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Document Management: Best Practices

Ask just about any IT director about their first document management system project and you'll hear a similar refrain. All the right steps were followed — everything from the subcommittee studies to the selection of the vendor after an intensive review process all the way through mandatory training. Once the dust settles, a collective sigh is heard across the firm, as everyone from the partners to administrative staff all head into that brave new world of centralized document storage … until just one person poignantly asks, "Now what do we do?" You can hear a pin drop in the silence that follows.

The one key piece that was missing was the discussions and formalization of document management best practices. The impact of "best practices" — processes that, over time, have been shown to be most effective in using a system of such complexity as a DMS — are actually at the core of every successful technology project.

It is the difference between software that just "works," and software that makes a profound, positive difference in how the firm exploits the power of the technology.

Using industry-accepted best practices as a baseline is wise, but a proper best practices manual should reflect your firm's culture and the needs of your practice groups.

Consider the following guidelines when developing this manual, an effort that should begin no later than the project's design phase.

·  Who Are We? Not all practice groups use document management systems the same way. Litigation groups have different needs than transactional groups: this is true whether it involves data retention periods, document categories, acceptable file types, security settings, or any of the other configurable attributes in the profile.

·  File Naming Conventions. To enhance the DMS' search capabilities, define standards when naming files. This is especially useful when practice groups span multiple offices.

·  Versioning. Modern document management systems help users create multiple versions of the same document. Some firms eschew the use of versions entirely. Other firms completely embrace versioning and define when versions should be used and how to manage them with sharing with clients.

·  Security. Should private settings be allowed? How can security settings be managed to maintain existing and future ethical walls? When considering document security, a healthy balance is needed between maintaining reasonable security measures and not rendering the DMS unusable because few documents are available to all.

·  Folder Versus Flat Structure. For a time, document management systems made it easy for firms to wean users from the Windows folder layouts and adopt the "all files in one large space" or flat structure. These days, DMS designers recognize that it is very natural for users to think of their documents in folders (and subfolders). How documents are stored and arranged is not only a design issue, but a critical factor in the ongoing use of the system.

·  Knowledge Management. No best practices manual is complete without a significant section devoted to KM and how the firm's use of the DMS must be consistent with its knowledge management strategy. Knowledge management is not document management; the latter is only one component of a comprehensive knowledge management system — but it is an important one. Any DMS best practice needs to advance your firm's KM strategy.


A consistent and well-written best practices manual that reflects both your firm's culture and the needs of all practice groups is only one part of the project's success. Securing the adoption of these practices in all areas of the firm is critical to the manual's development.

Some advice in this regard:

·  Be consistent with your message. From start to finish, a consistent (and often repeated) message is needed: what are the market forces (client, industry) that are driving the need for a document management system and what will be real and measurable improvements in production once a DMS is in place.

·  Include varying examples to illustrate concepts. Some DMS concepts are abstract, especially to new users. Keep in mind that people relate to real-life examples more easily when illustrating foreign concepts. If you tailor your examples to appeal to the concerns of the different practice groups and administrative departments, you will help promote acceptance of the document management system.

·  Clearly define what is required versus suggested. Everyone involved with the design phase of the DMS project will have plenty of ideas for what "must" be included in the final product. While participants should be encouraged to provide views, it is crucial to separate the "must haves" from the "nice to haves." This will help keep your DMS from getting bogged down with features that really aren't beneficial to the entire firm.

·  Ensure public support. A consistent message is only as strong as the most powerful supporter of the DMS project. The project owner needs to engage the public support of respected members of key committees and administrative department heads very early in the project. Project sponsors, especially those at a high level, can use their influence to overcome objections and limit debate to pertinent issues. This "air cover" will immensely help those running the project so the difficult business of implementing a complex document management system is all they are doing.