Most attorneys regularly communicate with their clients by email. Attorneys also regularly communicate by email with colleagues regarding legal matters.
Who owns those communications?
What if every e-mail communication you had with or about a client belonged to the client? And what if a lot of those communications were in dozens of e-mail inboxes, in myriad personal filing systems, on different hard drives, in different offices in different cities, even on different continents?
It's worrisome. And it's real. Who owns those documents? Is it the firm, lawyer, or client? If the e-mail is part of a matter, the clients own the document. This has been concluded by several state courts. How's your inbox looking now?
The Duty to Safeguard Client Property
Attorneys are well versed in the exigencies of protecting both client confidentiality and client communications. Maintaining good records is more than a best practice: it's an ethical duty to safeguard a client's property. However, the more we communicate electronically, the more onerous the job becomes. Let's face it: the sheer proliferation of e-mail makes it virtually impossible to religiously print and physically file every e-mail communication. In response, some attorneys have set up their own personal filing systems, which include fulsome e-mail chains, including every "reply" and "forward". That creates an administrative nightmare. Which "reply" marks the final thinking? Which "forward" has all the relevant comments included?
Like most people today, our inboxes are overloaded and overflowing. The difference for attorneys is that we could be held accountable for errors that result from disarray. The inadvertent deletion of an important e-mail could be interpreted as a betrayal of our responsibility to protect our clients' property.
The more we communicate electronically, the greater the need to implement secure business practices to safeguard that part of clients' property that is included in e-mail communications. We also need to bring organization to the disarray that e-mail has created.
Rethinking Storage of Email
Inboxes cannot be the new repositories of record. Besides the fact that they are completely inefficient for workflow effectiveness, their use in isolation raises too many serious issues of accountability, control, and responsibility.
The solution to this problem is to provide a workspace, which is the electronic equivalent of a traditional physical file. The workspace can contain shareable folders and other collaborative items. In this workspace, users could find all of the documents (including e-mail, word, faxes, pdf's images, etc.) that are part of the matter. This would include both the documents that the firm creates and the documents that the firm receives from outside parties. To be an effective solution, this workspace needs to be integrated with the e-mail system so that information can be filed with little effort. Possible methods of integration include simple drag and drop tools, prompting users to file each e-mail on send, and providing each folder in a workspace with an e-mail address so that files can be "carbon copied."
Clearly, the solution must be as easy-to-use as e-mail is today, so users can intuitively capture both the e-mails and associated attachments in a collaborative workspace, which is easily accessible to those who need the information and securely inaccessible to others. This enables controlled retention of critical e-mails and documents pertaining to matters in a central location, improving knowledge access across the law firm and further insuring accountability.
The working collaborative environment must help alleviate e-mail overload, cut down on the spam avalanche, and provide attorneys with a solution that melds the expediency of e-mail with improved work processes. It must provide an integrated and secure virtual workplace, where attorneys can collaborate on their cases in a familiar and easily accessible way.
Secretaries and attorneys need to be able to access these workspaces from the application they feel most comfortable using such as the Web, DMS client and Outlook. There is no substitution for familiarity: if the end user interface visually reproduces the capabilities of being able to look at a file and physically flip through it, attorneys will feel comfortable using the system. Ramp-up time is likely to be fast and the chances of quick adoption greatly increased.
Most law firms have 10,000 to 100,000 active matters. In order to scale to meet the firms requirement, the foundation of this system must be an enterprise repository, where all case-related information can be safely stored, searched, and accessed. To hold all of the documents related to the firm's active matters, this repository must be capable of storing millions or tens of millions of documents.
The documents in the workspace can be further augmented with collaborative objects such as calendars, tasks lists, and discussion threads. Additionally, workspaces should also connect to other internal and external systems such as time and billing, CRM, and external news feeds. Through the combination of documents, collaborative objects, and connectivity to third party systems, each attorney in the firm can have access to all of the information about a matter in one single context.
And both attorneys and clients can rest easy, knowing that all communications about the matter at hand are safely held and available.