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How to get the best parts of document management for free

By Jeffrey Schoenberger, Affinity Consulting 

For solo lawyers or solo law firms with small support staffs, the “big boys” of legal document management systems, like NetDocumentsWorldox, or iManage, are overkill for your needs and possibly cost-prohibitive. Full-fledged document management systems (DMS) possess undeniable benefits, particularly user compliance, security, and searching. However, solo or small-firm legal professionals need not jealously eye their larger firm counterparts regarding core DMS benefits. 

Below are four core DMS features and some tips on reproducing those features with tools you already own or could acquire at a low cost. 

1. Saving 

Every full DMS possesses the ability to force user compliance. This means that the end-user is required to save files into the DMS; the system prevents saving to your desktop or a network drive. Traditional Windows or macOS open/save dialog boxes are replaced by ones directly and exclusively connected to the DMS. The obvious advantage is that every firm document resides in the DMS. 

There’s no forced compliance on where to save documents for the solo and small-firm professional without a DMS. However, human nature can take software’s place with what security researcher and host of the Security Now podcast, Steve Gibson, called “the tyranny of the default”: 

“‘[T]he tyranny of the default’…[is]…the expression I like to use for that we know most users don’t go in and change things. They just assume that someone smarter than them chose the settings that are best for them, and so they say ‘yes’ a lot when they’re asked questions…[W]hat that means is that if it’s enabled by default, it’ll tend to stay on…” (emphasis added). 

Once you set a default storage location, whether for yourself or another user at your firm, that person is unlikely to change it. A quick internet search can turn up how to change the default save location in Word for Windows (File > Options > Save), Word for Mac (if you use OneDrive/SharePoint), and Adobe Acrobat. Many other programs offer this “set and forget” save setting. Making this change means when you hit CRTL+S to save a document, you’ll start in the folder you selected as the default. Visit our whitepaper on Managing Your Documents without a DMS for tips on client/matter folder structure. For example, if you set the default location to “Clients,” you can drill down into the client and matter, saving you several save dialog clicks. And, if you forget to change the folder to the right client, at least the document is in the “Clients” folder so you can find it later, which brings us to… 

2. Searching 

Complete DMS offerings provide searching capabilities every bit as good as you see in WestlawLexis, or Fastcase. You can search by document date, author, document type, document tags, and even “word X” within a certain number of words of “word Y.” 

The native system searches in Windows and macOS are good. However, with some search criteria – particularly when combining criteria, such as date plus document type plus keywords –  the free search utilities built into the operating systems fall. 

Fortunately, there are great affordable options available to enhance your document searches. For Windows users, I suggest X1 Desktop Search ($80 per year). For Mac-using lawyers, I recommend HoudaSpot ($34). Indeed, as a Mac-using lawyer, I use HoudahSpot all the time and am pleased with it. Affinity partners Paul Unger and Barron Henley would say the same about X1 as Windows users. 

With either program, you can start with a simple search, easily add or combine additional criteria, pick the folders you want to search, add and remove columns from a list of search results, and preview documents before opening them. They get you close to the quality of a DMS-based search without the added overhead and cost. 

3. Sharing 

Many DMS programs let you share files directly from their interface. Depending on the program, you can share an individual document or an entire folder. You can set an expiration date for access and permit those with access to upload files to the system or merely download them. A savvy user can replicate many of these features, though not all, via services like ShareFileDropboxOneDrive/OneDrive for Business, or Google Drive

4. Safekeeping 

The common sync storage services listed above excel at ease of use but fall short on security. They will all serve as a form of backup for your data, which is no small thing, but they all have a weakness. Dropbox, Microsoft, Google, et al. encrypt data that you store with them both in transit and on their servers. However, the services hold the encryption keys. If they are served with a subpoena or lawful warrant, they can turn over readable data. Whether they inform you beforehand is spelled out in their terms of service. 

If you are storing client information where this possibility is untenable, look at either Boxcryptor or Sookasa. Both are affordable tools that ride on top of Dropbox, for example, and encrypt your files with a password that only you know. 

Alternatively, I recommend skipping the “normal” sync services and investigating Tresorit instead. It’s a sync service that requires you to define your own data password from the outset. They never have the opportunity to know what’s in your files. 

Keep two things in mind if you go the “trust no one” route by defining your own data password for added security. First, with any of Boxcryptor, Sooksa, and Tresorit, adding your own layer of encryption hinders the sharing features, unless you share the password with those to whom you give file or folder access. Second, if you lose or forget your encryption password, no one can save you. Your data is locked forever. 

Hopefully the above suggestions gave you ideas on getting some of the best benefits of a DMS for a solo or small firm without spending a lot of money or adding complexity to your technology setup. 

We know we’ve given you a bunch to think about, and you probably have some questions. The Manage a Practice page of the Practice Management Center contains dozens of white papers, checklists, and charts relating to this topic. If you have any questions, you can schedule a no-cost consultation through the Ask an Expert page or email mobarlpm@affinityconsulting.com