Moving from Traditional Document Management Systems

Kim A. Wismer, CIO, Ballard Spahr LLP
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Kim A. Wismer, CIO, Ballard Spahr LLP

Approximately 80 percent of a law firm's records are in electronic format, a substantial portion of which originate and/or reside in e-mail. In order to comply with legal and ethical obligations relating to the retention and disposition of electronic records, and to properly manage client service and potential professional liability risks, it is important that firms strengthen their electronic records program. It sounds easy—but why aren't firms more successful in getting their lawyers to move e-mails and document attachments into a document management system?

"Changing your document management system isn't a simple task but in our extremely competitive legal environment, it is a change you must consider"

First we must ask ourselves why Outlook remains the repository of choice. Outlook does not support effective collaboration, has limited search functionality, and does not have the ability to enforce complex retention rules. But lawyers gravitate to Outlook because it is easy. E-mail comes to them in Outlook and requires minimal effort to create folders for organization. It is their own file system, so they can easily locate what they have filed. When you start to introduce solutions like a document management system or a records management system, they become frustrated with multiple repositories—one for incoming e-mail, one for documents, and one for tracking paper records. It's time consuming to try to figure out where to put things so they can easily be retrieved.

So how do we get lawyers to use a document management system so they can effectively practice law while allowing our information governance folks to manage retention and risk? We need to make it easy.

Traditional document management systems don't make it easy. Many of us have spent thousands of dollars to purchase add-ons that provide necessary functionality that doesn’t currently exist or is slow to be developed in the native application. A few vendors have heard the cry for simplicity and are reinventing solutions to help change the way we work.

Partner with a consultant to identify and evaluate vendors that are straying away from the traditional document management systems like NetDocuments and iManage to see what will work for your firm.  Each vendor has their own unique approach to providing what lawyers want—a simple, easy-to-navigate interface that displays documents, e-mails, images, and other client-related information.

Changing your document management system isn't a simple task but in our extremely competitive legal environment, it is a change you must consider. So how do we tackle this change? Make sure you can clearly articulate why you are considering change. First convince yourself, and then make sure the message resonates with your users. You don't want to be perceived as making a change just for the sake of change, or that you are changing something that your users don't think is broken. Approach the process with a clear understanding of your firm's tolerance for change as this may be your biggest hurdle. If your firm is reluctant to embrace change, you may need to push the envelope. Don't be afraid!

Speaking of pushing the envelope, you can't ignore the Cloud in your evaluation process. Part of making things easier for the lawyers is providing them with access to the data in the document management system from outside the office on their personal laptops or tablets. This can be accomplished using VPN or Citrix as most of us are already doing but you can't ignore Cloud-based options.

Considering Cloud solutions in your evaluation adds a layer of complexity to the conversation specifically when it comes to cost and security. Although both cost-reduction and better data security are often thought to be benefits of moving to a Cloud solution, you need to spend the time to dig deep into the reality of the details.

When it comes to cost, be sure to create models that show not only how the cost of capital infrastructure will be reallocated to hosting licenses and the potential reduction in IT support staff, but also include models that show the cost of providing your lawyers with a laptop or tablet. Although it may appear to be a significant investment, if you address the lawyers' increased accessibility to the systems and the potential increase in billable hours, it becomes a different conversation.

Security may be an even more difficult conversation than cost, specifically for those firms that have financial institutions or health care clients. Since most vendors are aware of law firm client requirements, they have gone to great lengths to implement the necessary security features. If you still have clients that insist their data be on premises, make sure the vendor(s) are able to provide a hybrid solution (both Cloud and on-premises).

Although the vendors are aware and incorporating high levels of security into their solutions, you need to understand how the industry is resolving the ethical conflict between the benefits of Cloud solutions and data security. Do your research.  The American Bar Association website is a great place to start.

Once you have tackled the difficult decisions and are ready to implement change, be clear about how and when the change will occur. Put the focus on what's in it for the users, while keeping discussions about technical and risk management benefits to a limited audience. Get your users involved and keep them engaged and informed throughout the process. Create a task force to help gather critical user feedback, and make them the liaison for communicating information back to your user base.

Document management systems, e-mail and records management systems have enabled lawyers to practice law more efficiently and effectively over the past 20 years. While the functions these traditional solutions have provided are critical, the solutions themselves are no longer enough. Lawyers need solutions that are intuitive and easy to use, while IT needs solutions that are cost effective and easier to support.  There are vendors that are providing viable solutions and it is our job to make the change.

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