Law firms use documents all day, every day -- letters, email, photos, contracts, briefs, pleadings, discovery . . . the list goes on. Managing all this information can be overwhelming without a standardized system for organizing, securing, and finding those documents. Implementing a document management program can increase efficiency, security, and retrieval of documents that are integral to a well-run law firm.
1. Organizing Documents
A shared file drive is not a good document management option for law firms. Neither is an email system. As you are probably aware, most folder-based filing systems start off with the best of intentions, but can quickly fall into chaos. And using email folders as a filing system stymies your colleagues' ability to get those files easily and leads to clogged servers and enormous personal email (PST) files, which is a particular pet peeve of administrators and IT staff. Having a document management program in place will allow you to organize all your files -- email, documents, electronic media, etc. -- in a way that makes finding them simple and fast.
Non-standardized naming conventions, multiple sub-folders, and lack of version control, to name a few, subvert the organized, searchable, and indexed information protocols law firms strive to achieve. A good document management program will be able to organize documents hierarchically and compel logical document indexing in a centralized space.
2. Searching for Documents:
Who among us hasn't "lost" a document? You know it exists, but where it got filed is a mystery. Getting your documents organized is the first step. Organization combined with fast, simple, and powerful searching are hallmarks of a great document management program. Instead of requiring you to memorize a complex folder system in order to find a document, a document management program will allow you to quickly search for what you need with only a few pieces of data.
Of course, specific search criteria will narrow the results from the start, but the ability to filter results may be faster than trying to craft the perfect search string. Metadata indexing, optical character recognition (OCR) conversion, email and scanned document profiling are integral to making sure all the documents you need are searchable from a single location.
3. Information Security
Document security is of supreme importance to a law firm and its clients. Not having a secure document management system is a privacy risk for a law firm and one that you should never expose your clients or your firm to. Any document management program worth its salt will be able to offer multiple levels (e.g., user, client/matter, and item) of security in order to control who can access, read, delete, and/or edit the document, both internally and externally.
Furthermore, a complete audit trail of everything related to a document allows the firm to keep track of a document's lifecycle. Who made changes to it and when? Who emailed it and to whom did it go? Who downloaded a copy of it and to where did it get downloaded? Having these security checks in place can help to comply with internal and external regulations, set your clients' mind at ease about the sensitive and confidential information they've entrusted to you, and ensure that employees aren't making off with the firm's intellectual property or disseminating confidential information.
4. Document Sharing and Collaboration
Sending documents to colleagues and clients is an everyday occurrence and sending them via email is fast and simple. However, sending documents by email is one of the biggest security risks you can take. Once the attached document is sent or forwarded to the wrong person or group of people, there is no way to get it back. If that document contains sensitive or confidential information, you've put yourself at risk should that information be used against the firm or your client.
There are some documents that should never be sent by email and a good document management program will give you alternatives for secure client communications -- one that requires authentication of the recipient to retrieve the documents. Using a client portal to send and receive documents is quick, inexpensive, easy, and safe. It allows you to have full control over who has access to the document, maintains version control and document history. Your clients will appreciate the measures you take to keep their information safe and the firm will benefit from the ability to control what information is shared and with whom it is shared.
Collaborating on documents is another perk of using a document management system. Instead of emailing documents back and forth and trying to keep track of all the edits, notes, and versions, having a document management program will let you maintain the document in a shared environment so everyone can work on one file rather than having multiple versions floating around. A good document management program will keep track of all versions of the document in a single place so when you access that document, you can be assured you are working on the correct and latest version.
5. Less Paper
Paperless. The Holy Grail of the digital age. While law firms may not be able to attain a truly paperless office, with a good document management program, they can use much less paper by utilizing available technology to turn paper documents and physical media into electronic files.
Digitizing the firm's entire history of paper files and physical media may be an overwhelming task, especially if the firm has been in business for a while. The focus instead should be to reduce the amount of physical information on a go-forward basis and only digitize any older documentation as it is "touched" in the regular course of business.
A scanner is essential to a digitizing paper files, whether it's a fancy multi-function device or a simple desktop scanner. With a document management program and a uniform scanning strategy, those scanned files will be organized, indexed, and secured instead of just thrown into a "scanned docs" folder on the shared drive. You'll also need to be able to OCR those image files such as pdfs to enable full text searching. Utilizing a document management program or scanner that OCRs documents ensures that when you are searching for a document you're getting the whole picture.
Managing all the physical media a law firm requires -- photographs, DVDs, CDs, etc. -- by digitizing and indexing it within a document management program is also key to using less "paper". Negating the need for the amount of space you need for a physical media library as well vastly improving searching capabilities makes a document management program essential.
A standardized document management program is one of the most important technologies that a law firm can implement. It helps to keep your firm organized, it makes your document retrieval faster and more comprehensive, and it increases the security of sensitive and confidential for both firm and client. Regardless of the size of your firm, a good document management program can produce immediate benefits. It doesn't need to be expensive or overly complex, but it does need to be embraced by the entire firm. The reasons outlined in this article are a good start. Once the firm starts using a document management program, they'll soon wonder how they ever got along without one to begin with.