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I.T. in practice : Filed but not forgotten

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Cite as: (2003) 77(7) LIJ, p.93

The efficient management of a legal practice’s documents is a key administrative necessity.

Template and precedent libraries represent the intellectual capital of the legal practice. Client correspondence and matter documentation provide the essential trail of matter management. Even the most technologically-aggressive firm still has the burden and benefit of thousands (and, in some cases, millions) of pieces of A4 paper filed and boxed in ways that require ease of accessibility, potentially over a long period of time.

Modern document management systems of the type used in legal practices create benefits for those firms in three areas.

First, the management of templates, document libraries and precedents enables the effective use of the firm’s knowledge base in a consistent and reproducible manner.

Second, the record-keeping associated with specific matter-related and client-related documents allows the quick and orderly filing and retrieval of those documents.

Last, and more interestingly, document management systems now allow the delivery of documents in their potential recipients’ preferred method and format.

Content management

Even the start-up law firm tends not to start with a clean slate when it comes to document libraries. From a meagre base, the firm adds to its valuable store of saved work by maintaining its library of standard and template documents with incremental improvements, and by inserting newly developed documentation in response to client demands. Larger firms tend to go through occasional reviews of this storehouse of saved templates, ensuring the formatting and look of these documents is consistent and also enhancing their “marketing presentation”.

Many marketing-oriented lawyers recognise that their documents may pass through many hands and therefore they are valuable as a marketing tool to impress the unknown reader with both content and look. Tight management of this intellectual property – as marketing and knowledge capital – enhances the value of this property. Systems which assist in this management have been available for more than two decades and exist predominantly to facilitate the best use of solicitor and administrative time.

Filing management

A library of knowledge and marketing capital has only limited value if the means of accessing the documents in that library is awkward or inefficient. This is where the filing management aspects of document management systems excel. Going beyond the basics of “File Open” and “File Save” in an ordered document directory hierarchy, these systems allow the attachment of relevant client and matter information to each document. This in turn assists with retrieval, classification, archiving and re-use of documents.

The filing modules of document management systems have the ability to coordinate collaborative development of documents, allow different levels of protection and edit tracking, and can track and categorise staff time spent on various documents.

Delivery management

Content and filing management systems for documents have been in place for many years, and represent cost-saving initiatives through staff efficiencies. However, with the advent of the Internet, the method of delivery of documents has become increasingly important, and this is related less to cost than to enhancing client service and strategic competitive advantage.

Some clients still require the faxed copy followed by the paper original, but a majority are looking to delivery mechanisms such as email and extranet web publishing of documents as a means of satisfying client requirements. This, in turn, affects the document format that the recipient sees. Microsoft Word format has become the de facto standard, with Rich Text Format also popular. For read-only documents, the Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) is popular, but the practice will require special software to generate these. The development of legal XML[1] (a much-enhanced version of the Internet’s HTML) is at an early stage, but will become part of many document interchange processes in the short to medium term.

Conclusion

Most document management systems do not easily lend themselves to being broken down into the simple three components outlined above. However, when reviewing potential software purchases in these areas, firms would do well to remember these systems are designed to help practices manage the “what” (content), “where” (filing) and “how” (delivery) of key communications with external parties.

“To do” list

• Review the “what”, “where” and “how” of your firm’s document management processes.
• Discuss with your document management system vendor possible upgrades and updated training in how to use your existing system.
• Invite administrative staff to offer specific suggestions of how document management can enhance efficiency.
• Survey clients to assess potential areas for better service delivery using your document management system.
• Learn about the basics of legal XML.


ADAM REYNOLDS is the principal of Proficio, an independent IT consulting firm.

For more I.T. in practice information, see the contributions of the Law Institute Legal Practice Management Committee and IT special projects department at http://www.liv.asn.au/sections/lpms_it

itcolumn@liv.asn.au


[1] See Sandra Potter and Allison Stanfield, “Legal XML – the new direction” (2001) 75(4) LIJ 64.

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