The 9 things lawyers need from document management. Choose your ambition level here

Document management is important to lawyers. It is pretty much how they make their living – writing contracts, agreements and other types of document, that is. A law firm therefore has a great deal to gain by doing document management well.

Read here about the things you should demand of a document management system. Lars Houmann provides an overview of the levels of ambition you can choose from.

Written by:

Lars Houmann, CTO, Abakion »

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Sending Word documents back and forth by email is routine for many lawyers. This is where we will start our story – and then we will add more and more document management requirements.

Item one: versioning

The client is about to conclude an agreement with a collaborative partner, and now he sends the draft contract to his lawyer for review. Typically, it will be Word document, so the lawyer turns on ‘track changes’ and adds amendments and comments to the document.

To avoid destroying the original, we want to version the document.

With versioning, both the original and the amendments can be viewed. Then, we want the ability to track all versions throughout the process. Versioning is typically the first requirement that crops up when we discuss document management.

We want to be able to see which version of the document is current and who owns the document right now.

Classic file exchange

So, we attach the document to an email and send it back to the client – and the document may shuttle back and forth like this many times.

This is classic file exchange. If you have no document management system, this is the only way of doing it. Most lawyers think this method is cumbersome, but you have to live with it if you have no other option.

There are many sources of error.

If we have sent a new version to the other party, but have forgotten some amendments, we add them the next day and send a new version off… But, in the meantime, the other party amends the dead copy, and now suddenly we have different versions with different amendments. It’s a classic problem.

Version control is a big challenge.

Structured version control

This makes us want more structured version control, and that requires a document management system.

Now, the Word document does not just live in a folder on a network drive, but in a document management system – and, before we set about amending the document, we create a new version of it in the document management system, and then the system will keep track of the versions.

Yes, we could also have done this manually by clicking ‘Save as’ in Word and calling the file ‘Contract-version12.docx’ – but a system is much better at managing this without making mistakes.

The system ensures that the document is saved in the right place and that we can see from the document that different versions exist; it is possible to scroll back and forth between versions.

When only colleagues within the organization have access to the system, the other party still needs to have documents sent, as before. So, we still have the fundamental challenge that people outside our network without access to the document system run the risk of amending a dead copy, because they cannot see that a newer version exists.

We solve this challenge with the next document management system requirement: direct access for external parties.

Client portal

Many document management systems can provide external parties with direct access to documents. Most call this a client portal.

A client portal gives external parties read and edit access to documents. They can create new versions, they can see who is amending the document right now, and they can edit it directly.

The client portal provides a shared access point for the document, and we no longer have to send files back and forth. We no longer risk sending a file to the wrong recipient. All round, it solves a great many practical challenges.

There is just one critical point where we can make mistakes, and that is when we are adding the individuals who are to have access to the case papers via the client portal.

Simultaneous editing

We have now reached a level that a great many law firms will be satisfied with – but, if there are many of you needing to work on the same document, you need a little bit more.

There are some systems that allow simultaneous editing of documents. Then, multiple parties can read and amend the same document at the same time. It may be that you are halfway through your amendments to the document and, while you are working on the other half, another party can start considering the earlier pages.

Simultaneous editing is really neat – but you have to mind how you collaborate. All additions are visible to everyone the moment they are typed.

Sometimes, you want to write internal comments in the document or have other internal people review the document before it is released to an outside party; here, it is necessary to bear in mind that, with simultaneous editing, everything is visible immediately by default.

Simultaneous editing is particularly nifty with big contracts, where several internal staff can work on the same document concurrently. This way, a secretary can start creating the annexes and list of contents at the same time as lawyers are writing the actual content. If there is a hard deadline, simultaneous editing is indispensable.

Work offline

By default, a document system requires you to be online in order to work on documents. However, some lawyers need to work on documents whenever they want – even when offline.

Many systems offer the option of checking a document out of the system and taking it with you offline.

The system then prevents others from editing the document while you have it offline. Thus, you can take the document with you to the cottage for the weekend, and check it in when you return to the office on Monday. But, in the meantime, it is locked to other users.

Online everywhere

Conversely, some people also want to be online everywhere.

If you are out at a customer’s and need a particular document, it is handy if you can find all documents in the system via the document management facility. Some systems provide access to documents on tablets and mobiles, so you have access wherever you are.

Templates collection

We have said a lot about producing documents. Most firms have a templates collection for that purpose.

Lawyers often produce documents similar to something that has been created before, so it is really useful to have a collection of document prototypes for different types of case processing – that is, a templates collection.

Document systems cannot usually manage the templates collection the way lawyers need to use them, but it still helps if the system can work with document templates.

Free text search and tags

Having the document system support templates is one thing. Another is that, when you have started from a template and adapted it to a specific customer, it is bound to happen that a year later you get a similar case and think, ‘What was it exactly we did last time?’. It is then a real boon to be able to retrieve previous documents in an efficient manner.

Free text search is really important here. If the documents are stored on a file server, searches are very cumbersome, but many document management systems make it easier. Documents can also be enriched with metadata. 

If you attach all relevant tags to your documents, it becomes a lot easier to retrieve the right documents later on.

Built-in word processor

When introducing a document management system, it is also necessary to consider the following:

Can the other party read and edit the document at all?

For a start, this requires the other party to have access to the word processing software the document was created in. If we use Word, what do we do if we need to work with someone who doesn’t have Word? It is very irritating if the Word document comes back from someone who has edited it in OpenOffice, and everything suddenly looks strange.

The solution is that some document management systems have the editing software built in. If you use SharePoint as your document management system, for example, it also includes Word in its client portal, so the other party need not himself have Word installed in order to read and edit.

This is especially handy for lawyers with private clients, who perhaps cannot all be expected to have access to Word.

Want to know more?

We have presented nine good things that lawyers should demand of a document management solution. At heart, it is all about the ability to exchange and edit documents easily. To stop your employees getting creative on their own with Dropbox or Google Drive, it makes sense to provide a good document management solution.

We hope you are now feeling inspired to assess what level your law firm’s document management ambitions should be at. And what requirements you should set.

If you would like to know how we at Abakion tackle document management with SharePoint for Abakion Legal, give us a ring on 70 23 23 17 or write to my colleague Tom de la Cour at [email protected]