What is Law Firm Document Management Software?

law firm document management

We get asked this all the time: “What is law firm document management software?”

Fear not, it’s not a dumb question. Many, wildly different type of software and storage are often described as “document management,” and the term is often misused.

Document Management software is special software that stores, organizes, and provides tools to manage all of the documents and emails within a law firm. Law firm-centric document management software typically organizes all data by client or matter.

“So is OneDrive, or my firm’s S: drive document management?”

No. Document management software provides more rich functionality, needed by many law firms, beyond the basic file/folder systems provided with network drives and basic cloud storage.

“Okay. But do I need a law firm Document Management System?”

That depends on the capabilities your firm needs. Further confusing the issue, many basic cloud storage products self-describe as “document management. “What’s more, many law practice management applications describe their inline, basic cloud storage as “document management” (which law firms often don’t realize is untrue, or at least misleading, until it’s too late).

Semantics don’t matter; functionality does.

Core features of Law Firm Document Management Software

Generally speaking, document management software, often called a Document Management System (DMS), is special software that stores your documents and provides tools to manage them.

The ‘manage’ part of document management software’s capabilities is what sets it apart from using a basic on-premise file server or simple cloud storage.

Document management software can come in either an on-premise variety (installed on your own local servers) or can be cloud-based. Document Management Systems, by definition, usually provide many of the following capabilities.

Law Firm Document Management Software: What it Does.

Generally speaking, a law firm document management system will include the following functionality.

  • Document Storage
  • Document Tagging & Profiling
  • Full-Text Document Search
  • OCR
  • Microsoft Office Integration
  • Email Management
  • Document Check-In and Check-Out
  • Document Version Management

  • Unique Document ID
  • Permission and Access Management
  • Managing Favorite & Recent Docs
  • Windows & Mac OS Support
  • Client / Matter Organization
  • Data Encryption
  • Geographic Data Redundancy
  • Multi-Factor Authentication

Next, we’ll walk through the ins-and-outs of each of these elements of a document management system. By way of example, we’ll demonstrate how our own LexWorkplace provides each function.

Document Storage

Document storage is an important component of document management systems (DMS) that addresses how your firm’s documents are actually stored within the system.

Document Tagging + Profiling

Document tagging or document profiling is a primary element of your DMS that helps increase the accessibility of your firm’s documents. When you tag or profile a document, you give it useful attributes or designations. They may include:

  • Giving a document a Type, such as order, contract, or complaint.
  • Giving a document a Status, such as Draft, Final, or Filed with Court.
  • Giving a document additional tags, such as Urgent, or Do Not Dstroy.

These tags and attributes give your team at-a-glance info on each document, and provides additional elements that you can search by.

Full-Text Document Search

A full-text document search allows you to search the entire document for whatever it is you are looking for, and the ability to do this in a timely manner can prove invaluable. A good law firm document system allows you to search across every document and email throughout your system, and allows you to search by document content, title, date, tags, matter and client.

OCR

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is a process by which the images produced when you scan documents are converted into actual text that can be searched (in addition to being selected and copied and pasted).

Microsoft Office Integration

Any good law firm document management system will integrate directly with Microsoft Office (including Office 365). This builds document management tools right into the software that your firm uses all day (such as Microsoft Word and Outlook)

Email Management (Saving Emails to Matters)

Emails are an important element of your firm’s legal matters, and they sometimes have a way of getting lost in the shuffle. The fact of the matter is that emails often contain critical case information, and having a robust email management system in place can be game-changing.

Proper email management allows you to save emails directly to a matter (alongside documents). This simple but powerful capability keeps every client file or matter organized and quickly accessible to your entire team.

“Managing” client and matter-related emails in Outlook folders (or with Gmail tags) is problematic for a whole host of reasons.

