Document Management for the Legal Profession
Law firms have unique document management needs that one-size-fits-all platforms may not address. A thriving legal practice needs more than an electronic filing system. It needs a specific feature set that supports a firm's daily activities and integrates tightly with the other software the firm relies on. In this article, we discuss the specific features and integration points that a law firm needs in order to operate a peak efficiency. We then give our recommendation for the best all-around document management system for law firms: FileCenter.
Legal Document Management Summary
- Legal document management starts with scanning & PDF support
- With legal file organization, a good layout is key
- Don't store legal files in a database
- With legal document management, compatibility matters
- Don't forget about WordPerfect
- Legal document sharing software
- Jump to our recommendation »
Legal Document Management Starts with Scanning & PDF Support
It is the one universal speed bump that every law practice runs into, regardless of practice area: a constant flow of paper documents. Firms that deal with it efficiently gain a strong upper hand. Firms that wish it away bleed out money for document storage and risk malpractice suits if they fail to harvest pertinent information from the paper.
Most document management software for law firms tacks on scanning as a convenience feature. This is a backwards approach. Why? Because scanning is potentially the least efficient task that a law firm performs. So any electronic filing system designed for law firms should bend over backwards to make scanning not an afterthought but a key feature. Scanning should be thoughtfully implemented so as to streamline every aspect of the process and strip away redundant mouse clicks wherever possible.
In the case of FileCenter, our preferred legal document management system, scanning and organizing have been woven so tightly into the platform that bringing in and filing a document can be accomplished in just a couple of mouse clicks. That includes text recognition and indexing to ensure searchability later, conversion to the universally-supported PDF format, and intelligently naming the file. For sophisticated practices, FileCenter offers total scanning automation through file content rules where documents are routed and named by analyzing the document content itself.
All scans should be saved as PDF files, the de facto standard for document archival. The need for solid PDF support, however, extends beyond scans. Many documents are best stored as PDFs.
With PDF becoming ubiquitous for legal practices, full PDF support is nearly a requirement for any good legal document management system. And by "full PDF support" we mean the ability to convert documents to PDF on-the-fly, the ability to combine PDFs with drag-and-drop simplicity, the ability to split up PDFs, the ability to preview, and even the ability to open, edit, comment on, and redact PDFs without ever leaving the software. In short, working with PDFs is such a constant, critical task for law firms that it has risen to the level of being a document management task in and of itself.
For this reason, FileCenter includes all of the aforementioned PDF features, and many others worth discovering.
Legal Document Organization, Part 1: A Good Layout is Key
Most of the legal document organizers on the market require you to "tag" files with keywords. To pull a file out of the system, you then have do a keyword search. This can work adequately if you happen to remember the right keywords. But even when it works, it requires your hand to leave the mouse so you can type. You then you have to spend some time evaluating the search results to figure out which document is the one you want. Yet odds are, while you search your unstructured data, in your mind you are envisioning a hierarchy of where the document lies in relation to a client or matter. Why? Because we are spacial thinkers.
The better approach is to use a hierarchical layout that already matches the way you think about things and, frankly, the way you already organize your paper documents: the filing cabinet. This method, refined over decades of use, lets you jump straight to the file you're looking for, almost without thinking. When we carry this idea over to the computer, it becomes even faster and more powerful. In literally just a few rapid mouse clicks, you can easily drill down to exactly the file you're looking for.
FileCenter employs just such an electronic filing cabinet layout, making it one of the most efficient legal document management offerings available. Its interface presents your files in cabinets, drawers, and folders, allowing you to navigate to documents much faster than using a search.
For those rare occasions when you can't quickly locate a document by hand, legal document search software serves as a safety net to help you scour your archives based on keyword searching in much the same way that you would search the Internet. And for discovery purposes, full-text search capability rises to the level of a required feature.
