In the legal community, it’s well known that Clifford Chance, one of the world’s largest law firms, has been undergoing a major shift towards using SharePoint as the firm’s Enterprise CMS. At the SharePoint Conference last week, I attended the session dedicated to exploring this implementation in more detail. 

This transition has been a couple of years in the running, and we've previously learned a bit of the transformation through various interviews and other bits from Microsoft. The session was delivered by Charlie Winterbottom, Solution Architect at Clifford Chance, and Alex O’Donnell, a SharePoint Consultant at Microsoft’s internal services team.

ECM Challenges in Legal

If you've never had the opportunity to see what I’ll call a “legacy DMS” in action at a law firm, then you would no doubt be astonished to see how the concept of using a document management system is almost as common a concept as using a phone to make a call. The legal industry has been driving document management functionality since the 1980s, as they are primarily document creators and managers.

In this session, Charlie elaborated on this truth to inform the not-so-informed about how legal users expect a DMS to function. He mentioned the struggle of trying to convince lawyers of the benefits of achieving a paper-light environment (paper-less environments don’t truly exist yet). He also talked about the nuances of the management of legal document lifecycles, and the heavy reliance on versioning and document numbers (e.g., SharePoint DOCID) appearing in the footer of every document.

Clifford Chance Vision and Strategy

Roughly 5 years ago, the CIO of Clifford Chance began to change the strategy for IT. Each office had its own isolated environment, so it became very costly to maintain.

The firm began to eliminate remote datacenters to achieve a more centralized approach based on region. For SharePoint, this enabled the firm to house only 3 distinct farms worldwide, one in New York, Europe and Hong Kong.

It also became apparent, as with many other firms, that the complexities of the client environment became too problematic. Legal users typically have a fully loaded Office suite with many 3rd party add-ins (e.g., a comparison tool or a document assembly package) that can be a hindrance when looking to upgrade. Clifford Chance was one of the first firms to adopt the native Word compare functionality (albeit a customized one) ditching the popular add-ins that most firms deploy.

In addition to these changes, the firm also is looking to deploy SaaS for its users in the future as well a more consistent user experience amongst the many offices worldwide.

Why SharePoint 2010?

The firm strategically chose the 2010 platform for a variety of reasons. At that point their existing DMS was at the end-of-life, and additional investment would have been required had they even stuck with the existing vendor. SharePoint 2010 provided a more robust solution for scalability, while at the same time offering a compelling cloud-based solution set with Office 365.