8 Things to Ask When Evaluating Law Firm Document Management Software

So you’re searching for a law firm Document Management system to keep your documents and email under control.

Good for you.

Because: a good law firm document management application will help keep matter-related documents (and email) together, will make searching for and finding what you’re looking for easy, and will generally bring law and order to an otherwise wild-west of files, folders and disjointed systems.

But finding the right law firm document management software isn’t as easy as it may sound. You may realize that the world of legal software is nebulous and full of terms with overlapping meanings. You may realize that you don’t know what you don’t know, which makes your journey all that much more difficult to navigate.

As you set out to find the right law firm document management system, you may not even fully understand what questions to ask.

At Uptime Legal I’ve assisted hundreds of law firms solve problems by finding and implementing the right technology solutions. So with that experience, in this article I’ll share:

8 Things to Ask When Evaluating Law Firm Document Management Software

So many factors to consider when evaluating document management apps for your firm. So many considerations and potential questions. In this article I’ll explore what are likely the most impact, most important questions to ask any potential law firm document management candidate.

Lets get started.

1. Is it Really Document Management Software?

This might sound silly a first, but: When looking for a solution to manage your firm’s documents, the first order of business should be to make sure that the software you’re evaluating is document management software.

Legal Practice Management (LPM) software, which is a different category and type of software, often provides many different functions for a law firm. Client and contact management, calendaring, time tracking and billing. And often in an LPM’s list of features they’ll name “Document Management” as a feature. Which leads many law firms that don’t know better to assume that this Legal Practice Management solution also includes document management.

It usually doesn’t. Practice Management software is not Document Management software.

And I’m not arguing semantics here. LPM software, which your law firm may very well benefit from, sometimes will provide very rudimentary or watered-down document management capabilities. (You could describe it as “Document Management Lite.”) And if that’s all your firm needs–perhaps it will be enough. But many law firms need a level of sophistication and nuance that traditional practice management software don’t provide.

Related: Document Management vs. Practice Management Software

So don’t be fooled into thinking that your case management or time and billing app has the document management functions your firm requires. Or at least, don’t assume it by default. Dig in, and understand the functions and features.

Which brings me to our next question to ask when evaluating a legal document management solution.

2. Is the Software Matter-Centric?

Document Management software is made for, and used by many industries beyond law firms. Healthcare. Financial services. Insurance. And as a result, many document management platforms aren’t made for law firms, they’re made for the masses.

You’ll often see this when you start diving deep into the functionality and flow of a “generalist” document management platform. You’ll see functinality and features that no law firm would ever need. You’ll notice a lack of true matter-centricity.

A matter-centric document managemetn system is one where, for the most part, all documents, email and other content is stored and organized by matter. And every matter has attributes that make that matter easy to find and manage: thigns like case type, open date, and assigned staff.

Some document management applications have objects called “folders” or “projects,” that can be retro-fitted to act like a matter if you’re a law firm… but you’ll quickly realize that the functionality of the software and its container objects simply wasn’t designed for law firms and legal departments.

Without a matter-centric document management system, a firm’s case information, documents, emails, and other data is likely to be scattered among several disjointed systems.

I recommend implementing a document management platform built specifically for law firms and legal departments, and one that is clearly matter-centric.

Related: Document Management & Matter-Centricity

3. What Are the Software’s Capabilities?

Labels and semantics don’t matter. Capabilities do.

So it’s important to define your firm’s requirements before evaluating any specific law firm document management products. What does your firm need? What problems are you looking to solve? What are must-haves, and what are would-like’s?

I recommend sitting down with the key stake-holders and decision-makers within your firm and define your objectives and requirements in your firm’s new document management platform.

Your list of requirements may include things like:

  • Matter-centric document storage and organization.
  • Microsoft Office integration
  • Email management
  • Document check-out / check-in
  • Document version management
  • Document tagging and profiling
  • Indexing and searchability
  • Document metadata
  • Audit trails
  • Security and permissions management

Whatever the requirements, I recommend you identify them and assign an urgency to each. This will help your firm hold up any potential suitor against your requirements and will help clarify which law firm document management product may be a good fit, and which are not.

Related: Finding the Best Legal Document Management Software

4. Is it (Really) Cloud-based?

In today’s world, there’s almost no reason to buy and maintain an on-premise server. On-premise IT comes with headaches, downtime, unexpected costs and lots of drama. And legacy, server-based document management software (including otherwise good document management software) often requires a hefty server with lots of horsepower and space, which drives up your firm’s costs even more.

What’s more, modern law firms need mobility. They need to be able to access their matter files, documents and email from anywhere. From the office. From home. From the courthouse. Just another reason to seek out a cloud-based solution when searching for the right law firm document management platform.

Some of the legacy DMS platforms, which have always required an on-premise server (and the necessary IT support to keep it up and running) offer their legacy DMS solutions in their own hosted environment. This is not only expensive, but can cause integration challenges with the rest of your law firm’s technology.

So make sure the law firm document management software that your firm is evaluating is truly cloud-based.

