Law firms are drowning in paper despite the fact that most lawyers are working on electronic files on mobile-enabled devices. A solid digital matter strategy not only saves on storage costs, it also addresses the risk of loss or duplication of paper files and enables ease of collaboration and document discovery that should make lawyers lives a lot easier. But, in practice, law firms are resisting going fully digital with their matter files.
Offsite storage facilities
For most of legal history there has only been one place to go for data related to a matter and that was the matter file. Massive paper files swamped the floor space in lawyer’s offices and then were pushed out to large offsite storage facilities to mellow with age. The limitations of the paper matter file are well documented but it does, of course, have some natural advantages, which is why its use persists. A simple paper file is the definitive ‘trusted store’ for everything related to a matter. It is relatively portable too. If someone wants to access the entire file, they can pick it up and move it to their desk.
Evolving the lifecycle management of paper
Since the paper matter file is the ‘trusted store’ of files, lawyers can be certain that the entire matter file is moving through a defined lifecycle – that is, if firms need to archive or destroy everything relating to a matter, they can be sure they are doing so. A matter file may also be secured. It could be locked away in a storage facility, accessed only by delivering it, under armed guard if necessary, to a specific location secured via access controls. Collaboration is a bit trickier as only one person can reasonably control a paper file at any one time.
So, law firms continue to create paper files and store them centrally and store emails relating to matters in Outlook or Exchange. But consolidating and acting on the entire matter file is difficult. Matter files need to be portable, secure, transportable, easy to archive and search and easy to destroy when the time comes. In an attempt to address these requirements, firms have enthusiastically adopted document management systems (DMS). Fee-earners have come to place a significant level of trust in their DMS – they know that a document stored in the DMS will be retrievable when required and will contain the edits they made last time.
A similar level of trust is growing relating to the email management capabilities of document management systems and there is a real understanding of the importance of all matter-related electronic documents being held in one place. These days, the issue with email management is more one of reducing the effort required to get emails into the system rather than trust in the technology. There is still some effort required on the part of the fee-earner to ensure that incoming and sent emails find their way into the matter file, although the latest predictive email filing reduces this burden.
Now there is a realistic prospect of encompassing all elements of a matter file within a digital system, here are three top tips to developing a digital matter strategy
1. Create a clearly defined document lifecycle process. This process should move a document as easily and securely as possible from one stage of its ‘life’ to another. If this includes document management, email management and a solution that overcomes the conversion of paper files to digital ones, the result will return the firm to a position where they have a definitive ‘trusted store’ for everything matter-related.
2. Remove the burden from fee earners. A key success factor for making a digital matter strategy work in practice is to eliminate effort on the part of fee-earners. At the same time, fee earners need to be able to trust that if they send a document for scanning, it will make its way into the matter file in a complete and readable form.
3. Audit for GDPR compliance. With a digital matter strategy in place, a law firm should be confident that all personal information (outside that held in databases) is located in one place, ensuring compliance with individuals’ data protection rights under GDPR, including rights of access, erasure, data portability and retention.
Digital and paper
The situation in most firms now is that there are two main repositories for the matter file, neither of which is complete. There is the digital matter file under the control of the document management system, including documents and emails, and the paper matter file, which contains incoming paper documents and, potentially, printed and annotated versions of documents already stored in the document management system. In fact, this last group can account for between 50 and 70 per cent of the paper circulating in a law firm.
A digital matter strategy is essential for law firms but in order to achieve a cohesive digital approach to handling matter files, the firm needs to crack the twin issues of ease of use and trust. For the firm that can manage this, significant benefits accrue and lawyers can trust that anything they place in the matter file will be available and up-to-date when they need it.
Simon Elven is Marketing and Commercial Director at Tikit.