We see it repeatedly: A law firm’s local file server has reached its end of life and has become a headache to maintain. So the firm looks to the cloud to modernize its file storage and document management. Wouldn’t it be great to get rid of that server and be able to access documents from anywhere?
A solution search often leads the firm to “public cloud” services like DropBox, OneDrive, or Box. The firm transitions to one of these consumer-grade cloud storage services, only to find its functionality, security, and reliability woefully lacking.
- 1 The Problem with Consumer-Grade Cloud Storage
- 2 Features of a True Document Management System
- 3 Defining Document Management Software
- 4 When Do You Need Legal Document Management Software?
- 5 Why Should You Add Document Management Software To Your Law Firm?
- 6 7 Benefits of Document Management Software
The Problem with Consumer-Grade Cloud Storage
Consumer-grade cloud storage services, such as DropBox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and Box, are designed for home and consumer use, not for businesses, and certainly not for the sophisticated needs of law firms. These products:
- Lack of structure or matter-centric organization. Rather, they become unorganized dumping grounds for files and folders, leaving the organization to the discretion of each law firm member.
- Lack of security and compliance. Many of these services do or can replicate your data to overseas data centers, creating data sovereignty and ethical issues. Additionally, most services lack the document audit trails some compliance standards require.
- Lack of document management features beyond simple storage, including version management, indexing, search, metadata, and more.
- Attempt to sync data to each user’s computer. A fundamental problem with all of these services is they attempt to synchronize to each of your user’s computers. This works okay for a couple of people, but when you get to more than a few users, the synchronization becomes inefficient and inconsistent, leading to inconsistencies in data from one person’s computer to another.
Consumer-grade services are great for personal use, quick-and-dirty storage, and sharing of files. (Even this author uses Google Drive for personal cloud storage needs.) But they are not robust, don’t scale well, and lack features most law firms require.
Features of a True Document Management System
Document Management will vary a bit depending on whom you ask to define it. Some consumer-grade cloud storage services even self-describe their products as Document Management solutions. Semantics don’t matter–what matters is the functionality your law firm requires.
A true Document Management System, or DMS, will include:
- Matter-centric document storage & management.
- Email management: Saving emails to a matter like any other document.
- Microsoft Office Integration: Saving documents directly to your DMS from the Office suite.
- Indexing & Search: Indexing is the key to locating a specific document quickly. A good DMS indexes the contents of every document (and email) so you can quickly search all content across your entire system.
- Version Management: See, compare and restore prior versions of a document.
- Check-In/Check-Out: Checking out a document prevents other users from modifying it while you are working on it.
- Favorite & Recent Documents: Quickly access your favorite and recent- documents.
- Document Profiling or Tagging: Tag or code documents as different types, such as contracts, motions, pleadings, and so forth…or a different status, such as draft or final. This functionality helps you to organize, sort, and find documents by type, status, and more.
- Document alerts: Receive notifications when a specific document is updated or changed.
Conclusion: If your law firm needs any of these features, you need a true Document Management System.
Defining Document Management Software
Before we head into our list of the top law firm document management applications, we need to define the category. Many software and services are casually referred to as “document management” but aren’t.
Legal document management software, also known as a Document Management System, is software (cloud-based or on-premise) that stores your law firm’s documents and provides a comprehensive set of tools to find, organize and manage your documents.
This is in contrast to basic file storage systems (which do little more than hold your files) or even law practice management applications that provide built-in, but basic, storage of your documents.
When Do You Need Legal Document Management Software?
If your law firm currently uses something other than a bonafide Document Management system for small law firms, you may be wondering whether you should jump into a true DMS. Or posed another way: When do you need to get dedicated Document Management software?
In our experience, a law firm should seriously consider implementing a DMS when any of the following situations are present.
1. Your Files/Documents are Fragmented and Scattered
If your firm is struggling with matter and firm documents in too many different systems (for instance: a file server, in OneDrive, and in your case management software), it’s likely time to centralize everything into a DMS. Your new Document Management System will serve as the hub of your law firm and the “single source of truth” when it comes to documents and email.
2. Your Filesystem is a Wild West of Unstructured Folders
Most basic file-and-folder systems start out well-organized enough. Perhaps you create a folder per client, per matter, or both. Inevitably, over time, not everyone in your firm follows the protocol for creating and naming folders and organizing documents… Over time, your file system becomes a mess and finding the client matter or document you’re looking for becomes a mess. A good, law-firm-centric legal document management software platform will enforce a clear Client/Matter-centric hierarchy for documents and email, keeping your data organized with 10 matters or 10,000 matters.
