costs are much less, even though the savings continue.

At the Laserfiche Institute Conference, held in Los Angeles from January 12-14, 2009, and attended by more than 1,000 people, the company's founder and president, Nien-Ling Wacker, said she hoped to make the company the sweetheart of IT by introducing a new line of products that easily communicate with Microsoft products such as SharePoint and by "expanding sales and systems from document management to business process management," as she put it in her keynote address.

Most financial advisors are only aware of Laserfiche as a provider of document management solutions for the financial advisory profession. But clients such as the Mexican Immigration Service, the country of Uganda and the U.S. Congress also use the technology.