Lawyers’ offices used to be well known for the rows of books on the shelves and the voluminous file cabinets which housed client documents. Since the advent of the digital age, however, many firms have moved much of their paper online in the form of digital documents. While some documents will always be required to be kept in physical form (at least until the law allows otherwise), many lawyers today are finding they not only can have a paper-light office but that software provides much greater access than traditional physical files.
The Importance of Internal Policies
While software has certainly made things easier, any good document management policy starts with employees. It is important not only to implement and enforce a strong document management and retention policy, but to make sure that all attorneys and support staff are aware of the reasons why it is important. The policy should include descriptions of types of documents, when a document must be saved, when it is safe to delete, email policies including archiving and deletion, and naming conventions.
A strong document management policy is particularly important if the firm chooses not to use a full document management system where users are forced into compliance. If relying only on manual document storage by employees, it is necessary to make sure that everyone uses the same naming convention, such as Client – Matter Number – Document Type – Document Title.docx or similar. The folder organization on shared access drives and on personal computers is equally important so that quick document retrieval is possible even after that person leaves the firm.
Full Document Management Systems
Full document management systems such as Interwoven (Worksite / iManage), WORLDOX, and NetDocuments provide comprehensive systems for managing documents as well as many additional features such as email integration, document search, version history, secure remote document access, and document audit trails. The downside to these solutions is that they can be complicated to set up and expensive to implement, so smaller firms may find the cost outweighs the benefits. Other solutions that are less full-featured include TimeMatters from LexisNexis and Abacus.
While originally confined to larger practices, many solutions exist to day for even small solo practices to implement internal intranets for employee use. Intranets can provide access to the document system, but can also be used for event calendars, posting company-wide policies and providing marketing resources for easy access. A very common platform used for intranets is SharePoint from Microsoft, although again this may provide more bells and whistles than needed in smaller practices.
Virtual Data Rooms
Virtual data rooms, or VDRs, are used to share confidential or sensitive documents with outside third parties. They provide the security and permissions not found in other collaboration tools while still allowing for ease of use. Many VDRs include individual user permissions down to a per-file level, can watermark files that are downloaded and printed (so if one is leaked the source is known), and are great for providing transfer of large files. VDRs are typically used in the context of business purchases, internal investigations, sensitive record storage where the attorney needs access, and audits.
While document management has been an issue for a long time for law firms, it is only in the past decade that software has been able to provide real solutions. When deciding on a document management system, intranet, or other tools for practice management, remember to start at the top: what do you need your tools to do for you. Then write your policy, and only then find a software solution to match. Starting with the software will often lead to more complicated solutions than necessary, as well as potentially additional unnecessary cost.
Luis Thomas is a former attorney and software consultant. One of the problems routinely encountered early on was how to send large files, provide for document versioning, and support for internal document audits, however now there are several software solutions to make lawyers’ lives easier.