3. You Need to Classify and Annotate Documents
Basic file systems like file servers and simple cloud storage don’t provide much in the way of metadata. Metadata is simply a way you can apply attributes to a document that are about the document. For instance, you may want to classify a particular word document or PDF file as a motion. Doing so in a law firm Document Management System makes the document readily identifiable as a motion and allows you to filter, sort, or search for all documents of that type.
A good law firm Document Management System will allow you to apply document types, status (EG: Draft, Final, or Filed), as well as internal notes visible only to your team.
4. You Need Robust Search
Basic file systems are also notoriously bad at allowing you to search through all of your data. Suppose you have thousands of documents (or more), and even more, emails saved over the course of many years. You’ll almost certainly need the ability to search through all of your data–documents, metadata, email and notes–including the content of every document. That means every word on every page of every file. A good document management system for small law firms will give you Google-like search capability across all of your data. A really quality legal document management software platform will let you filter or search by matter, document type, author and more.
Read More: Basic Legal Compliances for Small Businesses
Why Should You Add Document Management Software To Your Law Firm?
In this article, we’ve explored all legal document management software strategies from a neutral, unbiased perspective. The truth is, however, that for most law firms, life is better in the cloud.
In the past few years, as firms have transitioned to the cloud from traditional document management systems – particularly premises-based server systems – the effect on productivity, service levels, and general efficiency has been profound.
Almost all law firms see the benefits of locating, accessing, creating, editing, saving, sharing, and storing documents more effectively by the transition to the cloud – in the process providing greater flexibility, data security and IT efficiency.
The transformational power of cloud-based legal document management software has been a key differentiator in the success of many law firms that have made the switch.
We believe it is no exaggeration to say this. Law firms that have taken the necessary steps to modernize in this way have been able to spend more time on winning cases for clients and less time on administrative and IT headaches.
7 Benefits of Document Management Software
1. Data Security
With the proper law firm Document Management platform, your data (firm data, client data) is more secure than sitting on your in-house file server. A reputable document management system for small law firms will include:
- Complete Data Encryption In-Transit
- Complete Data Encryption At-Rest
- Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)
- Geographically Redundant Backups / Data Centers
- User / Group Permission Management
Compare this level of security and compliance to your own server in-house (even an expensive, well-maintained on-premise server infrastructure). Cloud-based tools provide all the security you’ll need, often out-of-the-box.
2. Work Anywhere
It’s obvious but worth stating: Cloud-based legal document management software will enable your entire firm to work anywhere. Your team members will have the same access to client, matter and firm documents at home as they would in the office, without sacrificing security.
In today’s hybrid work environment, giving your team the tools they need to serve your clients anytime, anywhere is more important than ever.
3. Reduced Risk of Data Loss
With server-based setups, it’s easy for data loss to occur if the backup procedure is not followed, breaks down or if there is a server problem.
With a cloud-based system, there is no single point of failure. Data loss risks are lowered by storing documents in the cloud because the provider stakes its reputation on providing a stable, robust, and secure platform.
With cloud-based document management systems, your data will be automatically replicated and stored across multiple, geographically dispersed data centers.
4. Lower IT Costs and Fewer Headaches
Server-based document management systems require considerable IT oversight.
A law firm’s functionality depends greatly on reliably accessing, creating, and collaborating on legal documents. IT consultants regularly need to be called in to ensure everything is functioning smoothly.
Headaches and hiccups with server maintenance are common. This can get expensive, especially for smaller law firms. What’s more, IT problems are a huge distraction, keeping law firm managers from focusing on growing their practice and serving their clients.
With cloud-based legal document management software, there are no servers to own or manage and no software to install and keep updated on each computer.
5. Save/Manage Emails in the Same System as Documents
For many law firms, email management alone is enough to make the jump into a Document Management System for small law firms. With the right law firm DMS, you can quickly save and file relevant emails to the appropriate matter, from Outlook.
Then, all documents and email for any given matter is neatly stored in one place, searchable and accessible to your entire firm.
6. Software Updates are Automatic
As is the case with any cloud-based software, cloud-based legal document management eliminates any need to manually update the software on your server(s) and desktop computers. Cloud software publishers typically release new features (and bug fixes) on a routine basis, with no action required from you.
Cloud-based software, particularly cloud-based legal document management software, is infinitely scalable. Need more space for a big case you just took on? Chances are you can add storage in minutes. Have five new people joined your team? Add them to your software, and they’re up and running. All without the need to pay for expensive server infrastructure upgrades.
Conversely, if your needs decrease, with most cloud-based Document Management Software, you can scale resources (storage, users) down as needed and pay only for what you need.
We hope you found this guide helpful in finding the right document management system for small law firms.