It may not be sexy, or even much thought about and appreciated, but document management systems (DMS) are one of the central vertebra in the corporate backbone. Like an old friend, document management has been used to track and file electronic documents throughout much of the enterprise for decades. Despite this longstanding familiarity with DM, however, experts say that legal departments have lagged in adopting DM tools, and are still searching for the most effective ways to use them.

Part of the problem is that many legal departments have never had the option of choosing their own DM solution. Companies frequently impose the enterprisewide DMS, or a specific vendor, upon the legal team, which can be problematic because lawyers’ needs typically differ from those of other departments. In those cases, counsel simply have to make do with what they’re given. But when given a choice, a host of new, legal-specific DM technologies are currently available.

There are a number of vendors that market directly to legal departments. Ralph Schroeder, managing director of Hyperion Research, an independent research and advisory service dedicated to the legal industry, points to Autonomy Corp., OpenText Corp. and Worldox as the major DMS players that already service much of the Fortune 500. Although most vendors’ solutions are scalable to a given department’s size and needs, Schroeder says many smaller legal teams historically have used Microsoft SharePoint, which wasn’t really a great solution—at least until now.

“In the past, those who really knew document management wouldn’t have considered SharePoint to be a viable solution,” Schroeder says. “But now, we’re starting to see SharePoint become a practical alternative for the law department. It has evolved into a true document management solution.”

The variety and growth of DM technology directly parallels the rapidly growing amount of electronic information that those systems need to manage. And nowhere is that need more important than in the legal department, which is faced with managing myriad types of documents, email and other records.

Steps Forward

In response to this need, DM solutions now have the ability to deal with large volumes of documents with the addition of assisted or automatic filing capabilities. A DMS can now learn where a user files a certain email or document, and the next time a similar item arises, the DMS automatically asks the user if he wants to file it in the same folder. This ability can be a boon, especially in large legal departments that generate a great deal of information because filing these documents is likely not high on the attorneys’ priority lists.

“Telling an attorney to file information is like telling my kids to put their toys away—it never happens,” says Neil Araujo, CEO of Autonomy Protect, which is a business unit of Autonomy. “So the more automation you can bring, the better it is.”

Automation also plays into another advancement found in many DM solutions. New DM systems have assessory tools, Schroeder says, that enable users to create and assemble documents based on a set of standard, preapproved clauses, as well as other tools that foster better collaboration around documents in the system.

Tracking Trends

Like much of the rest of the world, mobility may be the single biggest trend in document management in 2012. The DM vendors recognize this, and are adding mobile and remote accessibility capabilities to their DM systems.

“This issue of remote access is a problem,” says Ray Zwiefelhofer, president of World Software Corp., the maker of Worldox. “Attorneys are having problems easily getting remote access to their documents. Many have to get around their firewalls and place their documents in drop boxes so they can access them at home.”

Autonomy’s Araujo agrees, saying his customers are clamoring for the ability to access information anywhere, particularly through iPhones and iPads.

“It’s actually driven the demand for DM in a way,” he says. “If you have corporate information sitting on file servers or on your local PC, it’s not accessible from a mobile device because it’s not easy to sync them. Having a central store where you can manage the information opens the door for you to access the file from almost anywhere and work with it.”

Observers note that corporate legal DM users tend to be more sensitive about security these days, especially due to the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Because of this, DM users are more vigilant about controlling who can view or download documents, as well as encrypting documents when they’re stored or passed to others.

Another trend Araujo sees are customers saying they’re taking more of a platform approach to document management—finding one system to solve multiple problems rather than trying to stitch together multiple disparate systems to achieve the same goal.

Inside Thoughts

Trends and observations from vendors and analysts aside, what really matters to legal departments are the potential benefits a DM system can provide. Julie Edgar, manager, law and administration at wood products company Boise Cascade LLC, says her 14-person legal department has been using DM technology since 2002.

The biggest reason for the legal department purchasing a DM solution, she says, was to get away from the “island practice” where an attorney, their assistant and paralegal would have their own document storage location and cryptic nomenclature. The DMS alleviated this problem, and helped the department meet its document retention schedule and obligations, as well as eliminated tons of excess paper once it was scanned and electronically stored in a central repository.

In addition to the day-to-day work, Boise Cascade’s legal team uses its DMS for due diligence, electronic data rooms and many other projects.

“[Our DMS] really improves our ability to do our jobs,” Edgar says. “With the style of practice that we have, when our clients call, they’re often looking for an answer to a specific issue that doesn’t take days to research. [Our DMS] enables us to respond immediately.”