Legal DMS, CMS, and ECM – What Do They Mean and Which Do You Need?

legal dms

What is a Legal DMS and Why Does it Matter?

Legal DMS. CMS. ECM.You have heard these TLA’s* thrown around at a legal technology trade show, in a blog or by your law firm’s IT department.

What do these terms mean? Do they mean the same thing?Does it matter?And should you care?

In this post we’ll cut through the semantics and de-mystify the different kinds of and terms for software that law firms use to manage documents and data.

*Three Letter Acronyms.

DMS (Document Management System)

The acronym DMS stands for Document Management System, and it’s an old-timey technology term that’s still used today. DMS’s are used by a variety of industries, including the legal industry and law firms.Therefor a Legal DMS is one that is customized for or can be used by law firms and legal departments.

The exact definition of a DMS (including a Legal DMS) is probably debatable, but generally speaking:

A Document Management System is software used to store, organize, manage and search documents and other types of content for an organization.

Which, is admittedly a bit vague.So, let’s sharpen that definition.

An organization, such as a law firm, has documents and files it needs to store.It could (and many do) store documents on an local network file server (think: “the S: drive”), or in basic cloud storage services such as Dropbox or OneDrive.

If all an organization needs is a place to create folders and put files into those folders—than those solution are likely all you need. But many organizations, specially law firms and legal departments, need more sophistication than that.

Law firms and legal departments often need tools and functions including:

  • Document version management – the ability to see, restore and compare previous versions of a document.
  • Index and search – the ability to search across and within all documents in the organization (firm).
  • OCR (Optical Character Recognition) – which converts scanned documents to text-enabled, searchable documents.
  • Document Check-Out – the ability to check documents out and restrict others from editing them.
  • Document profiling and tagging – the ability to add categories, types and tags to document to keep them organized and identified.
  • Document metadata – the ability to enter (and search for) data about the document, but that does not necessarily live in the document (think:internal comments and notes).
  • Document ID – the automatic assignment of a unique ID’s for each document.
  • Email management – the ability to save and manage emails to a particular project file or matter, alongside documents for the project/matter.
  • Matter-centricity – the process of storing and managing documents, email and other types of content by matter (vital for law firms).
  • Document Management vs Basic Cloud Storage
  • 11 Reasons Your Law Firm Needs Document Management

Law firms that need some or all of these capabilities usually graduate from a on-premise file server or Dropbox to a true Document Management System, or to a Legal DMS.


CMS (Content Management System)

So, what’s a CMS?

The acronym stands for Content Management System.Broadly speaking, and to the letter of the law a CMS is any system that stores and manages content.Content, in this context, could be anything from documents (such as Word files, PDF files, or Excel spreadsheets) to emails, to web pages.

So, the literal definition of a CMS is very similar to that of a DMS. But in practice this term has shifted to define web hosting platforms.

Have you ever heard of (or do you use) WordPress? Or Joomla or Drupal or Magento? These web content platforms are CMS’s; they fit the definition in that they store content (in this case:web sites) and provide the user tools to manage the content (in this case:design web pages and manage web sites).

So today, when someone says “CMS,” they’re almost always talking about a web site platform.

ECM (Enterprise Content Management)

So, what’s ECM?

It stands for Enterprise Content Management.(Sounds fancy, right?)

The (more-or-less) formal definition of Enterprise Content Management is something along the lines of:

A system that stores and provides tools to manage and manipulate documents across an entire organization or enterprise.

Sounds familiar right?

If the definition of an ECM sounds a lot like the definition of a DMS, that’s because… it is. In fact, they’re nearly identical.

You’ll see the term ECM used in larger organizations (hence, “Enterprise”) where an entire organization needs a central system to store and manage all content:From corporate, internal documents, to an internal Wiki, to email and other files.

ECM system typically include some sort of storage hierarchy (perhaps projects, or divisions or departments) and include tools like index and search, check-out, document version management, tagging, metadata and more.

Just like a Legal DMS.

So why the different terms?Because:Marketing.

While the exact tools found in DMS software and ECM software are almost, if not exactly identical, the term DMS is usually used to describe software used by law firms and other small-midsized organizations, and ECM is usually used to describe a system to be implemented across a larger organization.

So… Which Do I need?

Don’t let this terminology (along with their overlapping definitions) confuse you.Instead of the terminology, focus on the document/content management needs of your organization.

If you’re any flavor of organization, and you need nothing more than a basic file system (folders), then stick with your G: drive or Google Drive.

If you’re a law firm looking for a great platform to design and host your next, awesome website:You need a CMS (like the platform used by JurisPage).

If you’re a law firm that needs matter-centric storage, organization and management of documents and email, you need a Legal DMS.

Better in the Cloud

Generally speaking, life is better in the cloud.It used to be that to enjoy the benefits of a DMS you needed to buy (expensive) DMS software, buy (expensive) servers and pay an IT professional to manage the server.And after all of that, remote access and mobility was poor at best.

Not the case today. Cloud computing SaaS-based applications bring mobility, accessibility, reliability and security, all without the capital expenditure (and headaches) of dealing with on-premise servers and IT.

So if your law firm is looking to implement a Legal DMS, I recommend you begin your search in the cloud.

Epilogue – Legal DMS in the Cloud

Are you a law firm?

Are you ready to graduate from your file server or Dropbox for document management?

Or—are you using an antiquated Dinosaur DMS and need to move to something cloud-based and modern?

Take a look at LexWorkplace, our cloud-based, matter-centric Legal DMS made exclusively for law firms and legal departments.

Learn about LexWorkplace