Practice Tips, by Dave Bilinsky, Practice Management Advisor

From chaos to order: the document management solution

musical note  It’s just like looking for a needle in a haystack
Searching for a moonbeam in the blue
Still I’ve got to find you…  musical note

computer, files and magnifying glassLyrics and music by Con Conrad and Herbert Magidson, recorded by Fred Astaire

One of the hottest topics today in practice management is taking a firm “paperless.” There is much discussion about ­e-document formats (Adobe Acrobat PDF/A — the archival format — in particular), the media on which the electronic documents are to be stored (locally? backed up onto a remote device? on the cloud?), scanners, remote access and the like. Some firms choose to use only electronic storage for their closed files, eliminating the expensive cost of storing paper files for years, while others prefer to have all open and closed files in electronic form. Still other firms are concerned about cultural issues around going paperless and the change management process that would entail.

But lost in this discussion is a much more basic issue — one that is fundamental to taking a law firm paperless yet is often overlooked. In the paper world, there are file folders and filing cabinets, both of which help keep the documents organized. The file folder has its brads (places to attach correspondence, pleadings, etc. in date order) and the filing cabinet keeps the file folders organized.

When a law firm goes paperless, however, there typically isn’t the appreciation for the electronic equivalent of the file folder and filing cabinet. Records — which could be pleadings, correspondence, emails, etc. — are usually found in numerous different places on the network. Emails may be stored in Outlook folders, while documents, such as pleadings, research memos and correspondence, may be in saved in various Windows folders. Worse yet, Outlook stores sent emails in “Sent Items” while incoming emails are typically filed in other folders.

Unfortunately, each software application an office uses stores its data in different folders scattered across the network. As the number of electronic files grows, the ability to gather all these disparate bits of information together into a “client file” gets harder and harder. With paper files, the firm would typically print out all this information and store it in the file folder. In that situation, the way in which each application and user names and stores the records on the network and hard drives is largely irrelevant. But as the firm moves to a paperless office, the disorganized nature of electronic record-keeping starts to become a problem. It is now harder to reproduce “the file” and the collection of folders that would otherwise be found in the steel filing cabinet.

Some firms use indexing and desktop search engines, such as Windows Search or X1 or Copernic, to find documents on the network, but this is not a workable equivalent to a good document management application. Other firms claim that their “standardized file-naming and storage convention” is good enough. Unfortunately, this convention only works as long as everyone, at all times, complies. Once someone decides “just this time” to not follow the convention, the system starts to break down. (The second law of thermodynamics basically says that any system, over time, goes from an organized to a disorganized state without the continual addition of energy to keep it organized — otherwise known as entropy.)

So what should a firm do? The solution is document management software. This software is the equivalent of the steel filing cabinet, organizing all “records” — be they documents, emails, pleadings, etc. — into the electronic equivalent of the paper folder. Document management software keeps each folder distinct from the others, offering the organizational ability of the filing cabinet.

With document management software, a document must be “profiled” before it can be saved on the network. Profiling entails keying in some information about the document: nature, author, form (pleading, email, etc.), client, matter and more. This “metadata” allows the document management software to know how to categorize the document properly. Emails, pleadings, correspondence, memos, etc. are all organized by client, matter, lawyer and date created.

Document management software also allows searching (including Boolean searches) by keyword, type of document, client name and other criteria. It offers version control, tracking and audit (who created what version) and other activities around document creation, modification and the like. Best of all, it offers the ability to draw together in one place on the network all the disparate records that would otherwise be affixed to the brad of a paper file. Remote access is enabled, and most programs allow “briefcasing” or mirroring the documents on a laptop with synchronization once you reconnect to the network.

Entropy is avoided since the user must profile the document before it can be saved. This is how the document management software achieves its goal: it imposes order on chaos.

By making a document management system the foundation of your paperless office, you can achieve the degree of rigour, organization and systemization that will allow you to develop your business even as people change and clients come and go. Otherwise, finding a document on the network is like looking for a needle in a haystack. 

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