Document Management: Gaining Control of Your Processes

August 23, 2011

A law firm’s internal processes can make or break its chances of securing and keeping important clients, especially those firms hoping to work with blue chip customers. And yet many firms’ chances are fundamentally undermined by their reliance on out-dated methods, their quaint paper storage and even the risk of compliance failure. This all comes down to a reliance on poor manual, paper-based processes that slow down document retrieval and procurement.  

The obvious solution is to leverage document management systems (DMS) to remove the reliance on paper, streamline processes and transform the timeliness of information access. But, as many firms have discovered, ensuring an efficient investment is not automatic – there are a number of common errors made that can challenge any potential returns. My aim in this article is to guide you away from these errors and waymark the route to a successful DMS deployment. 

A Common Picture

It is well known that firms that fail to deliver a high level of quality and accuracy of service are increasingly having to rethink their approach, or else risk losing clients. It is equally well known across the legal industry that a common barrier to effective working and delivering such quality of service is an unacceptable delay in obtaining client information, whether buried in paper based filing systems or stuck in local email stores. It is striking how many firms remain reliant on slow, paper-based processes with in-built costs and delays. However well tracked a job is, the time sheet and bill will lie as to its true cost simply because of the hidden cost of accessing the information. The result? Reduced profitability, longer turn-around times and competitive disadvantage. 

Issues are compounded because there is rarely only ever one version of each document. Add to the problem the potential for varying versions of the same contract, working paper or correspondence stored in various places, and it is compounded once again. Indeed, Gartner’s research from 2000 still remains pertinent for paper documents: a single document can be copied up to 11 times within an organisation, creating an estimated filing cost of as much as £13. 

Focus on the Business Need

In the legal profession, control of documentation is vital. Whether it is a physical document arriving through the post, an email attachment or email correspondence it all needs to be managed and actioned. The need for documents to be accessible to partners and caseworkers is not a short-term requirement and neither is a strong audit trail to prove provenance – the need to store documents for decades, or even for perpetuity, is by no means unheard of. Immediate access to information and the ability to deliver rapid client service are pre-requisites for any law firm. The need for cast-iron legal admissibility and to have due regard to evidential weight goes without saying too. 

So how can firms impose genuine control against a tide of documents washing in and out of the practice in a variety of routes and in a mix of formats?  

The obvious answer is to adopt DMS to automate, link and centralise processes, slash paper dependence, and achieve control over the document trails. Such control inherently results in greater visibility across departments, allowing for a more holistic service to clients. 

But simply making a DMS decision is not enough. A DMS is a highly functional product set that can be deployed in many ways and across many departments to meet numerous diverse business requirements – including speed of document discovery, traceable delivery of files and case file security. 

It is, therefore, essential to clearly understand and define the precise, immediate business need and then map that requirement to the technology offering. Firms must also be pragmatic – best of breed or maybe a DMS solution from the practice’s case management vendor? Simple integration or deep rooted? Establish your criteria and the real pain points to be solved. If the organisation has a problem that needs to be resolved, define it, design a solution and implement it – fast.  

The emphasis right now is on getting rid of disjointed and disparate processes (frequently paper-based) and also claim lost emails that compromise essential business functions. Don’t get distracted by additional features, however appealing, simply because they are available. Don’t encourage scope creep and stagnation by a long and heavyweight requirements process. This whole process should take around one month – and certainly no more than three. 

Peripheral View

Firms, and even departments within them, need to clearly define their own specific requirements, such as speed of document retrieval. But they also need to understand the exact implications of those objectives – do they require in-depth integration with other departments’ filing systems, for example? Where the need is at all complex define a statement of work (SOW), undertake pre-implementation review sessions and work closely with a supplier – all these steps will bring clarity and pave the way towards a successful implementation with all expectations met. Use proof of concept trials, followed by staged implementations to create manageable projects that deliver incremental business value. 

It is also essential to avoid over-elaboration, a classic error with any functionally-rich technology. For example, a DMS utilises configurable structures and metadata – most also enable content searching. Defining a complex taxonomy may appear the best route towards a flexible and future-proof solution, but, as organisations have discovered, in areas where the filing is not automated, the overhead of working to the structure and metadata requirements resulted in slow operational processing, end-user frustration and a reduction in ROI. A simple taxonomy, with limited mandatory metadata, is actually a far more sustainable and usable model.   

In addition to clarity and simplicity, firms must look to derive every automation opportunity, from automating extraction of content from paper documentation, to implementing workflows and automating tasks such as invoice approval for fundamental efficiency improvements. Effective automation will deliver a quicker turn-around for job processing or simply enable the firm to deal with client queries faster. 


It is easy to get derailed by a DMS deployment. The challenge is to define those needs and design a pragmatic solution that can be deployed quickly to meet those requirements. With the right approach, firms can transform operational efficiency, achieve clarity of communication and meet requisite service levels. Critically, they can become far better business operations, and strengthen their position in a competitive environment. 

Mark Palmer is Director of Products and Marketing at Invu: