GPSolo Magazine - December 2003
Documents are the lifeblood of the legal profession. If you’re not properly managing them, it could be you’re not properly managing your practice—and that is not a good thing. I’m sure you create several new electronic documents each day and edit a multitude of others. But “documents” in today’s world can also include e-mail messages to clients (which are as “official” as a written letter), spreadsheets, presentations, PDF files, HTML web pages, and database files. If you don’t have a solid, effective process for managing all of these, you could be falling short of your ethical responsibility to your clients and others. Fortunately, there is plenty of help available, in the form of document management systems (DMS).
Document management is simply a process for organizing, managing, and keeping track of documents so you can find them when you need them. DMS refers to software applications that act as virtual document repositories, keep track of the relationships between documents, and allow you to readily search and retrieve files.
Anyone who creates and saves a document on a computer practices a form of document management. When you save a file, you have to decide where to store it and what to call it. DMS applications take this idea a step further and let you “profile” each file. For example, you can tag each document with a client/matter number, document type, author, creation date, or even comments, and call it up by accessing any of these markers. Integrating a DMS into your practice can give you a powerful grip on the information used in your practice.
Can’t Documents Take Care of Themselves?
People often ask me why they should invest in an application for document management when their homegrown method of naming files and saving them in shared folders works well already. The truth is, that system can work well for individuals, but it’s not flexible enough for sharing documents among several people.
The biggest advantage of a DMS is increased productivity. No one enjoys frantically searching for a lost document. A DMS application can immediately find a document by entering only one of the markers. Because you’re unlikely to stop producing electronic documents anytime soon, getting a handle on your document collection now makes sense—searching for a lost one is only going to get worse.
Many DMS applications also will index documents so that every word in every document is completely searchable. This feature will pay for itself when you need a document that you know references a specific phrase or word. A DMS application will also bolster the security and confidentiality capabilities of your law practice. If you have a document that should be accessible only to you and your secretary, you can lock everyone else out. This is helpful when a colleague must be screened out of a particular case or matter.
When you have several users in your office, document storage becomes important. Most DMS applications are installed on a networked server to give everyone access to all documents. Electronic document storage also is often much less expensive than physical storage of those documents in filing cabinets, boxes, or off-site storage facilities.
Another great advantage of using a DMS application is versioning. When you circulate review copies of electronic documents for revisions or comments, you can save the annotated documents as separate versions of the original document. Each version retains its own comments, and all contributors know which version is most current.
Overall, a DMS gives you better control over how documents are handled, secured, and stored. Most DMS applications allow you to “check out” documents when you travel so you can work on them locally (off the network) on a laptop. This effectively locks out others from making changes to the document while you’re out of the office. When you get back into the office, simply check the documents back in and save them as either the original or updated version.
Choosers Can Be Picky
Don’t feel overwhelmed at the thought of rolling out a DMS all by yourself. A project like this is not something to take lightly, and successful implementation requires cooperation from everyone in your office. Fortunately, technology consultants easily can walk you through the whole project. A reputable consultant has the experience and knowledge to make sure the DMS is a success, because this type of change must work properly right out of the box. A good consultant will take the time to observe the process you already have in place to coordinate it with the final implementation of the DMS.
The first step in DMS implementation is determining what information should be saved in the system. Word or WordPerfect documents are an obvious pick, but you also might consider saving e-mail messages, attachments, spreadsheets, and presentations. Many DMS applications will launch automatically when you hit the “Save,” which ensures there are no strays hidden in folders or on hard drives. Also determine the field information that should be associated with each document; you don’t want this to be too complicated, but each document should have at least a client/matter number, if only for internal uses. Other fields like author, date created, and document type can give users multiple options for narrowing down searches.
Lastly, consider the hardware requirements of a DMS. If you have several users that need access to the DMS, you may have to purchase an extra server to run the software properly.
A Superb DMS Choice
There are a variety of DMS applications on the market (the most prominent products are from Hummingbird, www.hummingbird.com, and iManage, www.imanage.com), but the best recommendation for small firms and solo practitioners is Worldox 2002 from World Software Corporation ($395 per concurrent user plus an additional annual user maintenance fee, www.worldox.com). Although it’s possible for Worldox 2002 to run on your hard drive, this is not recommended because the application needs its own computer to effectively index documents. The biggest appeal of Worldox is that it doesn’t require an SQL backend; if it did, you would need to hire someone with a database management certificate to effectively configure the system. (SQL is a specialized query language for databases that cost a good amount of money to implement.)
Worldox does a fantastic job saving e-mail messages and was ahead of the curve with the “drop-zone” feature, which lets you drag and drop messages to save them within the DMS. All DMS applications now offer this, given that e-mail messages are just as important as letters to clients. Many small firms and solo practices, however, get by just fine with the document management tools embedded within their case/practice/time management applications, such as Time Matters (www.timematters.com) and Amicus Attorney (www.amicusattorney.com).
Brett Burney is the legal practice support coordinator at Thompson Hine, LLP, in Cleveland, Ohio. You can e-mail him at Brett.Burney@ThompsonHine.com.