Or maybe the more appropriate question should be: is SharePoint ready for legal? The latter is one that I am constantly asked by my clients. Part of the problem in answering that question is that I tend to be a little biased toward SharePoint as the end all be all for an enterprise platform. I’ve built my career on working with SharePoint, and you could say that I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid for a while now. But as a consultant, my job is not to tell you what the best product is; it’s to tell you what the best product is for your firm’s needs.

But before we talk about feature comparison, let’s gain some perspective.

Microsoft Hates Legal

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit harsh. But it’s clear they want little business catering to legal, since they just recently axed their Legal & Professional Services sales team. Maybe it was the Clifford Chance partnership that made Microsoft loathe the legal beast. But to me, it’s legal in general that is to blame.

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.

However, don’t let this scare you away from SharePoint. I think Microsoft is doing what they do best. Perfect the framework, and then rely heavily on ISVs and partners to fill in the gaps. Bottom line: Microsoft does not want to be in the business of providing the kind of extensive consulting and customization services required to make legal happy. But they are in the business of providing the engine that can get you there.

Third-Party Developers

This becomes another win-win for ISVs and third-party developers who are dedicated to Microsoft. While Microsoft is improving on the framework, market vendors are left to fill in the gaps and extend value to their clients. Legal will continue to be a competitive market for third-party vendors just as it is today. The only difference is that vendors don’t have to worry about supporting the nuts and bolts, something that frequently kills development budgets. Now the focus can be innovation, which will help drive legal IT to a much higher quality of end-user support.

Document Management? More Like Content Management!

Many CIOs are thinking about SharePoint in all of the wrong ways. Because legal software has traditionally been very fragmented and ad hoc, most think SharePoint should only be used as an intranet. In fact, that’s how most law firms are using it today, which is great.

But the real value proposition of SharePoint is that you can utilize it as a content management system. Why maintain several LOB systems with proprietary back-ends, when you could build it all on SharePoint? That’s right. In the near future, there should be no reason why a firm couldn’t store all content on SharePoint. If you’re skeptical, don’t be. Vendors are slowly but surely providing a mechanism to build on top of SharePoint, because they understand the current trend.

Editor's Note: Be sure to read the following legal case study: How Miller Johnson Implemented SharePoint-Based Email Content Management

Managing the Change

Often the biggest hurdle any manager faces with switching to SharePoint is how to properly manage the change. After all, most legal folks have been looking at the same screens for upwards of 10 years. Yes, 10 years. And now you’re asking your entire firm to adopt a web-based product that is still very new to many business people. So it’s almost most important to address this first.

The best advice that I can give is to engage your users as much as possible before you take the plunge. You can’t even consider a pilot system until you’ve met with practice group leaders, attorneys and even secretaries. Learn from your users, and you’ll have no problem architecting a solution. And if you make them part of the process, you’ll empower them to really care about it.

Secondly, invest in consulting. Consulting has always been a huge part of technology in the legal space, and it’s not going to get any less important. In fact, it’s much more important when converting to a new system. And as I said in my introduction, find a consultant who is going to tell you the truth. As exciting as SharePoint can be for a firm, it may not be the best option yet to replace your current document management system.

In my next article, I’ll touch on some of the topics that are affecting legal CIOs in their SharePoint quest. If you’re concerned about mobility, office integration or how the matter intake process will be affected, then stay tuned for the next article!

Editor's Note: To read the follow up to this article:

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