Traditionally when we speak of documents in a law practice we’re referring to pleadings, discovery documents, forms, and letters. Today, add email to that list. Email is not only the most common form of communication between parties in a legal matter, but each email can (and should) be thought of as a document. So it should go without saying that managing documents and email is important to lawyers in every type of practice.
Enter Document Management. For those that find the term fuzzy: let’s define a Document Management System (DMS) as storage, organization, categorization, annotation, and retrieval of documents related to a client and/or a matter.
Storage vs. Management
(A simple cloud drive is not good enough)
To really dig into what a document & email management system does and why it’s critical to law practices of all sizes, we should contrast storage with management.
Document or file storage is just that–a place to put documents. Your PC or laptop is a document storage system. Your company’s shared network drive (IE: “the G: drive”) is storage. DropBox and Google Drive are both storage. You can store files there, organize them into folders, open them later, and share them with others. Nothing more, nothing less.
Document management is the storage of documents and files plus meaningful and useful tools to help you use the documents. Document & email management systems help law firms organize, annotate, search, retrieve, and share documents; they keep lawyers efficient and effective.
Everything for a Matter in One Place
One of the major reasons every law firm ought to have a document & email management system is matter-centricity. Without a proper management system, case information, documents, email, and other data is likely scattered throughout several disjointed systems. For example: case data in your legal software, documents in DropBox or a network share, email in Outlook or Gmail. A legal-centric document & email management system organizes everything for a particular case or client–documents, email, case information, notes– in one place.
A Document Management System will also help your law firm go paperless. Having a paperless law firm isn’t just just achievable–its a good idea. Going paperless will save you space and more importantly will save your law firm countless hours of time searching for hardcopy documents.
Related: How to Achieve a Paperless Law Office.
Document & Email Management Must-haves for Attorneys
When evaluating a document & email management system, it’s important to note that not all are created equal or specifically for law firms.
A document & email management system for your law firm should include the following functionality:
- Cloud-based. Unless you’re a very large firm, the cost and burden of an on-premise document management system is unnecessary. The cloud is economical, flexible, and scalable.
- Matter-centric. As a law firm your document management system should be matter-centric: All documents, emails, and files related to a client and matter, organized and retrievable in one place.
- Email Management. A good document management system should also be an email management system. It should include the ability to save emails to your matters, allowing you to search email messages and attachments, and capture data such as sender, recipient, and timestamp.
- Microsoft Office Integration. You shouldn’t have to leave Microsoft Office to save a document or an email to your Document Management System. You should be able to save Microsoft Word documents to a matter from within Word. Your email management system should also integrate directly with Outlook, allowing you to drag and drop emails to a specific matter without leaving your Outlook inbox. Tight Office integration is key to an effective Document Management platform.
- Versioning. A good document & email management system will keep a copy of each document’s version every time a change is made, so you can quickly review previous versions. The system should also keep a history of who made each change, and when.
- Check-In/Check-Out. A staple of any document management system is check-in-/out functionality. Checking out a document marks it as “in use”, if you plan to work with a document for an extended period of time, and don’t want others to modify it. Checking a document out/in also creates a history of who did what with a document, and when.
- Scan & Fax Integration. To reduce physical paper, you should be able to scan directly into your DMS, saving you extra steps of scanning, uploading, and then categorizing scanned documents. Ideally, your DMS can also serve as your fax inbox, so new incoming faxes are stored directly in the proper folders.
- Deadlines. Every practice must deal with some form of deadlines. A good, legal-centric document & email management system will allow you to assign deadlines to any document you store anywhere in the system, then see an aggregate of upcoming document-specific deadlines in a single report or dashboard.
- Notes & Metadata. Two fundamental DMS components are notes and metadata. Metadata is additional information stored not in a document, but rather about a document. This gives you and your team the ability to make private, internal notes, comments, and categorization entries on any document.
- Audit Trail. Who last changed this document? What did they update? When did they do it? A good document management system will keep a detailed audit trail of every change to every document in the system, should you need to review it.
- Fast Index & Search. For many law firms the most important factor of a document & email management system is the ability to quickly search (and find) important documents. A good DMS will index every document and email–including the contents–and return search results in seconds.
With so much at stake it’s easy to see why a Document & Email Management system is crucial for law firms large and small. And finding the right legal-centric solution can be difficult. We recommend reviewing LexWorkplace, a cloud-based document and email management solution built exclusively for law firms.