When I discuss this solution at conferences or with peers, invariably the initial reaction is something like this: “Are you crazy? Why would you use SharePoint when you could use a commercially available product for archiving?” I must admit there were times over the two years we took to develop this solution, in partnership with Handshake Software, that I did feel a little crazy; however, we never lost sight of our goal. As you are about to see, this effort was about much more than merely archiving email.

The Email Conundrum

What are a typical law firm’s business practices and the challenges they face? Law firms do not sell widgets; we aid our clients in the form of legally sufficient document content and trial services. Clients have complicated issues that rarely translate easily from one case (aka matter) to another. The need to evaluate the circumstances and risks weighted against the desired outcomes varies for every client’s needs. Depending on the type of case, the jurisdiction(s) involved and other attorneys (opposing and co-counsel) the outcome(s) can vary dramatically from case to case and often represents a compromise between the parties based on the facts and circumstances as they unfold. The primary means of client communications and delivery method for intermediary and final document products is email.

Case materials are generated with different applications, from a variety of data sources (both internal and external) which produce different file types by a variety of firm personnel on tight timelines. It is not unusual for law firms to support 50 to 100+ different data and risk management applications and dozens of enterprise and workgroup (practice) databases. This is what drives content diversity, increases storage/retention challenges and fractures training/support issues in law firms. In summary, it is challenging to systemically provide user context to content when it is spread out across so many systems for tens of thousands of clients and hundreds of thousands of cases. Hopefully this short summary lends some understanding to the issues we faced.

The firm organizes new business in a structure that tags all business entities with a unique client number and the transactions for each client with a unique matter number for that client. For example, 12345.67890 would indicate client number 12345 is Johnson Hospital and 67890 would be property acquisition matter for them. Just about everything we do for a client is tagged with this unique identifier, including accounting transactions, documents, physical records, critical dates, etc. This allows us to reach in to various systems and discretely withdraw content and data the user requests. Such client/matter tagging is typical of most firms in the legal industry. Extending this method of tagging client and matter metadata to email would quadruple the amount of content within our inventory.

Our solution would require a user-friendly method and UI to store email content in the context of the client and retrieve that content and related data to the matter being processed. There were not any “off the shelf” solutions that would meet our needs. We had to create a solution that allows the firm to manage email like any other enterprise content item, because email is just that: A content item, a piece of the larger content puzzle our lawyers use every day to support clients. Miller Johnson has, for several years now, been orchestrating a series of strategic initiatives meant to create, as close to an enterprise content management solution as a company our size can sustain. Unraveling the email conundrum was the hardest part of the puzzle to solve thus far. Hopefully after reading this article you too will see how SharePoint can be leveraged to aggregate disparate content and data into meaningful context for your users.

The Case of Miller Johnson

Miller Johnson, like so many law firms, has struggled for years with burgeoning email systems, varying retention policies and lack of a comprehensive solution for storing, retrieving and leveraging email content in support of a matter. Most solutions tend to archive email content to lesser expensive storage while leaving a stub of the item in Outlook. This would have resolved some of our storage issues; however, it would not have resolved our larger retention, retrieval and content sharing requirements.

Legal industry solutions tend to center around moving that content into a document management solution that meets some of the retrieval requirements, but the profiling motion was not elegant, and we already had issues leveraging DM content against other LOB systems, such as Accounting, Records, Docket, etc. Besides, we already had integration between Outlook and DM for years, but adoption was poor because attorneys did not like the user interface, profile pop-up forms, etc. After five years, only 100,000 items out of the 1.7+ million items in our DM store were email messages. Our attorneys had already “voted” on traditional DM integration, and we heard them loud and clear…

We needed a new paradigm, one that would allow us to leverage all of our existing systems against our enterprise content. We knew we would have to provide our attorneys a method that respected the way they interacted with Outlook, mainly drag and drop profiling and retrieving content “at click” by navigating into folders. We also knew we had to ensure we tagged the content with a diverse amount of metadata to facilitate the profiling and retrieval functions. The problem was in 2008, there was not anything in the industry that met all of those requirements! Dejectedly, we shelved the project and decided to carry around the burden of 300+ GB of email for a while longer.

By mid-2009 we had several powerful SharePoint systems in place or emerging and understood the promise of SharePoint and Handshake’s impact on our firm. This was the year the firm laid the foundation for using SharePoint to connect our LOB systems and build a rich and diverse metadata catalog with Handshake Software products. We began formulating ideas on how we could leverage our existing investments in SharePoint against our email and document management challenges. We had our solution for ensuring we could provide a wealth of enriched metadata against our enterprise content; however, we were still lacking a lawyer-friendly UI to leverage this against.

We had developed, over the course of 2009, our SharePoint and Handshake ECM framework, which allows the firm to exchange and enrich what were previously isolated metadata elements from key LOB systems into a robust enterprise-wide metadata catalogue, which we can leverage against content or system requirements. This ensures we provide powerful context views to the content being retrieved, as well as ensuring it is directed at the right target audience.

By late 2009, the firm had 350+ GB of email, over 6.2 million content items, in MS Exchange 2003, and we were definitely ready to solve this problem once and for all. We partnered with Handshake, which had developed an early version of EMD; however, it did not have a firm actually using the product. Over the next 15 months, in partnership with Handshake, we leveraged Miller Johnson’s live data and content as a breeding ground to mature EMD from concept product into a robust email content management solution. Implementation was completed in Q2 of 2011.

Tomorrow I will go into the full details of the SharePoint solution that Miller Johnson implemented.

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