A document or record today can take many forms – paper, email, voicemail, SMS, messaging and so on. This, coupled with the continual pace of technological change and ever-growing regulatory demands, the business imperative for a strategic and comprehensive information lifecycle-led approach to document management has now become critical. The traditional approach to document management is no longer fit for purpose.

The following are the most pressing reasons why all law firms, regardless of size, need a robust approach to the function:

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

According to a recent report, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) receives approximately 40 complaints of breaches of confidentiality a month; and under the current Data Protection Act, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) can issue a fine of up to £500,000. Come 25 May 2018, these fines could potentially increase up to 4% of global turnover. This survey of 150 legal sector IT decision-makers reveals that only 25% of firms are presently compliant with the requirements of the GDPR – or, rather worryingly, 75% are not.

Law firms need to be acutely aware of two things – one, that Brexit will not rid them of the burden of the GDPR. The regulation will kick-in before Brexit; GDPR will apply to those firms that collect personal data and provide legal services to countries in the EU; and from all reports, the UK will adopt the regulation in its entirety to facilitate trading with the region. Secondly, compliance with the GDPR is not going to be a one-off process. It will need to be a key component of a firms’ ongoing information governance strategy.

The role of a good document management system (DMS) cannot be underestimated. For instance, a good DMS offers the capability to track all personal data that is mapped to every client and every engagement in order to deliver against the GDPR requirements of ‘right to erasure’ and ‘right for data portability’.

Similarly, in order to eliminate the risk of over-retention, the contemporary DMS supports and applies client-specific information retention policies. A retention policy offers guidance and provides a framework for employees to manage information across its lifecycle so that the entire organisation complies with the various laws and regulations pertaining to data management. The debacle of the Panama/Paradise Papers remains a prime example of extremely poor document management governance with no retention scheduling. A modern DMS will help automate the firm’s retention policy, which can be applied to physical files, electronic documents and email correspondence – so that when a record comes to the end of its life, it is deleted in accordance with the organisation’s rules.


Firms today need dynamic functionality that goes beyond traditional document management capability. For instance, a new DMS will offer lawyers Google-like search capability that enables easy navigation of large result sets –  across emails, documents and images – and tuned to their work style with prioritised results based on their search patterns.

These systems will offer several other productivity-enhancing features too, which can help lawyers deliver improved client work. As an example, with mobile working having become a way of life for professionals, a modern DMS will allow lawyers to view large documents on a device; and even download to the relevant page. Similarly, features such as document timelines, dashboards and analytics will also be available. In fact, they are fast becoming essential for better decision making.

Some firms today opt to deploy platforms such as Microsoft SharePoint for document management. This is genuinely a counterproductive approach. SharePoint is good for some things, but the cost of developing SharePoint so that it consistently delivers the kind of above-mentioned functionality is prohibitive due to the specialist skills required, the continuous in-house software development, and the ongoing high level of support and project management.  The cost rises further as third-party tools utilities and integrations are bolted on for additional functionality such email and records management as well as other legal specific requirements including meta-data scrubbing, document comparison, eSignatures, and so on.

Email management

With a large proportion of critical information residing in emails today, the ability to effectively manage email and indeed data from other sources such as voicemails, SMS and messaging apps is essential. A good DMS will offer lawyers the ability to easily manage both documents and emails from within their Outlook folders.  Even dialogues and discussions that take place via email pertaining to matters – that don’t necessarily form part of more formalised documents – can be captured. The ease of use of such systems is phenomenal too.

To illustrate, a modern DMS will analyse incoming emails and based on their inherent properties, suggest filing locations to users, who can even save emails directly from Outlook using the ‘save’ command in Office and Office 365.  Previously filed emails are clearly marked, so lawyers don’t waste time filing what their colleagues have already filed. A more advanced DMS will even provide the option of automatic email filing to lawyers.

Pessimistic security

Last year, a report estimated that hackers stole £85 million from UK law firms over an 18-month period. It is now widely acknowledged that law firms are the weakest link to their clients, often because the security measures they have in place are massively inadequate. Typically, law firms focus most on prevention technology such as expensive firewalls. But what happens when the perimeter is breached? Given the onslaught of breaches today, a current DMS will give firms the ability to adopt pessimistic security measures. It is a restrictive model that automatically locks down access to data in the event of unusual activity like a user trying to see a file without the right password and security clearance.

This approach will enable governance to be embedded into the firm. In such as situation, every piece of client data is associated with a specific policy. So, every policy will include things like where data is saved, what other information is saved with it, how long has it been stored in the same location and who has access to it. Therefore, any untoward activity related to that piece of data will automatically get flagged up, allowing the firm to quickly and pre-emptively lock down the data and then take the necessary investigative action to determine the problem. A modern DMS will offer advanced threat detection and remediation capability, which is essential to protecting sensitive data, reducing the risk of breaches and mitigating damage, should a security event actually occur.

Artificial intelligence

Speedy access and informative insights into business and matter data delivers competitive advantage to law firms. This is the leading-edge functionality that some systems are already providing using Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology to help fee earners analyse information within and attached to the electronic documents and emails to quickly and accurately locate the right facts/evidence/material across all of the content residing in the system. This capability will deliver exceptional efficiency to lawyers who often in large, complex cases have to sift through hundreds of thousands of legal documents to extract critical information. Sophisticated DMSs are integrating AI technology directly into the workflow of the solution to learn how to do these highly repetitive tasks freeing up resources to provide more bespoke and high value add services.

By adopting a ‘bolt on’ or a traditional DMS, law firms are putting their business and clients at risk. It is a huge misconception that the latest technology is out of reach of small or growing law firms. To illustrate, the cost of a contemporary DMS in the cloud can be less than an employee’s mobile phone expense per month.


The best modern document management systems are now far more than a dumb centralised filing system.  They are complete work product management systems providing a high level of security, regulatory compliance, knowledge management, search and discovery and even utilise the latest artificial intelligence technology. This market is evolving at a fast pace as are business requirements, regulations and security threats.

In order to be more competitive, differentiate their legal services, and improve customer satisfaction, small to mid-sized law firms should aspire to adopt the same professional tools that large law firms use; and take advantage of the cost, efficiency and productivity benefits that new technologies offer. It will have a direct, positive effect on the bottom line and significantly enhance client service, which is essential to building a favourable reputation for the firm in the marketplace.

Antony Wells is a Senior Account Manager at Ascertus Limited. Email antony.wells@ascertus.com. Twitter @Ascertus.

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