Legal Document Organization, Part 2: Flee the Database
Almost every electronic filing system on the market today will put your files in a database. But is this a good idea? Vendors lure us in with features like password security on a per-document basis, but beware the repurcussions. For instance, if there's any corruption to the database, you could easily lose all of your files. A database is more complicated to administer. Databases typically require a server with fairly robust hardware. You won't be able to use your favorite Cloud service, like DropBox, Google Drive, or OneDrive to access your files remotely. You will lose the ability to right-click on files like you can in Windows. If you rely heavily on other software packages, odds are they won't be compatible, since the files are locked out of reach in a database. And if you should ever decide to change to a different paperless document management solution, just hope that you can get your data exported from the old one.
For a cautionary tale, spend fifteen minutes reading about PaperMaster. A popular document management system in the late 90s and early 2000s, PaperMaster enjoyed a strong uptake among small firms and sole practitioners. Then PaperMaster was acquired by a larger company, left to languish for a couple of years, and ultimately discontinued. The problem was, the new company failed to give existing users a way to get their files out of PaperMaster.
Our strong recommendation is that you pick a legal document management system that stores your files in regular Windows folders. This will ensure that you'll always have access to your files, from any program, even if you later abandon that platform. Besides avoiding every drawback of a database, perhaps the biggest benefit is that you will be able to enjoy nearly unrestricted integration options. Leading to our next point ...
With Legal Document Management, Compatibility Matters
One of the biggest drawbacks of database-driven legal document management platforms is their inability to integrate cleanly with other programs. For instance, suppose that your favorite time and billing software comes from an obscure vendor. No document management platform you've found will let you save time sheets and invoices straight into the system. You usually end up having to "print" documents into the system or save them into some sort of inbox for later importing. Which may seem acceptable once or twice, but when you repeat this same process over and over, the inefficiencies start to add up. Multiply this by every other piece of legal-specific software you use: legal case and statute searches, public records retrievals, legal document preparation software like HotDocs, and on and on and on, and you quickly discover that tightly integrating your legal document management into every task you perform matters ... a lot.
FileCenter, happily, has features that allow it to tie into the Save/Open dialogs that all programs use, making it possible to save any kind of file or document directly into the system and, conversely, open files from the system back into their native applications, regardless of what program you're using. And for when you want to store reports or other documents as PDF files, FileCenter provides both a PDF print driver and native ability to convert most kinds of files into PDF with just a couple of mouse clicks.
Legal Document Management for WordPerfect
Ahhh, the Word vs. WordPerfect debate. Word users, feel free to skip ahead. WordPerfect users ... of whom there are far more than the software companies of today will acknowledge, particularly among law firms, FileCenter has your back. FileCenter's aforementioned Save/Open integration works smoothly with all versions of WordPerfect, a feature you can enjoy after effortlessly producing those clean, perfectly-formatted pleadings. Additionally, FileCenter's built-in document preview window and document thumbnails both have full support for WordPerfect, as well as FileCenter's full-text search engine.
Legal Document Sharing Software
All of our focus so far has been on the internal operations of a law firm. But there's another valuable tool which many legal practices are just starting to discover: the client portal. Think of a client portal as legal document sharing software that enables the firm to securely field documents from clients and, in turn, share completed documents with clients. It's almost like an escrow service for sensitive documents, one which uses a secure online "vault" to pass documents back and forth with clients.
Dealing with documents as it does, this kind of sharing should ultimately tie in tightly with your legal document management system so that you can, for example, pull client documents out of the portal directly into the client's folder in your document management system or, on the other hand, send completed documents directly up into the portal.
FileCenter and the FileCenter Client Portal enjoy just such an integration and are worth using in tandem if secure document sharing could benefit your practice.
Why We Recommend FileCenter
FileCenter understands law firms. FileCenter's founders and designers are attorneys themselves and have spent countless hours working directly with law firms to structure FileCenter around the unique requirements of a legal practice. FileCenter strives for compatibility with your other legal software, while giving you an intuitive file cabinet interface. Along with integrated scanning and PDF management, search capabilities, and a layout that's easy and comfortable, even for beginners, FileCenter legal document management will simplify the way you work and help your firm achieve peak efficiency. Download a free trial today!