What is Legal Document Management?

September 8, 2016In Document ManagementBy Dennis Dimka
Legal document management with documents all over the place with umbrella and businessman

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It may be remedial to some but we’re asked by law firms all the time: What is Document Management? What is a DMS (Document Management System)? And, what is Legal Document Management? In this post we’ll answer these questions, and why the answers matter to a law firm.

What Is Document Storage?

To define Document Management we need first need to contrast it with basic Document Storage. Document Storage is just that—a place to store documents, usually organized into folders. Your computer’s hard drive is document storage. A file server is document storage. A shared server drive (like an “S:/ drive”) at your office is document storage. Cloud-based storage such as Dropbox and Google Drive are also Document Storage—just stored in the cloud rather than your local computer or office server.

Document storage is a place to save documents to retrieve later, and potentially share with others, nothing more, nothing less. Nothing happens to these documents while they’re in storage, and the users can’t do anything with the documents apart from viewing and editing them.

What is Document Management?

If you think of basic Document Storage as passive, you can think of Document Management as active. Document Management is achieved by a Document Management System, often abbreviated as DMS. (We in technology love our acronyms.)

A Document Management System provides the user, such as a law firm, with tools to manage, organize and otherwise make (more) useful the documents for the firm. Specifically, a DMS does things that simple Document Storage doesn’t. For instance, features like:

  • Version Management, which allows users to see each iteration of a document, and also view, restore or compare previous versions of every document.
  • Document Check-Out/In, which allows users to check documents out, keeping others from making changes to it.
  • Index and Search, a robust DMS will index every document and email stored within it, making all content immediately searchable. Document Management Systems index all of the firm’s documents much like how Google indexes the entire internet.
  • Automatic OCR. More powerful Document Management Systems will include integrated, automatic OCR, which converts scanned documents or image-based PDF files to text-enabled documents. This ensures all documents, including scanned PDF files, are index and searchable.
  • Scan and Fax integration. Some Document Management Systems will integrate directly with your firm’s scanners and fax machine (or fax service). This streamlines workflow by having scanned documents go directly to your DMS, where it can be filed to the appropriate matter.

Related: Document Management vs. Practice Management

What is Legal Document Management?

Document Management Systems—software that performs Document Management— are designed for many industries including financial services, medical and the legal industry.

Legal Document Management, or a Legal Document Management System, is a DMS fine-tuned to the special needs of a law office. We often caution law firms of implementing general-purpose DMS systems which tend to be designed for the masses, not just law firms, and as such miss the mark on legal-specific functionality.

Legal Document Management Systems include functionality like:

  • Matter-centricity. A matter is the hub of a law firm’s workflow, so the epicenter of a Legal Document Management System should be the matter. A matter-centric DMS allows the user to create a matter, which acts as a virtual file cabinet to store (and manage) documents, email and notes for that matter.
  • Email Management. In the practice of law, an email is a document like any other. Therefor its important that a law firm’s Document Management System can store, index and manage email as it does documents. A good, legal-centric DMS will integrate with Microsoft Outlook and allow the law firm’s staff to fluidly save emails directly to a matter.
  • Document Types & Tagging. Law firms work with all kinds of documents: motions, orders, pleadings, complaints, contracts and so on. Its important to identify the exact type of each document in your DMS; this is done with the process of tagging (sometimes called profiling) a document. Categorizing documents in this way is useful for a variety of reasons, including the ability to see all documents of a certain type across your database, as well as to quickly assess the type or nature of a document at a glance.

What is legal document management? In sum, it is a tool to specifically help law firms easily organize, access, and work with their documents in the day-to-day practice of law in a more effective fashion than a generic document management system or document storage.

Does Your Firm Need Legal Document Management?

So we’ve covered what Document Management is, how it differs from simple Document Storage, and what Legal Document Management is. So naturally the question becomes: Does your firm need Legal Document Management?

To answer that question, ask yourself:

  • Do you need matter-centric organization of your firm’s documents?
  • Does your firm struggle to keep document organization consistent?
  • Do you need the ability to manage versions of documents as they evolve?
  • Do you need a process to check documents out, keeping them from being edited?
  • Would you like scanned images to automatically be OCR’d (as opposed to leaving this to the discretion of individual employees)?
  • Do you need to streamline your firm’s workflow by having scanners (or fax) import directly to your storage system?
  • Is your firm outgrowing “the S: drive”, or the simple cloud storage of a DropBox or Google Drive?
  • Does your law firm want to go paperless, and eliminate the mass (and unmanagability) of paper files? (Related: Achieving a Paperless Law Office.)

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, your firm should take a serious look at implementing a Document Management System.

Related: 11 Reasons You Need Document & Email Management.

Better in the Cloud

To wrap things up, one final consideration: the cloud. Legacy Document Management Systems required a (powerful) onsite server to run, which required maintenance, updates and local IT support to keep up and running. Today, the best Document Management Systems are cloud-based, which provides a higher degree of security and accessibility. And best of all: no server required.