Mobile lawyers and visions of single matter-centric systems – update on legal DMS trends

In early 2011 The Lawyer reported that “Clifford Chance and Microsoft plan new dawn for legal market IT” by a million-pound joint venture allowing Microsoft way into the legal sector. Clifford Chance’s deal with Microsoft involved the software company funding the development of the new platform in exchange for the kudos of working with the UK’s largest law firm. At the time of the deal announcement, the magic circle firm had been working with the ­technology giant, which was considering a concerted push into the global legal market, for several months on a new document management system (DMS) based on Microsoft’s SharePoint software suite of products. IT specialists were forecasting that this could “mark a seismic shift in the legal technology market” with law firms moving from specific legal document management systems like Interwoven iManage WorkSite and OpenText DM5 to SharePoint.

However, in a blog post here on Legal Innovation Blog half a year later, in August 2011, called “Microsoft closes legal sector” we reported on the contradictory news that Microsoft had announced the closing down of its specialist legal vertical market team. The impact hereof on current Microsoft legal sector projects, including the SharePoint DMS initiative at Clifford Chance were unknown at the time. Now, about a year later, we were therefore curious to see how Clifford Chance’s SharePoint DMS project has been coming along and generally how the forecasted move from specialised legal document management systems to SharePoint has proceeded.

An extensive interview with Clifford Chance CIO Paul Greenwood was published on Legal IT Professionals in July, with a good summary of the project and the status 1,5 years later. Please see “SharePoint: Document Management and beyond at Clifford Chance”. In the interview, Paul Greenwood explains how the firm had as a strategy to move away from home-grown systems towards a single system for managing all types of content. “So we decided to bite the bullet and work with Microsoft to fill in any gaps in the out-of-the-box SharePoint solution and therefore help steer the product in the direction we wanted, rather than trying to identify all our requirements and look for a system that already fulfilled them today but that may not be so good a long term bet.”

In response to the debate in the legal IT world about using SharePoint as a document management system, Paul Greenwood admits that “SharePoint cannot do everything out of the box and feedback from lawyers is that it doesn’t always work in the same way as DM5 so they sometimes have to change the way they work. We might have to fill in some gaps, but it is often a case of getting people to do things slightly differently, which is always a challenge.”

As to the project status, reportedly so far half the firm is live, but only in the first phase with document management and management reporting and not yet as the desired one folder or site-collection with all matter related data including knowledge, email and related documents. The main issue to solve is how to include emails in the system, as a major part of the matter consists of emails and a system therefore never can be matter centric with all emails missing.

Paul Greenwood also comments on the fact that Microsoft dismantled their legal vertical team last year: “I don’t think it means that they do not want to sell to law firms, but not many industries have that vertical support structure around them. That is not the way Microsoft is organised, so they felt it was something of an anomaly. Law firms felt that sent a mixed message but this certainly has not affected the way we work with Microsoft or the scale of their commitment to our project.”

In the post “SharePoint – bogged down and out of the battle?” Jason Plant, has commented insightfully on the progress of Clifford Chance’s SharePoint DM project and generally on the alleged manoeuvring from iManage WorkSite’s crown as the legal DMS of choice:

“My first concern for any big law firm thinking of SharePoint is the length of time taken to reach the objective. The project is getting on for two years old and so far only half the firm is live (3000 staff), as an example we have recently put nearly 1000 staff onto WorkSite in a project taking a little over 6 months (the main logistics of the rollout being the last 7 weeks of the 6 months where we also replaced the desktop estate too). Yes you could argue that any new technology brings delays, but you have to weigh those up against the benefits you’re going to get. One of the main benefits touted for SharePoint is the cost savings!

The biggest concern though for me, and I think should be for any firm, is the lack of email management. Managing the volumes of email today is much more critical to firms than just the documents of the firm. Keeping an up to date electronic file with todays mobile lawyers is an essential part of any DMS. Clifford Chance say “We are still deciding how best to present email content in SharePoint”, this is two years in! As Joanna puts it in the article “So basically you don’t have and will not have for the foreseeable future one folder or site-collection with all your matter related data including knowledge, email and related documents”. On current progress in legal, SharePoint doesn’t look to me to be a threat to iManage anytime soon with these two issues. However there could be one secret weapon up Microsoft’s sleeve that may turn the tide.”

At ILTA 2011 Clifford Chance and their implementation of SharePoint DMS was a headline story. Here is the presentation made by Grant Newton Clifford Chance and Tyler Durham Microsoft, “SharePoint as a Document Management System”. After visiting this event, Mike Ferrera wrote the article “Is the Legal Industry Ready for SharePoint?”, analysing the ILTA discussions about using the SharePoint platform as a document management system, in lieu of Autonomy Worksite or OpenText DOCS Open, and the recent decision by Microsoft to close down their legal sales team: “The biggest law firms in the world have a few thousand total users. The biggest corporations that Microsoft caters to are in the hundreds of thousands. You’d think that would make things easier for Microsoft. But legal tends to be the most fussy when it comes to document management, something SharePoint has been severely criticized about. After all, a law firm’s entire business model is driven by authoring, delivering and storing documents. Their competition has been perfecting this technology for many years, and SharePoint has some catching up to do. Legal also tends to think that they are the most important vertical on the block. In my world, they are. In Microsoft’s world, they are a small catch.”

In the Law Technology News article “Migrating Documents From a Legacy DMS to SharePoint” Mark Gerow points out that although the suitability of SharePoint as a DMS has been discussed, one concern that remains largely unaddressed is that of migrating documents in a legacy DMS to SharePoint. Unfortunately there is no turnkey migration solution, so firms wishing to migrate their documents will need to roll their own, requiring a fairly deep understanding of the data structures in their legacy DMS, .NET optimization, SQL Server, and the SharePoint API, to make it possible to migrate millions of documents into SharePoint with metadata, versions, history, and permissions intact.

As a summary, the forecasted “seismic shift in the legal technology market” with law firms moving from specific legal document management systems to SharePoint has not yet come true. The legal DMS market is slow and major changes like implementing a new document management system are not done swiftly. As revealed in the latest Insider UK Top 200 Charts, a compilation by Legal Technology Insider, showing the major IT systems in use by the UK’s 200 largest law firms, most law firms are still using separate providers like Autonomy iManage, OpenText DM or similar conventional document management system which have been developed to meet the specific legal demands for advanced version and security control, individual document numbers, metadata retention, email management and integration and the capability to efficiently manage huge volumes of content, for document management whereas other separate systems are used for more collaborative functions like intranets, project platforms, deal rooms, workflows and client access functions. The fundamental point of difference between a conventional DMS and SharePoint is that with SharePoint one shared platform can be used for all of these services and functions. However, until the management of emails is supported in a more advanced way, SharePoint as a DMS will have a clear disadvantage compared to the existing specific legal document management systems. “The elephant in the room is email. How can a system be matter centric if 70% of the matter file i.e all of the emails, are missing?” The importance of emails will not diminish either, thus making it a significant factor when choosing a legal document management system. But maybe a better email support in SharePoint is the secret weapon up Microsoft’s sleeve that may turn the tide and turn SharePoint into a truly viable legal DMS?