Related: Legal Document Management in the Cloud

5. Is OCR Included, and Automatic?

OCR, or Optical Character Recognition, is the technology that converts a scanned image, such as a contract you’ve scanned, into readable, searchable text.

By default, a scanned document is essentially an image. You’ve probably seen this before: you use a scanner to scan a hardcopy document, and the resulting electronic file is an image, almost like a photograph of the documents. (In fact, that’s exactly what it is.)

This means that the text in the document you’ve scanned isn’t actually text at all–rather your scanned document is a photograph of text. This means you, as the user cannot select, copy or paste any text from the document.

And more importantly: you can’t search for text in a photograph. That’s right–these raw, scanned documents will never show up in a search. If that scanned document has a key piece of language or text that you’ll need later–you’ll never find it in a search in its raw, un-OCR’d format.

OCR (which stands for Optical Character Recognition) is the process of converting the image of a scanned document into actual text–that can be selected, copied, pasted and–most importantly: indexed and searched. OCR software processes these raw, “photographs of documents” files, interprets what it discerns as characters (letters and numbers) and converts them to actual, searchable text.

It’s fair to say that having an OCR solution is integral to having a paperless law firm, and integral to any law firm document management system. The problem is: many document management applications don’t include OCR capabilities. Some omit this entirely, others offer integration with third-party OCR software, something you’ll have to buy, set up and maintain on its own.

I recommend ensuring that the law firm document management software you consider has automatic, integrated OCR.

Related: Paperless Law Office: Implementing OCR

6. Is the Software Easy to Use and Navigate?

Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of law firms implement (or try to implement) new software of one kind or another. Some are wildly successful, others fail. What separates the successes from the failures?

Adoption.

Meaning: Do the end users (everyone in the law firm) embrace, learn and use the software… or do they resist using the new software?

Adoption is vital to a successful software implementation, and critical to achieving the goals you set out to accomplish by getting the software in the first place. And when it comes to adoption, how easy the software is to use, navigate and make use of is a make-or-break factor.

The trend of modern software tends to be an easy-to-use, minimalist design that doesn’t overwhelm the end-user, which makes learning the software approachable and doable.

Unfortunately, many older applications, including and especially older law firm document management applications, are just the opposite. Their interfaces are overwhelming. Navigation is not intuitive. The look and feel is dated, confusing and convoluted.

This can absolutely kill user adoption, kill your investment into law firm document management software, and upset morale. Make sure the software you evaluate has a user interface and user experience that is simple, clean, intuitive and easy to use.

Related:Is Your Legal Document Management Software a Dinosaur?

7. Does the Software Force Your Firm to Conform to It?

Some law firm document management software forces you to do things a certain way.

For example: take document profiling. Profiling is the process by which you categorize and add metadata to a document when storing it in your DMS. For instance, when you create a new brief, you might want to code it as a brief along with other information: tags, document deadline, and so forth. This kind of categorization can be very useful to a law firm.

However, what if your software forced you to do this every time? Every random word doc, PDF and documents that may or may not be particularly consequential. Some document management applications force you to go through a comprehensive profiling process for every document, every time.

Good software makes your life easier, and your job faster. It doesn’t get in your way. Some law firm document management software, unfortunately, does exactly the opposite and force your firm to adapt to the way it works, rather than the software adapting to your law firm.

This will not only increase the time it takes to do your job, but will, as I explained above, hamper morale and undermine adoption. I recommend that when evaluating law firm document management software, you look carefully at what the software forces on your firm.

8. Is Data Migration Included?

Our last item is an important one: Is migration and ingestion of your existing documents included in the software/service?

Making software and providing professional services are two very different businesses. As a result, many publishers of law firm document management software don’t provide migration services as part of their offering.

If your law firm will be implementing document management software, chances are you have a significant amount of existing data and documents to organize and move into your new DMS. Perhaps you’re coming from a local, on-premise file server (and using the S: drive). Or maybe you’re graduating from basic cloud storage such as OneDrive or Dropbox. Either way–organizing, cataloging and moving your data into your new document management platform is no small task.

The problem is often that software publishers don’t take this on themselves. Instead, they farm this responsibility out to outside consultants, resellers and technology companies. The challenge this often creates, in the many law firms I’ve spoken with, is serious quality control issues.

The reseller who you retain to perform your migration may or may not be suited to the task. And the DMS software company may very well shrug and tell you to find a new consultant/reseller if things go poorly. (This is a scenario I’ve seen many times.)

Nobody knows the law firm document management system better than the company who created it. For that reason, I always advise law firms to select a law firm document management product where the company’s own staff manages and owns the data migration, start to finish.

Closing the Loop

These are eight important things to ask when shopping for a law firm document management system. But these questions are really only the beginning when it comes to finding the right solution to your law firm.

To learn more, I recommend reading our other resources. Check out our whitepaper on Document Management & Matter-Centricity. Download our Legal Document Management Comparison Chart.

Or contact us to find the right document management platform for your firm. Either way–good luck.

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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