  • Creating Outlook folder per-client or matter is manual and laborious
  • Emails you save in your Outlook folders aren’t accessible to your team
  • Email duplication between users is rampant
  • Saved emails live apart from other matter-related content

What’s more, a great law firm email management system will allow you to organize emails into folders and subfolders. For instance, one client matter alone may include thousands of emails. You’ll want the ability to organize emails by sender, subject, or some other categorization of your choosing. Some DMS platforms simply “dump” emails into a single folder; the best solutions give you advanced tools to keep emails organized.

Document Check-In and Check-Out

Checking a document out is often a useful capability; doing so keeps a document locked (temporarily prohibiting other users from editing it) while you work on a document over an extended period of time. This prevents conflicts or one person overwriting another’s work.

Some document management systems require a check-out upon editing each document, others (like LexWorkplace) are more flexible, and make checking out documents an optional process.

Document Version Management

A good law firm document management system will automatically maintain versions of each document as changes are made over time. Robust systems will, behind the scenes, create a new version after each edit, and will maintain an audit trail of who made what edits, and when.

The best document management systems will allow you to review prior versions, and even add comments to each iterative version, so you can quickly see what’s notable about each document version.

Unique Document ID

Many firms find it useful for every document to have it’s own permanent and unique ID. This gives every document (and email) in your system it’s own “Social Security Number,” so that users can identify a document even if it’s been moved, renamed or significantly changed.

Permission and Access Management

Controlling permissions and access is critical to the work that law firms do, and as such, guiding this process and dictating how permissions are inherited from parent folders (according to your prioritization system) is a must.

Managing Favorite and Recent Documents

Your firm has certain cases and files that you work on most frequently, and managing access within favorite and recent documents can help keep your workflow running smoothly.

Windows & Mac OS Support

Most law firm document management applications either only work with Windows, or offer only limited Mac support. Even if your law firm is entirely Windows/PC-based, you may find that many of your firm’s employees use Macs at home (or would like the option to work from a Mac computer.)

Some document management software companies claim to be compatible with Macs, but upon closer inspection you’ll find that either:

  • Only some functions work on a Mac, but not all, or
  • Mac “support” is provided by requiring Parallels or running a full Windows virtual machine on your Mac

We encourage law firms to consider both Windows and Mac when planning to implement a document management system.

Client / Matter Organization

Generic, industry-neutral document management software often forces you to organize your documents into “workspaces” or “projects.” This forces you to retro-fit generic software to fit your law firms.

A law firm-specific DMS, on the other hand, works the way you do: Everything will be (first) organized by client, then by matter/case/project. This matter-centric organization helps keep documents and email organized and relevant.

Data Encryption: In-Transit and At-Rest

It’s vital to keep your firm data and your client data secure.

A good law firm document management system will keep all data completely encrypted, both in-transit and at-rest. A good document management system will maintain this security automatically, for all documents, every time a new document or email is saved to the system.

  • “Encryption in transit” it refers to protecting data when it is in motion (moving between your firm’s site and the cloud, for example, or from one service to another).
  • “Encryption at rest” refers to maintaining encryption of your firms data while it is stored within a cloud platform (including backup copies).

Geographic Data Redundancy

Storing more than one copy of your data is paramount. There are far too many occasions (both planned and unplanned) in which data is vulnerable to loss and corruption, including:

  • Hardware failures
  • Power or network outages
  • Natural disasters

For this reason, we urge law firms to make sure that their chosen law firm document management software has built-in geographic redundancy. That is, that all of your firm’s data is automatically replicated (backed up) to servers and data centers in different regions of the country.

Multi-Factor Authentication

In this day and age, Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is considered essential. MFA is a mechanism that validates that anyone/everyone logging into your system is who they say they are. In other words, MFA adds a second “security check” beyond just a username/password combination.

This is most commonly implemented in the form of a simple mobile app. After you log into any given software (such as LexWorkplace), a third-party app prompts you, on your phone, to verify that it is you logging in. This simple but effective technology will keep intruders out, even if your password has been compromised.

How to Choose the Best Law Firm Document Management Software for You

Your law firm is unique, and the best law firm document management software for you will address your firm’s unique needs. Committing to a DMS provider is a decision that is worthy of careful consideration.

