A legal document management system is a system used to track, manage and store documents or cases to reduce paperwork. Most are capable of keeping a record of the various versions created and modified by different users. While many EDM systems store documents in their native file format (Microsoft Word or Excel, PDF), some web-based document management systems are beginning to store content in the form of HTML. These policy management systems require content to be imported into the system. However, once the content is imported, the software acts as a search engine so users can find what they are looking for faster. The HTML format allows for better application of search capabilities such as full-text searching and stemming.
Lawyers’ offices used to be well known for the rows of books on the shelves and the voluminous file cabinets which housed client documents. Since the advent of the digital age, however, many firms have moved much of their paper online in the form of digital documents. While some documents will always be required to be kept in physical form, many lawyers today are finding they not only can have a paper-light office but that software provides much greater access than traditional physical files.
Traditionally when we speak of documents in a law practice we’re referring to pleadings, discovery documents, forms, and letters. Today, add an email to that list. Email is not only the most common form of communication between parties in a legal matter but each email can be thought of as a document. So it should go without saying that managing documents and email is important to lawyers in every type of practice.
Implementing a document management program can increase efficiency, security, and retrieval of documents that are integral to a well-run law firm.
Benefits of Legal Document Management System
A shared file drive is not a good document management option for law firms. Neither is an email system. Most folder-based filing systems start off with the best of intentions, but can quickly fall into chaos. And using email folders as a filing system stymies your colleagues’ ability to get those files easily and leads to clogged servers and enormous personal email files, which is a particular pet peeve of administrators and IT staff. Having a document management program in place will allow you to organize all your files — email, documents, electronic media, etc. — in a way that makes finding them simple and fast.
SEARCHING FOR DOCUMENTS
Who among us hasn’t “lost” a document? You know it exists, but where it got filed is a mystery. Getting your documents organized is the first step. Organization combined with fast, simple, and powerful searching are hallmarks of a great document management program. Instead of requiring you to memorize a complex folder system in order to find a document, a document management program will allow you to quickly search for what you need with only a few pieces of data.
Document security is of supreme importance to a law firm and its clients. Not having a secure document management system is a privacy risk for a law firm and one that you should never expose your clients or your firm to. Any document management program worth its salt will be able to offer multiple levels (e.g., user, client/matter, and item) of security in order to control who can access, read, delete, and/or edit the document, both internally and externally.
DOCUMENT SHARING AND COLLABORATION
Sending documents to colleagues and clients is an everyday occurrence and sending them via email is fast and simple. However, sending documents by email is one of the biggest security risks you can take. Once the attached document is sent or forwarded to the wrong person or group of people, there is no way to get it back. If that document contains sensitive or confidential information, you’ve put yourself at risk.
There are some documents that should never be sent by email and a good document management program will give you alternatives for secure client communications. Using a client portal to send and receive documents is quick, inexpensive, easy, and safe. It allows you to have full control over who has access to the document, maintains version control and document history.
Collaborating on documents is another perk of using a document management system. Instead of emailing documents back and forth and trying to keep track of all the edits, notes, and versions, having a document management program will let you maintain the document in a shared environment so everyone can work on one file rather than having multiple versions floating around. A good document management program will keep track of all versions of the document in a single place so when you access that document, you can be assured you are working on the correct and latest version.
Paperless – The Holy Grail of the digital age. While law firms may not be able to attain a truly paperless office, with a good document management program, they can use much less paper by utilizing available technology to turn paper documents and physical media into electronic files.
Digitizing the firm’s entire history of paper files and physical media may be an overwhelming task, especially if the firm has been in business for a while. The focus instead should be to reduce the amount of physical information on a go-forward basis and only digitize any older documentation as it is “touched” in the regular course of business.
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A standardized legal document management program is one of the most important technologies that a law firm can implement. It helps to keep a firm organized, makes your document retrieval faster and more comprehensive, and it increases the security of sensitive and confidential for both firm and client. Regardless of the size of your firm, a good document management program can produce immediate benefits. It doesn’t need to be expensive or overly complex, but it does need to be embraced by the entire firm.