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The Alignment of the Legal Industry and SharePoint

Anyone who has spent time working for a law firm or a legal department knows that legal work means paperwork. They are also very aware that convincing a group of high priced, seasoned lawyers to move away from managing that paperwork the way they have for 30+ years can be a daunting task. Many legal departments still rely on shared drives or even local drives to attempt to manage the heaps of contracts, security agreements, and complaints that come across their desk or inbox on a daily basis. Legal teams need a way to easily share this documentation within the department while also maintaining an adequate level of security. That’s where SharePoint comes in. SharePoint offers a laundry list of features that easily combat the shortcomings of the traditional, “old school” methods of uploading and manipulating documents. Below are three of these features that, if used correctly, can save legal departments countless hours of confusion when it comes to managing their documents.

Defining Metadata

Metadata is such a simple concept but is arguably the most important and most beneficial tool when it comes to document management in SharePoint. Metadata is officially defined as “a set of data that describes and gives information about other data”; simply put, it is “data about data”. To give an example that a legal team could relate to, this could be the title of the matter in which the document you are uploading or retrieving is related to, or maybe the type of document; whether it is a memo, a contract, or even meeting minutes you are storing for reference. This type of information can be captured at the time the document is uploaded (or created) and then tied to that document for easy retrieval. Metadata fields can also be required, which means a user would not be able to upload the file until the data is captured. This is great for someone needing to locate the document in a library containing a few thousand documents, but for the individual inputting all of that information, this might seem a little cumbersome.

Understandably, having to input multiple pieces of data just to upload a single document can seem tedious, however whether you realize it or not, this is the same concept as creating multiple folder layers in a traditional shared drive. Metadata columns just make the documents considerably easier to locate. For example, you may have a folder named “Smith vs. Jones” and another folder named “Johnson vs. Williams”. Underneath both of these folders there may be subfolders that you have named “Agreements”, and then an additional subfolder named “Service Agreements”. Navigating through this folder structure can prove difficult, especially if you know that you are looking for a specific Service Agreement, but are not quite sure which client it was related to. You are now forced to search through hundreds of client folders and subfolders hoping to find a single Service Agreement. By creating these pieces of information as metadata columns as opposed to folders, you have the ability to sort and filter on ALL documents within your library. So in the scenario posed above, you could narrow your search by filtering the list to only return documents listed as a “Service Agreement” Document Type. It can then be narrowed further by filtering on other criteria, such as “Matter Title” or “Client Name”. This can greatly reduce the amount of time spent searching for the document in question. If you often find yourself filtering on the same or similar criteria over and over again, for example “Service Agreements” for “Smith vs. Jones”, this can also be created and saved as a “view” to be reproduced at any time. 

If you have a group of documents that are related to single matter or client, SharePoint also allows you to pull these documents together to create a Document Set. With a Document Set, you can manage the documents as a single entity when it comes to capturing metadata or even setting access permissions. This can be very useful if, for example, you need to limit access to a single matter for a team member. All documents related to that matter can be grouped into a Document Set. The permission settings can be created one time, as opposed to creating the settings for each document. 

Again, these concepts can take a little bit of getting used to, but moving to a metadata based library as opposed to the traditional folder structure will save your team a great deal of time and headache when it comes to uploading and, more importantly, locating your documents. 

Versioning

Most, if not all documents that pass through a legal department are working documents, meaning they will continuously change hands and go through many iterations before reaching a “final” state. Without a dedicated document management solution, these working documents get lost in the shuffle and can cause a great deal of confusion. Whether you are red-lining a contract or updating the terms of a data security agreement, the slightest miscommunication can lead to serious issues within the legal department. 

“Is this the most up-to-date document?”

“Who made this change?”

“Why are there 5 different copies of the same file name in this folder?”

These are common questions and issues that arise in any department that is not utilizing a dedicated document management solution. With SharePoint’s versioning feature, this information is automatically gathered anytime a document is edited. In one click SharePoint can tell you exactly who edited the document, what was changed, when the change was made, and can give you full confidence that you are viewing the latest iteration of the document in question. It even allows the ability to restrict access to specific versions for some users, or restore a previous version if needed. Gone are the days of re-saving a document in the same folder and adding clues to the file name such as “USE THIS ONE” or “OLD VERSION”. These processes result in vulnerability and can cause a great deal of confusion, especially within a legal department.

SharePoint also offers a “check-in/check-out” feature for additional control. When this feature is enabled, a team member must first “check-out” the item before they are granted the ability to edit the document. Once checked-out, no one else has the ability to access the document except in a read-only format. SharePoint will display who the document is checked-out to and, again, will show you exactly what was changed once it is checked back in. The individual checking the document back in also has the ability to leave additional comments about the changes for anyone else accessing the document.

These features only scratch the surface of capabilities related to version control, however these alone can show just how critical this component can be. SharePoint version control allows for additional accountability and is clearly a powerful tool when it comes to mitigating confusion and disorganization within your department.
 

Records Management and Retention

SharePoint also offers a number of useful tools when it comes to Records Management. In many industries, chiefly the legal industry, some level of Records Managements is not only helpful, but is required by corporate and regulatory policies. In our increasingly paperless world, lawyers are notorious for sticking to their old-fashioned ways and stubbornly falling behind the times when it comes to these policies. For many lawyers the importance of having the assurance of holding a palpable document cannot be measured, and to an extent this is understandable. The alphabetized filing cabinet method of managing documents seems primitive to those of us in the IT world, but for a lawyer this can create a sense of comfort, and moving to an electronic platform that is unfamiliar can be unsettling. This is even more the case when you are dealing with documents of high importance, which lawyers do every day. 

With SharePoint, legal teams can retain the same level of document security they have always known, while automating retention and disposition policies for increased efficiency. Teams can create retention rules based on the location of the document within the site, or metadata that was captured when the document was uploaded. This allows for peace of mind that documents needing to be retained are safe should they need to be reproduced in the future. For documents that need to be disposed of, these can follow the same policies. SharePoint also allows these teams to run reports in the event they need to prove that a document was disposed of in accordance with a specific retention policy. It can even be configured to route items to the recycling bin instead of immediately deleting them, and can alert team members when this has occurred. The items would then remain in the recycling bin for a 30-day window (default setting) before being purged, giving team members ample opportunity to retrieve the item, if the document in fact needed to be retained. 

This is a new concept for many lawyers. Many are inevitably weary of the perceived lack of control when relying on SharePoint or other automated Records Management solutions. However, this is the exact reason they should be moving in this direction. SharePoint can reduce risk for legal teams when it comes to the lifecycle of their documents and can increase legal compliance. If adopted correctly, it can streamline many daily operations for a legal department and can handle the management of records and documents seamlessly. 

To say that SharePoint will solve every challenge that arises in a legal department would be an exaggeration. It probably will not even solve all document management related problems. There is no single, universal solution that will work flawlessly for every company. If your company or department is currently utilizing a document management solution that has proven successful and is meeting your needs, SharePoint may not be the answer for you. However, if you are finding that issues are constantly arising that could be mitigated by a more streamlined process, SharePoint has a lot to offer. No matter what solution your team decides on, the key is adoption. Document Management tools are collaboration tools and, therefore, require full buy-in from all individuals in order to be successful.

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About The Author

Consultant
Garrett is a Consultant in Cardinal’s Project Services practice. His experience includes Business Analysis and Project Management for a wide variety of projects. Most notably, Garrett leveraged his experience to lead a SharePoint Document Management implementation for a large legal firm in Raleigh, NC.