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Articles

Document Management for Small Firms

By Robert S. McNeill

TechnoLawyer member Christian Connell asks: "Approximately one year ago, I stopped working at a large law firm and became a sole practitioner. One piece of software that I really miss is DocsOpen, which helps one categorize his/her documents so he/she can more easily search on them and retrieve them later. DocsOpen is far too expensive for a sole practitioner. Does anyone know of something comparable that would work for a sole practitioner or a small law firm? Thanks."

As with many other things in life, if you don't know where you're going,
you'll never get there. In other words, what are your needs? How are they prioritized? Do you have any staff, or are you a true solo? For example, your needs might be:

High:

  • Organize files by client and matter (and maybe document type).
  • Manage not only word processing files, but also images, spreadsheets, presentations, etc.
  • Full-text indexed searching
  • Automatic file naming from within your applications.
Medium:
  • Version control.
  • File viewer (so you can view the file without opening it, even if you
    don't have the native program).
  • Customizable fields in document profile.
Low:
  • Document check-in/out.
  • Local drive mirroring (saves copy of file on your workstation in case the server goes down).
  • Web access.

The above is my shot in the dark regarding what a solo might need. Your
mileage may vary.

Inexpensive solutions include:

Time Matters:
Believe it or not, for the same price as WORLDOX (see below) ($350 for the first license, $150 additional), you get about 60-80% (depending on how you count, and whether you're counting quantity or quality of features) of what a solo would probably use in a full-fledged DMS, including client and case management (which are also used to manage case information, file notes, calendar and diary, time tracking, web research, etc., etc., so you only have enter the client and case information once for both purposes), auto naming, file viewer, check-in/out, and four fully customizable document profile fields, in addition to client, matter, matter no., staff, status, name, and description fields.

Because Time Matters does so much more, the DMS is almost "free." Time
Matters includes a 90-day money back guarantee and 90 days of free tech support. There is also a free 30-day eval that does not include tech
support if you don't want to fork over the $350 up front.

Some of the other law practice management systems, such as STI's PracticeMaster and Amicus Attorney also have DMS features.

WORLDOX
If you need the whole enchilada, WORLDOX is a full-fledged DMS. Although not the recommended configuration, I have seen solos use it without an indexing server. (Normally, there is a workstation on the network that is indexing the files as they are added to the system during the day so that when someone does a profile search for all files in the Smith case it can find it. Since a solo probably knows whether or not they created a file in the Smith case that day, real-time indexing isn't that big a deal. Indexing can be done at night, so it's only the current day's work that is not indexed. Even an undindexed file can still be found by viewing the case folder directly instead of doing a profile search.)

WORLDOX includes goodies like version control (which is indispensible in
some types of practices), local mirroring, pre-defined default search
templates (e.g., so you can set your word processor's File / Open screen
to show you all the files you've worked on in the past week, or so you can put toolbuttons on the File | Open screen to list all the Smith file cases saved in the last 30 days, etc.), security levels, prevent users from saving files other than where the system automatically saves thems to, etc. There is also a Web access capability. There is a demo CD
available, but not the full running program.

For the most part, these are features that are more important as the size
of the firm increases. A solo doesn't need to prevent users from saving
files to their own c: drive, for example, but it's a nice management
feature when you've got 50 people saving files all over the place.

The practice management systems listed above link with WORLDOX, so you can have your LPMS cake and eat it, too.

If you just need indexed full-text searching, Wilbur is a freeware program
that is available at wilbur.redtree.com.

I suggest you make a list of what you miss most about your old DMS, add to it needs that have arisen in your solo practice, visit the vendors' Web sites to investigate the features, call the vendors with any questions, download the demos to get the look and feel of the programs, ask about money-back guarantees, evaluate the programs, purchase your first choice, use it as much as possible so that you can make a go/no-go decision before the return period expires, then make a command decision.

Bear in mind that the largest cost component of the whole process is not
the software, but the value of your time. If the DMS saves you 15 minutes a day, that's over 60 hours per year more that you can bill, which is a lot more than the cost of the software. The learning curve is going to be shorter for the DMS aspect of the practice management systems than for WORLDOX. If you need to learn the practice management system from scratch, then the curve will be about the same, but there's so much more you can do with the practice management system, that I can't imagine you wouldn't get a very high return on investment from it, as well.

Robert S. McNeill practiced law for 15 years, is a former chair of the Maryland State Bar Association Law Practice Management Section, and for the past five years has been helping law firms leverage technology to provide higher quality legal services to their clients more economically. You can reach him at The McNeill Group, Ltd., 301-502-7209, Bob@McNeillGroup.org.

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