As SharePoint continues to gain traction in the enterprise, the legal industry is beginning to consider it as a major player in the document and content management arena. The buzz surrounding Workshare Point has gained a steady following, so I thought I would spend some time showing you a lesser-known competitor in this market, DMSForLegal.
Developed by Epona, based out of the Netherlands, DMSForLegal has begun a push for US exposure. Whereas the aim of both Workshare Point and DMSForLegal is identical, the latter has been around for a couple of years, which may sway US firms in its favor.
DMSForLegal uses a matter-centric approach first introduced in the Interwoven WorkSite product family, now owned by Autonomy. It has also adopted the methodology of a "My Matters" look-and-feel from within Outlook, which is still the command center for most law firms. With matter-centricity, the system assumes that every document or piece of content is "owned" by a matter that begins from the matter intake process. In a matter-centric document management system, this is visualized by a folder structure in which documents are stored. Each folder structure is a template based on some criteria such as practice group or billing attorney.
Some of the other popular features included with DMSForLegal are email management with auto-filing of incoming messages, quicker access of recently accessed documents, profiling of documents, the ability to subscribe to other users’ matters, support for SharePoint/Office 2010 and the ease of being able to work with documents organized by client and matter metadata.
Again, if these are new to you, just know that they are not new concepts for the legal vertical. They’ve all been featured in the leading document management and content management systems for law firms for some time now. DMSForLegal aims to bring those features to the SharePoint platform as an alternative to the competition.
Using a matter-centric design in SharePoint is not going to be a groundbreaking endeavor. SharePoint, in and of itself, is a robust platform. If you have experience with SharePoint administration, you shouldn’t have any problem with the implementation. The challenge is deciding on an architecture that will work for your firm. The beauty of SharePoint is its ability to adapt. DMSForLegal allows for an open-ended approach to the design by not getting in the way of logical architecture.
An acceptable approach could be site collections that represent practice groups, such as Litigation or Real Estate. Each site collection would then house sites that represent each client belonging to each practice group. Below, each client site would be matter sites that represent the matter housing, the physical WIP and final documents. Again, this is only one example of how a firm might design such a system.
Metadata vs. Folders
When Interwoven first coined the matter-centric approach, they commissioned a study that had shown attorneys' favorability to a folder structure for content. Even though that study was done long ago, I still think the sentiment remains much the same. In addition to that, much of the competition has had a centralized model for metadata for a long time. SharePoint 2010’s managed metadata service may not be a buzzworthy feature for law firms who are new to SharePoint.
The debate of using metadata as opposed to a folder structure will probably still be raging on when SharePoint 2030 is released. Rather than living in the black-and-white of one or the other, I personally think a hybrid approach will best serve most firms. DMSForLegal leaves the choice to you. It assumes that you are looking to expose a folder structure to your users regardless of the amount of metadata you decide to provide. You can go with one folder or fifty. As long as you are operating within the boundaries of SharePoint, then this choice is open-ended.
The primary goal for any law firm looking for a product like this is to make sure it is integrated with the Office suite. Opening and saving documents should be integrated with Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, at least. A close second to that goal is the ability for a system to fit in the matter intake process. There is no out-of-the-box solution to accomplish this with SharePoint. DMSForLegal accomplishes both of these in some way.
For starters, it integrates with the main four Office products. This means that the open and save operations are hijacked by the client product. This allows users to save documents to the matter they are working on.
Secondly, DMSForLegal already supports integration with Aderant Expert and Elite. This allows for automated matter creation (which in this case is automated site provisioning) based on requirements specified by the firm. As the product matures, integration with other financial and practice management products will be available by Epona and third-party vendors.
Time will tell how Epona fares stateside, but their product offers much of what law firms are looking for. Whether SharePoint is your firm’s next step or first step into true document management, the choices are ever-expanding. I think we will begin to see a slow shift toward SharePoint in the legal industry as a replacement for some of the more established products currently found on the desktops of most law firms.