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6 hacks for choosing a legal document management system

By Jennifer Anderson

Unless you work in some sort of public-interest law firm, one of the biggest concerns in your workplace is the almighty billable hour. Legal support staff are under tons of pressure to cut any extraneous non-billable time. Implementing a document management system (DMS) is one of the most efficient ways to do that.  

Aside from that, however, there are a myriad of reasons to implement a DMS. From advanced search capabilities to integrated eFiling systems, the right DMS can greatly increase the productivity and security of your law firm.  

Here are a few tips to get you started on implementing one to support your firm: 

Know the rules 

While there are plenty of high-functioning document management systems created especially for law offices, you should still know and understand the rules surrounding your firm’s handling of documents. Rules about things like mandatory document retention periods, client access to documents, and security of stored documents may vary depending on the jurisdiction. Therefore, it’s critical that you research specific rules before implementing a DMS in order to ensure the system you choose complies with local requirements. 

Examine your existing system 

Before you can properly choose a DMS, you need to be able to articulate how your firm currently handles documents. That way, you’ll avoid purchasing a system that is incapable of replicating your organizational structure.  

For example, look at things like how client/matter numbers are affixed to documents, whether files are organized chronologically or in some other manner, whether emails are stored with hard copy correspondence, etc. The truth is, you probably have one or two old codgers in your firm who will resist the switch to a DMS. The more you can make your DMS reflect your manual file collection, the easier the change will be for everyone. 

Thoroughly research systems 

There is no shortage of options when it comes to picking a document management system. As with most things these days, you can easily start your research of the various systems online. In fact, there are plenty of good articles that will tell you exactly what to look for in a legal DMS. Beyond that, however, be sure to do your due diligence.  

Ask each DMS provider for a list of firms that use their product and practice in your same area of law. Call each office manager and discuss their likes and dislikes of the system. Ask if you can also speak with one of their attorneys for a few minutes to see how the “boots on the ground” users feel about the DMS. Also, don’t be afraid to ask each provider for a thorough demo. Most will be more than happy to do a presentation at your firm or walk you through an online demonstration where you can ask all the questions you may have. 

Look for additional add-ons and integrations 

If you have a litigation practice, the more you can connect existing systems to new ones the more centralized your data will be. So consider if the document management systems you’re considering offer features that could support integration with an eFiling service. 

Integrated systems can automate things like passing along billing details, updating the most recent versions of documents, and pre-populating data. 

Be mindful of security 

Law firms obviously have a greater interest in the security of documents than almost any other profession. Indeed, the Model Rules require lawyers to “act competently” in safeguarding client information. While most DMS systems designed for law firms will come with some sort of built-in security, make sure that security is sufficient for your specific practice area.  

Let’s say, for example, that your firm specializes in trade secret law. It may be necessary to restrict access to client documents to only those professionals who are actively working on a client’s case. Other safeguards may include restricting mobile access or requiring two-step user verification. Whatever system you end up using, just make sure it meets your clients’ particular security needs. 

Understand the power of metadata 

These days, most lawyers understand the concept of metadata. Put in the simplest terms, metadata is information about information. When it comes to documents that live in your DMS, however, metadata storage can become awfully useful to your practice. For example, your system may record every person who opens, reviews, prints, shares, or edits a file (and the precise times that they did so). Metadata also streamlines your document searches—allowing you to search for the precise document you need in a variety of ways.  

In sum, the added efficiencies of a legal DMS make these systems a must-have for modern law firms. If your firm doesn’t have one yet, chances are it will be in short order. These hacks should help you in doing the preliminary research on what will work best for your firm now so that you’re prepared to choose the tools that work for your firm’s needs.  


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