WE MIGHT still be a way off achieving the fabled "paperless office", but filing cabinets and lever-arch folders are gradually falling from favour as law firms embrace the benefits of electronic document management systems.
According to Phil Scorgie, the director of business information systems at Deacons, law firms have been using document management systems for about 15 years. However, it has been only in the past few years that firms have begun switching to what he calls "third generation" document management systems. These are systems based on electronic files, which store electronically all forms of information - including word documents, spreadsheets, emails, billing records and document audit trails - pertaining to the matter, the client and the lawyers involved.
Reaping the rewards
Deacons introduced electronic filing about a year ago, and Scorgie says one of the biggest benefits to the firm has been the increased flexibility.
"This has huge benefits for a firm like us [which] shares documents nationally and internationally with other people - I can bring up my electronic file and operate anywhere around the country, without a physical file," he says.
"When we pitch for work in a particular jurisdiction, we can pull in specialist expertise from all around the country. They can all work on the electronic file and share that file from anywhere - at home, at the client's [premises], or at any of our offices - whereas with a physical file it's very hard to share work with people who aren't in your physical area."
Freehills rolled out its new document management system - Interwoven WorkSite - late last year, and according to director of knowledge management Nicole Bamforth, the firm has already seen multiple benefits from the change. As with Deacons, Bamforth says the system has allowed for better collaboration between teams - both legal and non legal - and offices, and it puts the firm in a better risk position because email communications can now be more easily stored on the electronic files.
Andrew Hall, research analyst at IT research and advisory firm Gartner, says that the efficiency gains for firms using these systems can be significant. "The experience has been that lawyers say their offices are more efficient, they're more productive, they're able to help clients more effectively and so forth. Once they get through the transition period they love it."
Robert Fraser is the director of IT solutions provider and consultancy Trinogy Systems, which distributes document management software manufactured by DocsCorp. He believes that firms using these systems are likely to see even greater efficiency benefits during the downturn.
"As the world goes through this turmoil at the moment, people are looking to get more transactions out of an individual to keep costs down and the way they do that is to use information technology - it's always been the catalystfor cost savings in firms, and in tough times, there's even more attention paid to using technology to cut down on time and costs," he says.
Learning the ropes
While firms have much to gain from switching to an electronic filing system, Hall warns that the potential for difficulties in the transition period - and the risk of problems such as information leakages - shouldn't be underestimated.
"It fundamentally changes the day-to-day working process of people in the office. Initially that will be carried by the administrative staff ... but ultimately it will change the way the lawyer actually works," he says. "And what we've seen is that it's during the transition period - when people don't really have the skills but are using the tools - that mistakes are made."
Hall says that ensuring staff are properly trained before transitioning to the new system is critical. "The big push should be to have appropriate monitoring and to have training that is customised to the individual. So if you have a very high-value lawyer, you don't expect them to take a day-long class in document management. You have to support them in other ways," he says.
He believes that managing this transition from the staff perspective is even more important than the actual features of the new system. "We have to have all the technical controls that most law firms are already dabbling in now - the firewalls, the intrusion prevention systems, the monitoring, the ability to report a security incident if it's detected - those things have to be there ... but they are not what makes or breaks it. It's the people in the office that make or break the system," he says.
Fraser agrees that effective staff training will be the most important factor going to the success of any new system.
"With a technology or information solution - whether it's document management or any other type of application - the actual software DVD is just 25 to 30 per cent of the problem you're trying to solve. The rest of it is change management and business processes," he says.
"Giving people a great piece of software on DVD is for naught if you don't implement the right change management within the organisation."
For this reason, Scorgie says Deacons aimed to make their system as intuitive as possible. "The goal we aim for is internet intuitiveness, which minimises training. What we say is that no-one was trained using the internet - you worked it out for yourself," he says. "We're trying to break that traditional training-on-software model, because it's very, very difficult training lawyers on complex software applications."
Take your pick ... carefully
Although the rise in the use of mobile devices - such as Blackberries and mobile phones - and the increased use of email has clearly had benefits for law firms, it also heightens the risk of information leakages. For law firms - which handle large volumes of confidential and privileged information - the security features on a document management system are particularly important.
For this reason, Hall advises firms to take care when selecting a technology provider. "I highly encourage law practices to be very upfront about their specialised requirements and to make sure the vendors or the systems integrators have some experience in providing services and solutions to legal firms and that they understand the language and how the business works," he says.
"There's a lot of products out there and there's some very talented systems from the vendors that really understand legal practices that can customise solutions and put something together that will work really well. That's the main thing - you don't want to be the first guy on the block to try out that new product."
- By Zoe Lyon