Next, I present a checklist of how to go about finding the perfect document management system for your law firm.

Maybe your firm already has a document management system. Is it keeping up with technology, and with your firm? Or is it a Dinosaur DMS?Document management software of yesteryear tended to be premised based, which means that they are expensive, require on-premise server infrastructure and usually require a lot of outside consultants/expertise.

The newest generation of DMS, on the other hand, tends to be cloud-based, which means you don’t have to shell out cash for your server’s infrastructure and that you can take your act on the road.

Cloud-based document management platforms provide all of the following advantages:

  • It can be accessed on a web browser from anywhere and on any device.
  • It doesn’t require costly and inconvenient setup and management by a consultant.
  • It doesn’t require the installation of software
  • It provides a modern, clean interface

One of the primary benefits of cloud-based DMS is that it is updated with up-to-the-minute functionality on a regular basis – keeping your system perpetually relevant with no fuss, no muss on your end. In a word, having cloud-based DMS is liberating.

If you aren’t super sure what the difference between practice management and document management is, you are not alone. Many firms don’t understand the difference, and make a buying decision… only to find out they bought the wrong kind of software. What makes this problem worse is that many practice management software providers describe “document management” as one of the software’s feature… but use this term liberally when describing what is, in effect, basic cloud storage and nothing more.Practice Management software usually provides:

  • Time & Billing
  • Calendaring
  • Contact / Client Management
  • (Sometimes) Accounting
  • (Sometimes) Form/Document Creation/Assembly
  • (Sometimes) Basic Document Storage

Whereas Document Management software provides all of the rich functionality we described above. We’ve seen many law firms purchase a new Practice Management system, assume that it has “document management built in” (due in part to sometimes misleading or unclear language on the software website), only to find out the software does not include things like:

  • Full-text Search
  • Email Management / Outlook Integration
  • Document Profiling / Tagging
  • Document Check-Out / In
  • Document Version Management
  • Document Folders / Organization

For this reason, we urge law firms to understand the differences, and slight overlap, in these two categories of law firm software.

It cannot be overstated that your firm is unique and that it has unique needs. In fact, within your firm, you have attorneys, paralegals, and/or support staff who perform their own unique jobs and have their own unique document management needs.The more carefully you assess the big picture when it comes to your team and their document management practices and needs (such as those listed in Core Features above), the better equipped you’ll be to pinpoint your DMS needs and to implement the right DMS for your firm.

We recommend that you gather input from all members of your firm, and ask:

  1. What features would you like to see in a new document/email management system?
  2. Where are the biggest bottlenecks in your daily workflow?
  3. What takes up the most time in your workday?
  4. What are the driving limitations of your current document management system?

We recommend you make a checklist, or a wish-list of things, in your new law firm document management software that are:

  1. Critical (Must-Have’s)
  2. Important (Nice-To-Have’s)

These lists become your roadmap and your compass as you evaluate law firm document management software.

If we learned anything in 2020, it’s that legal work doesn’t always happen in the office. Whether you’re working from home, are meeting with a client somewhere other than your office, are on the road, are in court – or are a firm with a virtual office, to begin with – you need nearly instant access to your documents, and your DMS has to be on point. We recommend cloud-based document management software, which will allow you to access documents and work:

  • From the Office
  • From a Client Site
  • From Home
  • From the Courthouse

And more.

Cross-platform compatibility is a must. We’re all going every which way these days, and DMS that isn’t compatible across platforms isn’t going to cut it. LexWorkplace, for example, incorporates complete Mac OS and Windows compatibility.Running into issues with incompatibility can really slow you down. Whether your staff is working outside the office, from home, while traveling, or between offices, compatibility shouldn’t be an issue, and with cloud-based DMS, it won’t be.

You are a law firm, and this means that your data security is paramount, and this is never truer than when the data in question is client data.With rising data breaches and the mayhem created by natural disasters, security and data backup is becoming the lynchpin of document management systems.

