a selection of wrenches
Those building their digital workplaces face many options. We walk through two extreme case scenarios PHOTO: radekkulupa

Building a digital workplace poses challenges to any business. 

But those in regulated industries, such as law firms, have specific needs which add an extra layer of complexity.

This started as an exercise: Given that many law firms are deeply entrenched in Microsoft tools already, if I had a greenfield site to design, would I take a pure Microsoft route or would it be possible use all non-Microsoft tools? 

By diving into the two extremes I thought we could illustrate certain questions relevant to all digital workplaces.

First Things First: Cloud or On Premises?

This question still vexes many, especially from an information security perspective. 

My opinion is if you are working with a reputable vendor with all the ISO certificates in place, and you inspect them to ensure they do what they actually say they do, then with encryption in transit and encryption at rest, cloud is probably secure enough for even the most demanding legal use cases. 

Of course you should always consult a lawyer about this, preferably one who knows about technology.

Given we are side stepping this conversation in any detail, let's start with the premise that cloud computing is fine for legally privileged and highly confidential information. 

The rest of the article is therefore based on cloud versions of products, which is important for the Microsoft side of the spectrum as many of the tools are elements of the Office 365 online suite. 

Straight to the Heart of the Matter

A legal matter is at the center of the universe for law firms and legal departments. For those not up on your legal jargon, think of a matter as a case, as in a case management system. 

A matter in the matter management system will have a unique identifier, a set of metadata applied to it that might include the name of the client, the name of the Legally Responsible Professional (senior lawyer), the jurisdiction etc. The firm will file all documents, emails and potentially other data (see below) together as part of the matter. 

Traditionally law firms might build a matter management system in house, or purchase it as a separate system within a larger “practice management” suite, then integrate it with a document management system (DMS) such as iManage

There's nothing to stop you from building a matter management system in iManage itself though. We will discuss how other tools could help with this below.

Microsoft's Off Again, On Again Legal Matter Management History

Microsoft has a strange history with legal matter management in recent years. 

A few years ago it touted a SharePoint Matter Center, originally created for the Microsoft Legal Department and based on SharePoint 2010. It then “productized” the solution and pushed it heavily at the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) conference. 

However, apart from the occasional article suggesting some law firms were using it in beta, things went very quiet. 

When the offering was upgraded to SharePoint 2013, it once again came up for discussion at the ILTA conference but again, fell quiet very soon after. 

Et voila, Matter Center was open sourced, Microsoft put the code up on GitHub and transformed it into Matter Center for Office 365, leaving us to get on with it .... 

Among the list of legal-focused implementation and software partners Microsoft provides is CloudTitan. It has taken the open sourced Matter Center code and added to it, making an Office 365 SharePoint online-based Matter Center a viable option for matter management and legal document management. 

Here we come to the crux of the matter (I couldn't resist): this core element needs to be fully viable, because only when the Office 365 ecosystem is considered as a whole do you get the real benefits and advantages.

The Spectrum of Legal Digital Workplace Tools

Legal digital workplaces include many elements beyond matter. To simplify the discussion, I've put them in a table, before diving into some of them in more detail. 

Type of tool / functionality Microsoft Non-Microsoft
Matter Management Matter Center / CloudTitan Practice Panther 
Legal Document Management Matter Center iManage
Enterprise Social Network Yammer Workplace (FaceBook)
Group Collaboration Teams ThreadKM / Slack
Project Management / Work Planning Planner ThreadKM / Trello
Workflow Flow K2
Intranet SharePoint ThoughtFarmer
File Share & Sync OneDrive for Business HighQ / Box
Document Comparison & Metadata Scrubbing MS Office / Office365 IRM / DLP Workshare
Knowledge Management Delve Coveo

Don’t dwell too much on the products in the non-Microsoft column, this is meant to be illustrative. 

For example, while I believe the whole digital workplace ecosystem supports executing a knowledge management strategy, I wanted to capture the abilities of Microsoft Delve and thought KM was a good heading for that. As such, I had to put an equivalent in the other column, and Coveo fit that information discovery / search-focused category. 

Getting Lawyers Out of Email and Collaborating

A good example of a Microsoft versus non-Microsoft comparison is the various collaboration use cases. 

ThreadKM is a matter-centric threaded discussion tool, which also offers Kanban board task management. When ThreadKM was first released, Slack was fairly new and not seeing the level of adoption it has now and the Microsoft equivalents — Teams and Planner — did not exist.  

So in our example ThreadKM integrates very well with iManage to get lawyers out of email and collaborating together in threaded discussions which link to the matter workspaces. The simple graphical task management of the Kanban boards is also integrated and provides a great way of practicing simple project management. 

In the Microsoft universe Teams and Planner can accomplish the same tasks, of course with their own idiosyncrasies. 

Either way, you are covered here, with good collaboration tools which integrate into the core matter management and document management solutions. 

At the enterprise “working out loud” collaboration level, on the Microsoft side we have Yammer and I selected Workplace by Facebook as its competitor based on recent comments by a colleague about the number of new deployments he's seen. 

The enterprise intranet portal sits at the center of our legal digital workplace, the location where information is published for all to consume, including news, communications and specific targeted content for different audience groups. 

SharePoint fills this role for Microsoft (of course), with various new “canned” site types available for SharePoint online in Office 365. Integration with Yammer, Teams, Planner and more is offered through the Office 365 Groups mechanism (explaining that mechanism on the other hand requires a PhD and many more pages, so we will not go into details here).

I suggested ThoughtFarmer for the non-Microsoft option. ThoughtFarmer is an easy to implement social intranet that scales well for medium sized businesses and/or small enterprises. While I'm fairly sure it would be possible to integrate ThoughtFarmer with ThreadKM, iManage, K2 for forms and workflow etc when all are on separate clouds, I admit I've never tried. 

Best of Breed vs. Giant Suite?

Herein lies the rub. Could you create a viable, dynamic, intuitive to navigate and easy to use digital workplace by integrating different best of breed cloud-based systems? Yes, but the question remains how difficult would that be. 

The other side of the coin, and the reason I picked legal as a specific industry is, could you build a digital workplace from a highly-integrated suite such as Office 365, which does not necessarily have a long track record in that particular industry? Again, the answer is yes, but what is your risk appetite?

So your cost benefit analysis in this case might focus on the greater benefits of a deeply, and/or well-integrated overall digital workplace versus the benefits of picking the best, gold plated solution that sits at the core of all you do. 

An interesting conundrum for sure. If you have been through something like this recently, please leave a comment and share your wisdom.