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How your firm can benefit from a full-featured document management system

By Jeffrey Schoenberger and Michelle Willete

Several legal technologies shone brightly in the last year; none more prominently than video conferencing…for everything. From client meetings to court appearances to grandma’s birthday, at some point we all hit Zoom fatigue. But just because video conferencing got the most attention doesn’t mean it was the true pandemic workhorse for law firms. Legal professionals are ultimately wordsmiths. The client doesn’t need to see your smiling face, but it needs to have the settlement agreement, incorporation package, or estate planning set they hired you to draft.

COVID was a trial by fire for most firms’ document creation, storage, and distribution methods when managing documents, particularly for remote workers. Some firms sailed through while others crashed on the rocky shoals of paper-first, no backups, conflicted copies, and the dreaded “Legal Document v4 final final I mean it this time.docx” naming convention.

As people who spend lots of time talking about, deploying, and training on document management systems for law firms, we’re comfortable saying that not every lawyer needs a full-fledged document management system. If you’re a true solo practitioner or a solo with a single support staffer, a cloud-based document storage solution is probably a better fit. But, once you get beyond three or four firm employees, and indeed the more you scale up, the advantages of a full document management system become self-evident.

1. Two ways to handle documents

Storing your documents is passive. Document storage is a place to save documents for later retrieval and potentially sharing with others. It’s a virtual filing cabinet —nothing more, nothing less. Your computer’s hard drive, a shared server drive at your office, even cloud-based storage such as Dropbox and Google Drive: nothing happens to these documents while they’re in storage, and the users can’t do anything with the documents apart from viewing and editing them. This option might be adequate for the solo or very small firm.

Managing your documents is active. A document management system (DMS) provides the user with tools to manage, organize, and otherwise make the documents useful for the firm. A DMS will do what document storage cannot. You can see and recall each iteration of a document with view, restore, or compare capabilities. You can check documents in/out, keeping others from making changes simultaneously and creating conflicting versions of the same document. A robust DMS will index every document and email stored within it, making all content immediately searchable. A robust DMS can convert scanned documents or image-based PDF files to text-enabled documents.

2.  Why firms benefit from a full DMS

Matter-centricity: A matter-centric DMS allows users to create a matter, which is the virtual file cabinet to store (and manage) documents, email, and notes for that matter. None of Dropbox, nor OneDrive, nor SharePoint (without spending money) natively understand or work with “matters” as a concept. The user is on his own in creating folders and storing files.

Email management: In law, an email is a document like any other. A legal DMS can store, index, and manage email just as it does documents. It’s ideal to get a legal-centric DMS that integrates with MS Outlook so users can save emails directly to a matter. The holy grail of any electronic case file is its completeness. A DMS dramatically eases the process of getting an email from your inbox to the case file, where others can see it, and where it is forever bound to the case and client to which it applies.

Document types and tagging: Law firms work with all kinds of documents: motions, orders, pleadings, complaints, contracts, and so on. By tagging documents, you can identify the exact type in your DMS. By categorizing in this way, users can quickly assess the type or nature of a document at a glance. Fundamentally, these tools help people other than the document’s original author find and interact with the document. Maybe the author is on vacation and you need to print a copy of an opinion letter he sent to a client. With a DMS, you just search for documents of the type “opinion letter” drafted by the vacationing employee.

3.  When do you know you’ve outgrown document storage and it’s time to “graduate” to a DMS?

Below are some questions to guide you in determining whether your firm would benefit from a DMS.

·         Do you need matter-centric organization of your firm’s documents?

·         Does your firm struggle to keep document organization consistent?

·         Do you need the ability to manage versions of documents as they evolve?

·         Do you need a process to check documents out (like library books), keeping them from being edited or forcing you to reconcile conflicted copies later?

·         Would you like scanned images to automatically become text-searchable PDFs rather than hoping individual employees remember to do this?

·         Do you need to streamline workflow by having scanners (or faxes) imported directly to your filing system?

·         Is your firm outgrowing your local hard drives or the simple cloud storage of a Dropbox or Google Drive?

·         Does your law firm want to decrease the amount and reduce the mass of paper and paper files?

4.  Welcoming a new DMS

If you decide that moving to a full DMS is right for you, welcoming a new, core piece of software into your firm’s technology “stack” raises further questions:

·         What tools does the DMS integrate with? If you already have a practice management program, for example, you will want the two to play nice together.

·         What security features does the platform provide? Will it meet compliance standards for your area of practice or those imposed by your clients?

·         How much mobility will this product provide? What is the app situation like concerning iOS and Android?

·         How well does the platform organize and search files?

·         Does the platform support collaboration with internal and external stakeholders? Can you share files with the client or co-counsel directly from the DMS?

We know we’ve given you a bunch to think about and probably raised some questions. If you have any questions, reach out to us through the Ask an Expert page on the bar site or email