When Do You Need Legal Document Management?

At Uptime Legal, we advise hundreds of law firms across the US on what software tools will help them run their practice better.

It’s usually a given that they’ll need a basic time and billing solution, and a system to manage clients and cases. But often law firms express frustration with the management of their documents.

Even if they aren’t familiar with what a Legal Document Management System (DMS) is, they express the gnawing feeling that there must be a better way when it comes to keeping documents organized, searchable and managed.

Do you feel the same? Fear not, in this post we’ll explore:

When Do You Need Legal Document Management?

Do you need matter-centric document organization?

The problem with a basic file server or consumer-grade cloud storage (such as DropBox or Google Drive), is that the organization (or lack thereof) becomes a free-for-all; users can—and do—store documents in anywhere in the system, with no consistency in organization between this attorney, that paralegal, and so forth.

A legal-centric Document Management System is matter-centric; meaning first the user creates a matter, then stores and organizes documents within a matter. Matters can be organized by open or closed, by client, by case type, and so forth.

Do you need to manage document versions?

Having multiple iterations and versions of documents over time is part-and-parcel to running almost any law practice. Contracts often go through multiple versions before being the agreed-upon final version. Lawyers often take multiple runs through drafting a motion before submitting it.

Without a Legal Document Management System, lawyers often resort to the messy and manual process of saving a copy of the document each iteration and append “-v2”, “-v3” (and so forth) to the document name.

A Legal Document Management System will automatically retain a version of a document each time it is edited. This not only keeps your folders clean (no multiple “-vX” versions), but ensures a version of the document is kept after each change without the user having to remember to do so. A DMS allows the user to view, restore or compare each historical version of the document to the current version.

Do you need automatic OCR?

If yours is like most law firms, you receive a plethora of PDF documents by scan, email and fax. By default these PDF’s are image-based, meaning there’s no text in them that you can select or search by. This creates a major problem insofar as, in this scenario, a large portion of your firm’s documents aren’t searchable.

A good Legal Document Management System will automatically OCR documents, in the background, after you store the document. And—without the end user’s intervention.

Do you need to tag and categorize documents?

Your law firm may need to tag documents, applying codes to a document about the document. Tags such as the type of document (such as Contract, Complaint, Motion and so forth); or the status of a document (such as Draft, Final, and so on.)

Rudimentary file systems such as a file server or general cloud storage systems weren’t designed with the needs of law firms in mind. The ability to tag, code and categorize documents are, however, a staple of Legal Document Management systems.

Do you need to manage emails like documents?

To a law firm, a email is a document like any other. So it’s natural to need to be able to save and manage emails related to a matter just like any other document. Though, basic file servers and cloud storage don’t do this—leaving law firms to maintain matter documents in one system of folders, and matter-related emails in another (such as Outlook or Gmail).

A Legal Document Management System allows the users to save email messages to a matter, just like a document, where it’s searchable and tied to the matter (and—if it’s a good DMS—will allow the user to do it right from Outlook.) This gives the law firm the ability to see all documents and email for a matter in one place.

Do You Need to Search Documents and Email?

Often a law firm will need to perform a firm-wide search for something. Maybe they need to search a particular name to perform a conflict check, maybe for a specific statute. For even small law firms, document and email add up quickly, and it can become challenging to find what you’re looking for quickly.

A Legal Document Management System typically employs powerful indexing, where it categorizes all content in every document and email, so users can search for—and quickly find—what they’re looking for. When tied-in with automatic OCR as we describe above, indexing and search is powerful functionality for any law firm.

Do you need to be notified when a document changes?

Even rudimentary file systems will allow you to define permissions—who can and cannot access a particular file or folder. But a full-fledged Legal Document Management System can be configured to notify you (or certain people within your firm) when a particular document—or any document in a specified folder—is changed. This is often called Document Alerts, and is another staple of a DMS.

Do you need to be able to check documents out?

Most file systems, such as a file server, will keep a file locked when another user has it open. (This keeps coworkers from overwriting each other’s changes to a file.) But only when a user has that document open. What if you need a document locked, or protected from other users changing it, for an extended period of time?

Document Management Software usually has Check-Out/Check-In functionality. This lets you check a document out, which keeps others from editing it, until you manually check it back in. You can check a document out, work on it for a while, then save your changes and come back to it later. The document will remain locked and editable by you and you alone—until you check the document in.

Do you need to be able to comment on documents?

Legal Document Management Systems allow you to add, in addition to tags, comments to a document. Comments are just that—notes about a document but that do no live in the document. This allows members of your firm to add and review notes about a document, these notes live in the DMS itself—not the document, keeping your internal notes and comments secure and private.

Do you need document ID’s?

In a DMS, every document is given a unique document ID. The document ID is like that document’s Social Security Number. It lives with the document forever, and is unique to that document. The document ID remains the same even if the document itself is moved to another matter, another folder, changed or renamed. Document ID’s ensure identifiabiliy and document integrity, something that basic file systems and simple cloud storage systems lack

The Verdict

There you have it: The core functionality of a Legal Document Management System, and the reasons law firms implement them. If you answered “yes” to a handful of the questions above, it may be time to graduate from your local file server or DropBox to a true, legal-grade Document Management System.

Related: Document Management / Matter Centricity Whitepaper

About the Author: Dennis Dimka
Dennis Dimka is the CEO and founder of Uptime Legal Systems, North America's leading provider of technology, cloud and marketing services to law firms. Dennis is the author of Law Practice as a Service: How and Why to Move Your Law Firm to the Cloud, and was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist in 2016. Follow Dennis on LinkedIn.

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