DOCUMENT MANAGEMENT: Creating order out of law
In the 1970s legal firms' documents were managed using inflexible and proprietary systems, but with the arrival of PCs came powerful EDM systems and fee earners can now spend more time revenue gathering and less shuffling paper
To fully understand the relationship between document management and the legal market it is necessary to examine their joint history. The legal sector and document management have been synonymous for more than 20 years. Law firms are prodigious users of paper and document management is a means to control its flow. In the 1970s, the computer world was ruled by a handful of manufacturers such as IBM, Wang, ICL, Data General and DEC. Through these, law firms were provided with an all-encompassing environment that included word processing, document management, e-mail and other business applications.Expensive by today’s standards, these systems provided security, centralised management, data back-up and accurate filing. Although these systems were integrated, they were proprietary, inflexible and had no colour or graphics capabilities. Ultimately the days of these proprietary systems were numbered, and they began to die in the late 1980s with the take-up of the PC.Law firms enthusiastically took to the PC. With its increasing power and diminishing cost, it rapidly put paid to the shared logic system. Users were suddenly faced with a powerful processor on their desks. Unfortunately some users, suddenly released from the discipline of naming conventions and access routines, created chaos in terms of keeping track of documents compared to the ordered environment of the shared logic system. Thus electronic document management (EDM) was born.EDM became the glue that linked the diversity of available applications and operating systems. The focus was on individuals creating documents and placing them in a repository for all to share in a secure way. Major steps were taken that allowed people to search for a document based on its attributes or content, and advances were made so that a document was locked to stop two people writing on it at the same time.The initial players in the EDM arena were Saros Mezzanine, selling into the large US and larger UK firms, and SoftSolutions which, under the WordPerfect flag, provided integrated office systems such as e-mail.However, SoftSolutions began to run out of steam as the erosion of WordPerfect led to the product’s fall, which consequently crushed SoftSolutions. After being sold to Novell, then out of Novell and into Corel, SoftSolutions’ lost out. This left a newer product Open, introduced by Canadian company PC Docs, without a significant competitor.In recent years, PC Docs acquired Fulcrum to benefit from that company’s knowledge management technology. The combined company PC Docs/Fulcrum was subsequently acquired by US software giant Hummingbird. New organisations began taking full advantage of the opportunities thrown up by the new technologies. Integrators began to migrate their legal clients to the new ‘open’ systems based on Unix and PC network technology. With the new infrastructure came EDM to retain the functionality that would otherwise be lost in the change.Today, many of the original players have either lost focus or moved on. The top document management vendors in the medium-sized to large firm currently include iManage, Hummingbird, FileNet, Documentum and for the smaller firm, WorldDox.Hummingbird, iManage, Documentum and FileNet offer a standard interface and deliver what is considered ‘industry strength’ EDM. This includes such essentials for the medium-sized to large law firm as operating system level security and ensuring documents are filed according to document management conventions.WorldDox entered where SoftSolutions left, catering for the smaller law firm. With its proprietary database, WorldDox offered excellent performance. But the product can be circumvented and users can disable the product resulting in potential chaos in terms of document management. It would seem that the proprietary database has resulted in a loss of ground for WorldDox, particularly with the arrival of iManage.iManage originally entered the legal market in 1996 with a view to attracting SoftSolutions customers. Developed by a team of former SoftSolutions and Docs Open staff, iManage provides all the major document management system functionality such as full-text searching, archiving, document viewing, and management, all provided out of the box. Open document management architecture (Odma)-compliant, iManage’s software solutions are built on a flexible, three-tiered architecture that provides users with web browser-based interfaces along industry accredited scalable servers. The product is fully integrated with all major word processing and spreadsheet applications. Today, iManage is competing for the market leader’s customer base and is one to watch.Because EDM solutions reduce the amount of time involved in information searching, analysing and categorising, lawyers or fee earners are able to spend more time on revenue-generating activity and customer service. EDM is providing employees with immediate access to the latest information at the right time, but they also help them make the best use of corporate knowledge, which is a key requirement today. The ‘new generation’ of EDM vendors are taking over where IBM, DEC, Wang etc left off. The hardware and software infrastructures have become totally open, but there is a reliance by these vendors to work with specialist legal integrators to provide the integration of legal business applications such as litigation support, case management and document comparison.EDM is becoming an essential part of many law firms’ IT infrastructure to increase fee earner productivity and reduce support costs. The integration with office automation applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint is so tight as to be unnoticeable to users. EDM has speeded up turnaround times for fee earners, improving productivity as documents can be accessed, edited and tracked more efficiently. It is essential that document management and legal applications work together seamlessly, in the same way that word processors currently do with document management. The successful document management system will not be sold as a standalone solution, but one that allows itself to be embedded as an engine for third parties to develop their own legal applications.
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