The latest on legal document management software
It’s hard to believe more than two years have passed since I began to write this monthly legal technology column. Despite the passage of time, my reason for writing this column has never changed: My goal has always been to help small-firm lawyers make educated and informed decisions about their legal software options.
This is all the more important in light of the current situation, where COVID-19 has forced lawyers across the country to shelter in place and work from home. Lawyers are becoming fully reliant on technology to ensure their businesses run smoothly and, now more than ever, count on cloud-based technologies to keep their law firms afloat despite the uncertain times.
One of the top challenges faced by law firms as they shifted to a remote workforce has been the ability to access case-related information. The accessibility of documents, in particular, has presented issues for law firms. This has become especially pressing in recent weeks as federal and state courts have begun to, out of necessity, mandate the e-filing of digital documents for most legal matters.
As law firms establish processes to create digital documents, they then need to be able to store them online in a location that is easily accessible by all firm employees. That’s where cloud-based document management software created with law firms in mind comes in.
Legal document management software provides a built-in organizational system for documents. Documents can be associated with case files or matters, and access can be limited to certain firm users. More robust systems often include document versioning, audit trails that track user access to documents and a host of other features.
Since I last wrote about legal document management software in February 2018, a notable trend in document management software has been to provide increased document functionality. So instead of simply allowing for the online storage and organization of documents, software companies are building in features that allow users to create, annotate and collaborate on legal documents as well.
For example, document collaboration and sharing features are included in some platforms, making it easy to securely share and collaborate on documents with clients, co-counsel, experts and more. Another feature included in some software products is the conversion of scanned documents into optical character recognition format, which creates searchable, indexed PDFs. Other useful features include annotation tools, e-signature and customized security capabilities.
Note that all of the different document management software tools discussed in this column are cloud-based. That means the software company you choose will be hosting your law firm’s confidential data. And because you have an ethical obligation to ensure client data remains confidential, you will need to ensure you understand how the data will be handled by that company. That ethical duty includes knowing where the servers on which the data will be stored are located, who will have access to the data, and how and when it will be backed up, among other things.
Also important when shopping for document management software or law practice management software with document management tools built in is to ensure that you have a full understanding of the costs associated with more robust features sets. You will find that some companies offer a single price for their software and build features into their software at no additional cost.
Other software companies offer tiered pricing, and certain features, such as e-signature tools, can be accessed only if you pay for the higher-priced tiers. Similarly, some software tools are only available via an integration. In that case, understand that depending on the company’s pricing scheme and how integrations are set up and priced, you may have to pay subscription fees for both the integration tool and the practice management software.
Examine Your Needs, Buy Accordingly
Another notable trend in recent years has been to provide law firms with increased security features. As you’ll learn below, some of the document management platforms now offer a number of different security features, which are customizable depending on a firm’s specific needs.
Which brings me to my next point: Your firm’s document management needs will depend, in large part, on the size of your law firm and the practice areas handled by your firm. Some practice areas are much more document-intensive and thus require more robust document management tools. Other firms may handle particularly sensitive matters or have clients that require increased levels of security and, as a result, will need a document management solution that includes more robust security features.
For most small-firm lawyers with practices that aren’t document-intensive—such as family lawyers, trust and estate lawyers, and criminal law attorneys—a stand-alone document management system is likely unnecessary. Instead, the document management features built into most law practice management systems such as Rocket Matter, Clio or MyCase (note that I am the legal technology evangelist with MyCase) will often be sufficient and more cost-effective than investing in both law practice management software and document management software.
That being said, the document management features offered by the law practice management software platforms aren’t going to be as robust as the feature sets of stand-alone document management software programs. Even so, you’ll find many of them offer an increasingly broad range of interactive document capabilities that can be particularly useful when working remotely, including collaboration features and e-signature tools.
Which brings us to the more complex stand-alone document management systems. Three leading stand-alone systems to consider are iManage, Worldox and NetDocuments. Worldox and iManage have been around for years as premise-based solutions, and now provide cloud-based versions of their software; NetDocuments, on the other hand, has always been a cloud-based solution.
All three platforms provide advanced document management features. In addition, they also include robust document versioning, audit trails, and OCR conversion from scans that permit document indexing and search features. Each also includes email management tools, knowledge management capabilities and other features specific to larger firms, including key integrations with Office 365, e-discovery platforms and more.
The trend of adding functionality to documents is increasingly evident in the stand-alone document management platforms as well. For example, NetDocuments has added a new “layer” to documents stored in its software that includes document collaboration tools, tasks, e-signature and annotation features. NetDocuments also offers a number of different types of security features for documents such as dual custody, where the encryption key is held by the firm and NetDocuments.
Another notable trend is that artificial intelligence (AI) tools are also being built into document management software. For example, iManage now offers iManage Ravn, a tool that uses AI and machine learning to search documents and provide insight into a firm’s documents, and provide the ability to easily locate and extract key information.
The bottom line: No matter which document management solution you choose, when your firm’s documents are stored in the cloud, they’re easily accessible by anyone from your firm with an internet connection, regardless of their location. While this has always been a convenient feature, of late it’s become a necessity in the work-from-home reality we now find ourselves in.
The good news is that in 2020, we have the technology we need to get the job done while working remotely. With the right tools, you can rebuild your brick-and-mortar law firm and turn it into a virtual one, and implementing cloud-based document management tools are the first step toward a fully functional remote law firm. And most important, they’re readily available, affordable and intuitive. So what are you waiting for? Put your firm’s documents in the cloud, and get back to work!
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist and the legal technology evangelist at MyCase, legal practice management software for small firms. She is the nationally recognized author of Cloud Computing for Lawyers and is co-author of Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier, both published by the American Bar Association. She also is co-author of Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for ABAJournal.com, Above the Law and the Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. Follow her on Twitter @nikiblack, or she can be reached at [email protected].