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Why a DMS is better than Windows

Welcome to my knowledge management column! In this column, I will discuss different types of technology that lawyers can use to help meet the modern client’s demands to deliver legal services faster, cheaper, and better.

In this first article, I will describe a document management system — software used to store and share documents. I will also set out some reasons that led my firm Ridout & Maybee LLP to implement DMS software.

If your organization is not currently using customized software for managing documents, it is probably relying on the generic folder structure of a Windows operating system. Your organization likely has a network with one or more shared drives. Each shared drive has folders and each folder has subfolders. Each lawyer typically has his or her own personal folder on the shared drive. That lawyer arbitrarily creates and names subfolders inside his or her personal folder. For example, lawyers may create separate subfolders for each client and then create further subfolders for each of the client’s different files. Documents are stored in the subfolders.

It is often difficult to search for documents in the Windows folder structure. Lawyers tend to arbitrarily create and name subfolders and documents within their personal folder without giving any thought as to how other people will be able to locate these documents. When other people search a lawyer’s folder for a document, they may not understand that lawyer’s system of naming subfolders and will have difficulty navigating through the hierarchy of subfolders. Furthermore, if a document is mistakenly saved into the wrong folder or subfolder, it will be difficult to locate in the future. As long as these searching problems exist, an organization likely needs to maintain paper copies of all documents in case they cannot be located in the Windows folder structure.

A DMS stores and names e-documents in a standardized manner throughout a firm. If used properly, the DMS overcomes the above-mentioned searching problems associated with the Windows folder structure and can help a high-content, e-document-heavy operation transition to becoming a paperless office. When a user commits a document to the DMS, he or she needs to profile the document according to several predetermined properties such as document name, file number, client number, practice area, author, and date created. After the document is committed to the DMS, others can find it by requesting files matching one or more of these properties. For example, a user can search for documents matching a particular client number and author. If the user is not satisfied with the search results, he or she can broaden or narrow the search. Unlike the Windows folder structure, the DMS requires that each document be profiled in a uniform way, including the use of standard terms for each property. When documents are profiled in a standardized manner, it is much easier to search for and retrieve them in the future.

Some other useful features of a DMS are:

Versioning The DMS allows a user to create and track multiple versions of a single document. As an example, a user drafts version 1 of a document and requests input from a colleague. The colleague provides his or her changes and this is saved as version 1a. Upon approval of the colleague’s changes, the user saves the document as version 2. The DMS saves all of these versions of the same document and allows users to track them.

Check in and check out Like a library, the DMS allows a user to check out a document and reserve it for a period of time. If a user prepares a document and provides it to a client for review, and the user does not want anyone else to make further edits to it, he or she checks out the document while awaiting the client’s edits. When the client returns the edited document, the user checks the document in and uploads the client’s edits with versioning.

Assignments The DMS allows a user to assign documents to others. When an assistant prepares a document for a lawyer’s review, instead of having to print out a paper copy and deliver it to the lawyer’s office, he or she can simply assign it to the lawyer through the DMS. The lawyer will be notified of the assigned document in Outlook. If it requires the lawyer’s immediate attention, it can be marked as “urgent.”

My firm began considering implementing DMS software several years ago. We are an intellectual property firm made up of about 45 legal professionals spread out over three regional offices. For many years, we have been using a network with shared drives arbitrarily organized into the traditional Windows folder structure. After carefully studying several different options, we decided it would be best to adopt a proper document management system for numerous reasons including:

Reduction or elimination of paper files DMS software makes it easier for users to search for and retrieve documents thus making it less important to keep paper files. Less paper means saving on costs associated with generating and storing paper files including paper, printers, toners, and off-site storage.

Better management of incoming correspondence Today, most incoming correspondence is received by e-mail and many of these e-mails go directly to the lawyers in my firm. The e-mails must be handled directly by the lawyer or forwarded to a mail clerk or an assistant for action. There is a risk that some e-mails may fall between the cracks and this is compounded by the fact that each lawyer works somewhat differently. The DMS will provide a standard manner throughout the firm by which each of these e-mails can be saved and handled.

More efficient outgoing correspondence Many of our clients are corporations that have gone paperless and requested that we stop sending them paper correspondence. As a firm that maintains physical files, we have been generating and signing paper documents, scanning the signed paper documents, e-mailing an electronic copy to the client, and placing the paper documents into our files. The DMS reduces the need for paper files and therefore will allow us to eliminate some of these steps.

Better remote access Lawyers sometimes need to review an entire file. If the file is in paper format, then the lawyer needs to review it in the office. However, the DMS allows us to maintain a well-organized and complete file in electronic format that can be accessed remotely. This gives lawyers more flexibility to work while travelling or at home.

Improved collaboration between different offices A paper file can only be present in a single geographic location at any one time. When lawyers in two different offices are working together on the same file, it is sometimes necessary to send the entire paper file by courier from one office to another. The DMS lets us maintain a complete file in electronic format that can be accessed by lawyers in two different offices at the same time.

My firm is currently implementing a DMS software solution. My next article will discuss some of the challenges we have faced during this implementation.

Jason Leung practises intellectual property law and is the director of knowledge management at Ridout & Maybee LLP in Toronto. Jason can be contacted at His column on knowledge management will run every second month.

  • Costly

    DMS software can be very costly for mid sized firms and impractical for small firms. I came across an open source DMS called docs4lawyers, coupled with Microsoft's free enterprise search on sharepoint one can build their own DMS for next to nothing. Just a thought..
  • Frank Lombardo
    Mike's concern is well warranted. Selection of any DMS vendor should take into consideration the ability to move off the platform at any time for any reason. That's why vendors which maintain open architectures on standardized databases and file systems should be more preferable that those who offer specific functionality under proprietary design. While Windows 7 has improved its search locally, it still isn't up to the task over the network, and just using a file system doesn't provide for things like version control, and integration into other LOB applications like Worklow and Collaboration software.
  • Mike
    Also. Windows 7 search is farily robust. For those of you used to Windows XP you will be very impressed on how easy it is to find a needle in your firm server haystack.
  • Mike
    My concern is that if you invest a couple years into a certain DMS software solution, are you stuck with that sofware forever? What happens if you want to stop using that certain solution or they go under? If your whole internal information system is dependant on a certain software supplier......