If the DMS candidates you’re considering don’t boast security that is both state-of-the-art and best-in-class, it’s time to keep looking. Refer to the next section – Law Firm Document Management: Data Security – for a due diligence checklist.

Law Firm Document Management: Data Security

Document management and data security go hand in hand – or they should. The only way document management can perform the way you need it to perform is if it incorporates the level of data security required.

As a law firm, your security requirements are immense, and as such, there are several non-negotiable data-security points you should require of your DMS.

  • Data Encryption In-Transit
  • Data Encryption At-Rest
  • Geographic Data Redundancy

  • Multi-Factor Authentication
  • Secure Architecture (Secure Code)

How Do You Know When It’s Time to Invest in – or Upgrade – Your Law Firm’s Document Management Software?

If you’re wondering whether it’s time to upgrade – or invest, to begin with – in document management software, it’s a pretty good sign that it is.

If you need more direction, consider all of the following, and if any sound familiar, it’s time to get cracking on finding the right document management software for your firm.

It’s very common for a folder-filing system (that starts out small) to evolve into a massive endeavor that no longer comports with rhyme and reason, and that resembles nothing so much as the lawless wild west. With a cloud-based DMS in your corner, you can bring law and order back to your folder structure.

Emails are often critical to legal matters, but law firms have traditionally embraced clunky, outdated means of managing them within the context of their corresponding files.If the system you use incorporates Outlook folders that leave the emails therein accessible only to the files’ creators or accessible only by manually saving them to PDFs, which are then saved to the filesystem, it’s time to step forward into the light.

Finding the documents you need for the case you’re working on shouldn’t be a journey. If you have to hunt for every document, attorney note, and email, it’s time to upgrade your DMS game.LexWorkplace, for example, indexes every single word of every single document, note, and email – providing your firm with your own private Google Search equivalent.

You’ve got the documents you need, but accessing them when you need them can be a trick. With document management services like LexWorkplace, you can define your documents, apply categorizations, including type and status, attach unique document tags to them, and keep all those documents that you return to again and again uber accessible and organized.

On-premise servers bind you to the office, and that’s not the way we work anymore. To complicate matters further, on-premise servers are expensive, clunky, always in need of a boost from IT, and are busy becoming obsolete as soon as they are installed.Further, the security you’re afforded by your on-premise server is only as robust as the proactive security measures you implement in the first place. Cloud-based DMS, by contrast, cycles through a continual loop of improved security measures.

It’s 2021, and security is king. Your firm cannot move forward without state-of-the-art data security, and if you’re still using an on-premise file server, you’re not moving in the right direction. With cloud-based DMS like those offered by LexWorkplace, you’ll have comprehensive, up-to-the-minute security right out of the gate.

If you have data everywhere, it makes finding what you need when you need it more of a guessing game than a matter of convenience and ease. With the kind of DMS offered by LexWorkplace, all of your documents come together in one space that is organized by client and matter number and that is easily accessible at the touch of a key or two.

Gone are the days when every law firm ran solely on Windows computers – with a few Mac firms sprinkled throughout. In fact, gone are the days when every law firm ran solely out of an office.Your documents need to be available to you regardless of the computer or device that you’re on, and the kind of DMS supported by LexWorkplace does just that.

Gone are the days when every law firm ran solely on Windows computers – with a few Mac firms sprinkled throughout. In fact, gone are the days when every law firm ran solely out of an office.Your document management tools have to keep up with your document management needs, and this includes providing everything from seamless access to recently used and favorited documents to document check-in and check-out, unique document ID, document profiling, and much more.

Closing the Loop

And there you have it. In this article, we’ve covered what a law firm Document Management System is, what to look for when evaluating a DMS for your firm, practice management vs. document management software, and how to keep your data organized.

Is your law firm exploring document and email management solutions? If so, I encourage you to take a look at LexWorkplace, or give us a call to talk more.

Onward and Upward!