How to Choose the Best Document Management Software for Your Law Firm

By Skye Schooley,
business.com writer
|
Feb 24, 2020
Image Credit: andrei_r / Getty Images

Learn what specific features to look for in a legal document management system.

  • Law firms and legal departments need document management solutions that comply with industry regulations and standards.
  • Important legal document management system (DMS) features to look for include matter-centric software, email linking, integrations, document tagging, compliance and security.
  • Expert-recommended legal document management systems include platforms like Legal Files, Laserfiche, CaseFox, Filevine, LexWorkplace, M-Files and Repstor. 

Proper management of your digital documents plays a key role in the efficiency, productivity and legal compliance of your business. Gone are the days when a legal practice could simply file paper documents away in a storage cabinet. With most legal records created on computers, many companies are turning to document management systems (DMS) to store and manage those files. 

Although businesses in any industry can benefit from the use of a document management system, law firms and legal departments often need specific features that can only be found in a specialized DMS.  

"Legal document management software is a document management system that is specifically designed to cater to the document organization, storage and sharing needs of the legal industry," Jim Garlock, vice president of legal and financial solutions at Chetu, told business.com. "Unlike standard DMS, which can be leveraged by multiple industries, legal document systems provide very specific operational and compliance features that are unique to the legal field." 

Legal documents need careful management that complies with industry regulations and standards. Although many legal departments need an advanced management system like document control software, some can get away with a document management system designed to handle legal matters. 

Dustin Bolander, chief information officer of Clear Guidance Partners, said that document management systems are a necessity for legal firms to handle large numbers of documents; however, the benefits of a legal document management system go beyond filing digital documents. The right DMS can help firms track several legal components. 

"A good DMS helps you track not just what a document is, but also the associated metadata – e.g., responsible attorney(s), client, matter and more – as well as versions," said Bolander. "A good DMS also does a lot of this automatically and with a minimal number of steps or clicks." 

Aside from managing client files and policy documents, some legal document management systems enable attorneys to communicate on shared projects and accurately manage clients' billable hours. 

 

Editor's note: Looking for the right document management system for your business? Fill out the questionnaire below to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs. 

 

There are several features that any small business needs in a document management system, such as usability, scalability, security, disaster recovery, collaboration, integration, document scanning and version control. However, legal departments and law firms have specific procedures and document regulations that require advanced features for document management. 

Given the nature of their work, legal professionals should look for several additional features in a document management solution. We spoke with legal tech experts to identify the most important document management features that every law practice or legal department should consider. 

Matter-centric software

When looking for a document management system, it is important to find software that relates directly to your company's matter or document workflow. Garlock said these matters usually pertain to the type of law or issues you specialize in, including disputes and litigation, contracts and transactions, claims, legal research, intellectual property, and governance and compliance. 

"Legal document software will be designed to handle the necessary files that are related to these fields and maximize the organization, storage, and sharing of the necessary documents," he said.   

Email linking

Many businesses and consumers expect online communication, not snail mail. As a result, many law firms rely on legal emails to interact with their colleagues and clients. A legal document management system should be able to securely integrate with any email platforms you use. Your legal DMS should also be able to properly file and access your emails (by cases, disputes, summons, etc.). 

Integration with business platforms

Similar to email linking, your document management system should be able to integrate with all your other business platforms. Integrating platforms saves you time and money, and it reduces the potential for clerical errors. Additionally, businesses in regulated industries (e.g., law, healthcare, finance) need their platforms to integrate to reduce the risk of security or compliance errors. 

"Law firms, as well as other legal entities, often use multiple platforms to keep their business running, so it is important to ensure that they can speak to one another and rapidly share information," said Garlock. "To best optimize their own software, companies should turn to custom software developers that specialize in the legal industry. These developers can certify that a company's latest solution works in lockstep with the current software suite to ensure that there are no bugs, hiccups or data silos within an organization." 

When looking for a document management system, Bolander said, every DMS or piece of legal practice management software should have a publicly available API or database connection. He warns users to be wary of vendors that advertise this capability and then later claim only specific partner vendors have access. 

