Non-traditional business models with their client-centric focus are prompting firms to take a closer look at document management and its benefits
Do you think that alternative business structures (ABSs) and other non-traditional models will have different concerns about document management than traditional law firms?
William Robins, chief operating officer, Keystone Law:There’s been a lot of focus on traditional, non-traditional and ABS structures of late. There seems to be too much focus on the structure of firms and not enough time spent looking at the needs of clients. Law firms exist to meet and exceed client demands, simple. To date, a number of non-traditional firms have been clear on this, although equally it is a view shared by far-sighted traditional firms.
With that in mind it’s easy to see document management for what it should be: a tool to give a business an edge in serving clients. So for small firms and those that work rarely in teams, there’s less need to invest in a document management system (DMS). For large firms and those where teamwork is the norm the contrary is true: they need tools that can help them work in this way.
Angela Cairns, DMS manager, Marks & Clerk:The volume of cases handled simultaneously is very different in a traditional law firm from an IP firm. In an IP firm a single attorney may deal with as many as 50 cases in a month and 10-15 on a given day. This makes the typical method of filing documents, particularly emails, quite difficult. The long life of most IP cases also has an impact on storage and archiving.
Vivien Eaden, IT director, Blake Lapthorn: There are benefits that effective document management provides to all law firms. These include easier collaboration, the ability to find information easily, the ability to store information pertinent to a matter in one electronic file, supporting flexible working, reducing the amount of paper and improving information security and compliance.
Most law firms use document management in a purely matter-centric way. ABSs will be building their businesses around clients and looking to use document management in a more client-centric way.
It’s the same with IT systems in law firms. Most are built around financial ledger systems with a client element bolted on. We and other legal services providers addressing the changing legal market are putting the client at the centre.
Is it easier or harder for a small firm to keep on top of document management issues?
Robins: In many ways it is easier for small firms, simply because their requirements are modest. However, even small firms should think twice before ignoring document management. As firms grow and implement business continuity and risk management systems, the benefits of a well-structured DMS come to the fore.
Cairns: Small and large firms alike will say it is difficult to keep on top of document management issues. Large firms have issues of scale, volume and security that affect smaller firms to a lesser degree. Small firms, however, tend to have lower resources and are often less rigidly structured, making enforcement of document filing more difficult. In general, it is fair to say that the toughest issues to crack are people issues – and where you have more people you’re likely to have more issues.
Eaden: Knowledge management, collaboration and compliance as well as document management are always challenging, but they become much harder as you scale up in terms of staff numbers and geographical locations.
People have a tendency to store information using a method that suits the way they operate. Without a system that imposes rigour around structure, naming conventions and metadata it’s difficult to contain behaviour that leads to islands of information and chaos. Trying to impose structure on that chaos further down the track is a headache, so it’s important for small firms to identify the problem and deal with it early. The cost of the customisation required to fit with the way the business needs to operate may, of course, be an issue.
Are bespoke or off-the-shelf products best for document management?
Robins: Off-the-shelf should always be the starting point. Not only does this offer better value, it also offers reliability and upgradability. However, not all businesses have the luxury of buying off-the-shelf products. Unsurprisingly, software manufacturers target their products at the biggest markets so non-traditional firms, by definition, are less well-served.
Certainly, when we were looking for a DMS we quickly realised we’d need a number of features that were not commercially available and instructed our developers to customise our offering.
Cairns: In my experience, off-the-shelf products are better. The resources required to develop and maintain a bespoke system far exceed the cost of implementing an off-the-shelf solution.
The other great advantage is the ongoing development of features based on a far broader pool of use. Some bespoke tools are often necessary, though.
Eaden: There’s such a proliferation of off-the-shelf products that can be tailored to your needs now that I find it hard to conceive of producing a bespoke system for document management.
What changes do you expect to make in the next three years?
Robins: I expect it to evolve every month. One of our foundations is the use of technology to enhance the client experience. As a result I expect our DMS to be further integrated with our intranet, and to be opened up selectively to clients to promote collaborative working. I also expect it to be rolled out across a wider array of devices, irrespective of operating system.
Cairns: Within 12 months I expect our DMS will be even more critical to the business. We’ve seen a rise in the number of clients and business partners who want us to communicate electronically, many in specific ways, and we’re running a project to boost our capability there. The project also removes the need for paper files together with changes to our internal processes, more scanning and the introduction of an electronic workflow system. This will change the way we work. We’re also going to need to review our document retention policy.
Eaden: We’re already making changes to our document management function as part of the steps we’ve taken to become more client-centric in our management of internal processes and systems.
We’re integrating document management with our practice management and case management systems, CRM system, intranet, extranet and websites. Legal service providers ultimately trade in knowledge and we want to make sure we’re sharing and leveraging that.
We’ll continue improving processes and workflows so even more work is paperless, as well as developing document collaboration tools for clients. Security and audit trail issues will increase too.
It’s an immensely challenging area, but one that can provide big benefits for clients and service providers with the right investment and thought.
Case study: Forster Dean
Since our MBO in 2007 we have created a ‘virtual office’ that spans our 29 offices and links them seamlessly via our IT platform. We have one main server, back-up off-site and any member of staff can work from any office or from home. We can all dictate from our smartphones or access the system from anywhere in the world. Customers can also track the progress of their cases online from any device and have read-only access to their digital case file.
We are about to move the firm and all departments to a paperless format. This will eliminate the need for traditional file storage.
The bigger issue centres around engaging with third parties so they approach us in a similar way. A great example of this is the work our residential property team are engaged in with Birkenhead District Land Registry. We can submit applications to change the register electronically and attach scanned copies of supporting documents. When the Land Registry receives our application they process it in the same way as a paper one. They send us the completed documents electronically and we retrieve them from the Land Registry Portal. The obvious advantages are speed and a paperless, electronic audit trail.
We can point to similar advances in litigation. I’d like to help the court system embrace IT so that we can send trial bundles electronically, for example, and use Skype for interlocutory hearings. We are gradually seeing more use of electronic payment by customers and third parties such as insurance companies. I look forward to signing our last cheque.
Our knowledge management is wrapped up in our case management system. So everything is in one place and, more importantly, we have a culture of openness whereby everything is shared. Lawyers in each department have the training to upgrade the case management system and the freedom to do so. It’s the lawyers, not the IT people, who are best placed to do this.
Gregory Shields, chief executive of Forster Dean