Document management systems (DMS) are a mainstay and term of art for a category of legal systems. Law firms handle vast volumes of data and must keep this client data secure. Most law practices have evolved from paper-based management systems to electronic systems, taking advantage of cloud storage for documents. As firms went electronic during the pandemic—in many cases without a plan—it has been challenging for people on the team to find or collaborate on documents. By utilizing newer, effective document management tools, firms can achieve balance—keeping their documents secure while allowing easier accessibility and searchability to those with secure permissions to work on documents.
Firms should first focus on using standard naming conventions to simplify both saving documents to the system and later searching for documents. You do not want each person naming documents their own way, so that others in the firm cannot quickly discern the general contents of the document. If your practice is inclined to add the date to the title, a prefix convention of year-month-day makes it easy to sort chronologically. Standardizing abbreviations also greatly helps. For example, having discrepancies between “Letter,” “Ltr” and “Ltr.” prevents the ability to run a simple search for the standard term. Systematizing the file folders is also helpful, especially if you create a template folder with named subfolders. Too many firms waste time trying to figure out which is the final version of a document. There are more robust systems with versioning, but for regular systems, use a regular workflow, such as always saving the final version as a PDF.
Next, firms should employ the power of metadata—data that supplies information about other data and has an array of utilities. Metadata can be useful for areas like targeted searching, saving you the time of wading through hundreds of search results. For example, adding hashtags/tags adds a wealth of information about each document and helps make up for the limits inherent to every file naming system. (As a few examples, you could add tags for practice areas like #medmal, for document subtypes like #interrogatory, or for items to flag as critical, like #important or #hotdoc.) Besides internal uses, metadata can also provide fuller context on documents received from your clients and from opposing parties. Many native format document types have associated metadata that fills in the background, such as who created the file, when it was created and changed, what the contents and properties are, and where and how it was saved. You can see how metadata would be helpful during litigation, both in producing material from your party or from analyzing productions from other parties, as you can home in on areas like custodians, date ranges, keywords, which documents had associated attachments and much more. Also, for those who continue to handwrite notes on legal pads, you can scan in those notes to your note-taking system and tag it with key terms in the metadata.
Within legal DMS, metadata has expanded use. For example, it can work alongside AI for predictive email filing. DMS can employ metadata as filters, which coupled with their robust search capabilities, greatly simplifies finding the document you seek in seconds, rather than trying to search through numerous folders if you couldn’t find it by file name. For example, saved searches allow you to set searches for such routine tasks as running a search for all the documents you’ve worked on within a past set time frame, or all documents flagged with a certain term like “keyword” or “custodian.”
Searching with metadata filters out the wheat from the chaff. Some robust systems have predictive profiling, which when saving the document, calls for certain metadata fields to be filled in for easier search later. You can employ templates on these profiles or trigger a decision tree to appear when a certain code is entered. For example, if parties are working back and forth on agreements, a document coded as “final” may trigger a subsequent set of custom fields such as Date Executed, Date Expires, Term Type, Signatories and other information needed to capture only for final agreements.
DMS solve other common issues for legal practices by having all data centrally combined with the matter, clarity on versions and more efficient document editing collaboration. Some practices communicate about documents or matters through external communication systems like email or Slack, and then try to pull those communications into the matter. This risks not having all the documents, including substantive emails and attachments, all saved with the associated matter. It is also a far less efficient communication process. By contrast, having a DMS eases the capture of running commentary and edits to documents alongside the matter files. There are collaboration tools such as threads (channels), integrations with email systems that use predictive filing for saving documents, and integrations with tools that allow for simultaneous co-authoring.
- Document management and storage is enhanced by tools and features—such as version control, full-text search, access controls/permissions, archiving and retention, document assembly, document indexing, contract management, compliance tracking, file type conversion—alongside a variety of collaboration tools.
- Document management can be a boon for contract management and organization of ongoing reporting, with the ability to add comments, filters and categories, which are enhanced by versioning and indexing tools. As an example, simplify the time-consuming and sometimes arduous creation of closing binders with tools like NetDocuments’ SetBuilder.
What System is Right for Me?
All practices are enhanced by workflows that prioritize strong document management but needs depend in part on volume. Some legal entities will benefit from employing organized document management concepts (like consistently using standard file naming, systemized folder structures and using metadata tags and filters) for nonlegal specific systems like the applications in Microsoft 365 Business, especially in OneDrive and SharePoint. Some law firms will find that the document management functionality within their law practice management systems, enhanced by secure client portals, can be sufficient for their needs.
Small- to medium-sized firms, especially those that deal with large volumes of documents, may be looking for more features such as robust security, searchability and other functionalities that come with a centralized system. A true DMS’s enhancement of productivity may be worth the increased costs and benefits of such systems. Standard-bearers for the legal industry have long included NetDocuments, Worldox (World Software) and iManage for small and midsize firms. For the same reasons, large firms or corporate legal departments may also want to employ enterprise solutions offered by those platforms and other standard bearers.
It is important to remember that an organization’s needs are individualized. Assess workflows and think about what practice area most needs improvement. For example, examine search accessibility: Can it be enhanced with metadata? How are team communications tied to specific documents being saved and tracked? Are documents saved in an efficient and thorough manner? What levels of security features are needed (including profile or customized access permissions that enhance ethical walls)? Would the solution provide time-saving tools that would be critical for the firm’s practice areas?
In sum, think critically about the limits of your current system. How much time does it take to find the indecipherably named or randomly stored document sought? Does your team often perform tasks that would be significantly enhanced by DMS functionality? Tools can enhance the workflows, but no tool can solve everything. Consider the savings, costs, return on investment and improvements DMS can make in your organization. And remember, improving your document management processes and tools can help your team manage documents and share knowledge regardless of where they are physically working.