Document tagging

Although many document management systems have document tagging features to help companies organize documents by content and file type, this is especially important for the legal industry. Law firms and legal departments have several document forms (summons, motions, complaints, contracts, etc.) that need to be organized and tagged based on various factors. Access to document tagging is essential for an attorney to find any specific case files they need.   

Law firms should also be cognizant of every activity they will be using their document management system for. Jim Collins, principal at Datamation Imaging Services, said that legal document management systems are more than just archival search-and-retrieve systems. They should also support the creation of active, living documents.  

Compliance and security

Every business should place high importance on the security of their document management system, but a legal DMS should go one step further – it should help you maintain industry compliance and feature the latest encryption software. Garlock said that timestamping an article with the date it was accessed is imperative for posterity purposes and transparent billing. Encryption is also vital, as nearly all data a law firm stores is confidential and privileged.  

Another helpful element to look for in document management software is cloud-based technology that is regularly updated to current standards. Slow or outdated systems can leave your firm struggling to access important case information. 

Each legal department is unique and should have a document management system that caters specifically to its internal document management needs. However, a custom document management system created specifically for your company is not always a viable option. We spoke with experts to compile a few of the best document management systems for in-house legal departments.    

Garlock said one of the most effective document management solutions on the market is Legal Files. He said Legal Files caters to institutional law practices, such as corporations, government agencies and insurance providers.  

Collins recommends Laserfiche as an easy-to-use platform with a clean interface, folder organization and search functions. 

"You can integrate [Laserfiche] directly with the leading software law firms already use, like Time Matters and Lawson," said Collins. "Administrators can set group and individual permission levels on sections of your repository, folders, or documents, so you can make sure that only the people who need to see a document can. Laserfiche has powerful business process automation and workflow tools, and a great forms portal to set up new clients and cut down on physical paperwork. Laserfiche also offers a DocuSign integration for e-signature compliance." 

Other legal tech experts suggest using CaseFox or Filevine for your in-house legal document management needs. While the best document management software for your in-house legal department will depend on your company's specific needs, these are all great platforms to consider.   

Similar to DMS for in-house legal departments, the best legal document management systems for small law firms are tailor-made for each company. If you are a smaller legal practice looking for document management software already on the market, there are a few effective options for you to consider. For example, Garlock recommends Uptime's new LexWorkplace. He said it is a highly effective, cloud-based solution that can be used by law firms of all sizes. This could be worth considering if you plan on growing your legal practice. 

Bolander said small law firms should consider M-Files or Repstor, as they have nimbler features than big legacy vendors like iManage and NetDocuments.  

"M-Files lets you build out your folders using the metadata, so you're not searching for a document based on a name or what container it's in," he said. "Repstor runs on top of Office 365, meaning its security is the best available and you get to leverage the full functionality of Microsoft's cloud system, such as search and many other products that integrate with it. Many smaller firms can subsist on something such as SharePoint or Box if needed." 

Legal departments and law firms can also consider using white-label legal case management software. Expert-recommended systems include SmartAdvocate, CloudLex and MyCase

While the best document management software for your company will depend on your specific management needs, these expert recommendations are great platforms to consider. 

Before choosing a document management system, identify which features your business needs and which features you may need as your practice scales. If necessary, hire a consultant to examine your business and recommend a platform that will best fit your needs. After you choose a document management system, it's important to properly implement it by training employees on how to use it. 

"A poor implementation can kill the use of a DMS in a firm, while an excellent one can make even a mediocre system well liked by users," said Bolander.

Skye Schooley is an Arizona native, based in New York City. She received a business communication degree from Arizona State University and spent a few years traveling internationally, before finally settling down in the greater New York City area. She currently writes for business.com and Business News Daily, primarily contributing articles about business technology and the workplace, and reviewing categories such as remote PC access software, collection agencies, background check services, web hosting, reputation management services, cloud storage, and website design software and services.
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