Legal Document Management Systems

Christopher Zegers, CIO, Lowenstein Sandler LLP
Christopher Zegers, CIO, Lowenstein Sandler LLP

Christopher Zegers, CIO, Lowenstein Sandler LLP

Law and the legal language used to make agreements and settle disputes are verbose. I would venture to say law firms’ output of words rival any traditional publisher, before the advent of email. Law firms are very practical with their clients in that they agree in a formal engagement letter to keep every correspondence, brief, letter, motion, etc. related to the matter for the entirety of the engagement, plus 7-10 years depending on the state in which the law was practiced. This was a practical engagement, before email. But somehow these attorney-client agreements on data storage have not changed. Law firms have been able to maintain an antiquated agreement because of their long-standing use of document management systems (DMS).

Law firms gravitated to DMS as they emerged in the 1980s because these systems allowed drafts and versions to be written and edited without being entirely rewritten, and allowed the firm to append metadata to the documents so they could be categorized by client and the matter being worked on for the client. This allowed them to maintain that agreement to store and retrieve everything, even electronic data, on behalf of the client. Others features like glossaries to explode words from shorthand, to automatic insertion of the attorneys’ contact information, found the legal industry dependent on these technologies and eager to automate even more.

  Even with advances in technology, the problem of saving email to the proper client-matter folder still exists today, because it requires the attorney to decide what email need to be saved and what can be deleted  

Even with advances in technology, the problem of saving email to the proper client-matter folder still exists today, because it requires the attorney to decide what email need to be saved and what can be deleted. It is their ethical responsibility to save all substantive email for their clients. In some cases, their administrative assistants can help, but it is ultimately up to the attorney to ensure everything that should be saved is being saved properly. An attorney may be working with a client on several deals at once and their administrative assistant would be unable to discern which email relates to which matter. Another barrier is iOS Mail is a closed platform with no ability to integrate with a DMS, and most everyone wants to use native iOS Mail. There is a sense that artificial intelligence (AI) will soon help this issue, but there will always be the ethical duty of the attorney to ensure that whatever processes are in place work as expected.

Adoption of saving email to client-matter folders varies across firms. Aside from the filing challenge identified above, attorneys don’t always want to use these systems. They want to keep all their email in their own inboxes and folders so they can always get to them easily, without having to connect to another system which may require additional authentication and steps to retrieve what they could have in their own account. They want to treat corporate email like Gmail, were there are no size limits and search is great. People who browse more often than search complain of not finding what they saved in the DMS because it’s mixed in with what everyone else saves to a particular matter.

Another critical feature of a DMS is native access control. Law firms have an ethical obligation to check for conflicts of interest that may exist which could impact the matter. For instance, if the attorney worked on a Coca Cola matter that is similar to a matter Pepsi would like the firm to handle, the attorney’s knowledge of how Coca Cola operates could compromise Coca Cola’s proprietary information while assisting Pepsi. For this reason, all matters begin with a check of potential conflicts and when conflicts are identified, based on a set of variables, the firm decides to decline the work, or “wall off” the attorney from accessing the matter documents in the DMS.

Since DMS have the inherent ability to control access at the DMS folder level, law firms have been able to satisfy emerging client requirements around data isolation and access auditing with relative ease. DMS have also been improved to serve as more secure client extranets than Dropbox and the like. Third parties have built connectors to ShareFile and other popular cloud storage services to centrally control client data from the DMS.

The future of DMS involves various aspects of AI being integrated into these systems. Future AI add-ons will enhance the business of law and change how attorneys perform their work. Individual attorneys are most excited about AI that automatically files their email (see above.) Firms are looking for competitive advantages that can result from data analytics and predictive modeling. Analytics performed on the petabytes of information stored in a DMS will provide insights into 1) the marketable experiences of the firm for best responding to RFPs; 2) the costs to complete a matter and who is best to do what parts of the work involved in the matter; 3) relevant precedent for attorney review; 4) automatic checklists and document sets for more efficient matter ramp-up, to name a few efficiencies. DMS hold the “big data” of law firms and are well positioned to remain relevant and critical to managing the business of law.

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