Even though physical paper-based files are fast becoming historic artefacts, firms are still struggling to embrace the realities of the digital revolution. In this article Peter Zver, president of Tikit North America*, argues that this needs to change, and quickly, if firms are to get ahead of the new challenges of document lifecycle management in a cloud-centric digital world.
Once upon a time most firms had paper files which they stored in filing cabinets. So it was pretty straightforward. Every document went into the file. The file got fatter. When eventually the matter was concluded, the file was archived and in due course destroyed to free valuable storage space or, on the rare occasion a formal retention policy dictated it, the firm would return the file to the client. Of course that’s all changing now. And firms, enthusiastically or reluctantly, will have to change too, because digital is disrupting the old model and throwing up a range of new challenges that can’t be sidestepped.
Digital vs. paper
Challenge number one is pace. Documents are created and exchanged much more quickly than ever before. It becomes harder to keep track and keep hold of what is being produced. And with this speed comes the challenge of effective document version control management.
Another challenge is place. A lot of content is now found all over the place: in emails and maybe even texts and tweets; in audio and maybe even video files. So what are the policies and procedures around capturing this content so that it ends up in the client’s file and forms part of the permanent record? Do attorneys and administrators have clear guidance and policies on how digital content should be handled?
Next – and critically – what form do your files now actually take? Are they physical, are they digital or are they both? If both how are they synchronised? Do people understand which version of the file is definitive and know where it can be found? Are there consistent and watertight systems and processes in place that ensure the integrity of the file? In the legal world few things are as dangerous as a partial file or one spanning multiple mediums.
The desire to collaborate
Another new challenge is the growing expectation among clients that they will be able to collaborate with the firm on documents, in real time. This means, in essence, that they can access any given document remotely, knowing they are looking at the one and only current version.
Of course, the same goes for the firm’s attorneys who also may need to access files remotely. Both parties expect to be able to edit the right version and to be able to see a full audit trail for each document from its creation to disposal. As well, this all needs to happen in a very secure way. The final challenge is ensuring that all of the firm’s document lifecycle management goes beyond competent, secure and compliant. It needs to be done efficiently and cost effectively too. There are a couple of tariffs to pay if the firm fails to do document lifecycle management well. First you incur additional internal costs. Second clients will penalise those firms that don’t get it right. Indeed clients are already challenging firms to demonstrate their competence in the use of technology surrounding document creation and delivery. Clients are not willing to pick up the bill for their law firm’s inefficiencies in work product management. Firms can no longer afford not to engage seriously with document lifecycle management. This has always been a challenge, but now that challenge has become acute.
Firms are in transition
The truth is that most firms are currently in a state of transition. They’re in the process of assessing all the moving parts of document lifecycle management and of developing policies, processes, systems and technologies that will meet the challenges that digital and the new law firm/client relationship is throwing up.
At the same time, firms need to remember that there are opportunities to be seized in this area. The goal is to be both competent and efficient during transition and to reach a point where service delivery and the law firm/client relationship can be enhanced through a digital experience. The firms that can demonstrate they are ahead of the pack in this regard will gain competitive advantage.
In response a large number of suppliers are scrambling to build piecemeal solutions (i.e. race to the cloud) to individual problems. They are reacting to the transformation that’s underway, but maybe are as much on the back foot as most firms.
What is needed are holistic solutions that address the document lifecycle, from creation to disposal, in an integrated way, recognizing cloud as a foundational element. Firms need to work with experts who have deep sector and technical experience, who can tell them what’s possible, and help build a digital document strategy going forward which ensures that the firm’s all important client relationships are supported. This is how firms will meet the challenges of a cloud-centric digital world and thrive.
*Tikit is a world-leader in technology solutions for law firms. We specialize in providing end-to-end solutions that help firms to be better connected, more efficient and to improve their bottom line.