How Clifford Chance Bet on SharePoint for Enterprise Content Management #spc12

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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.

In addition to these things, Clifford Chance had the opportunity to partner closely with Microsoft Consulting Services (MCS) in the UK to extend the OOTB capabilities of the existing SharePoint 2010 integration with the Office suite. From that partnership came what was termed “DMA” or document management accelerators. This was a set of augmentations that aimed to replicate what legal users are expecting when working with a DMS from within the Office suite. 


Document Management Accelerators

Through a series of heavy customizations to the CFD (common file dialog), the user is presented with a customized experience to help find content more quickly from the application itself, like Word for instance. As you can see below, when you click on SharePoint on the left menu, you are presented with a view on the right for recent documents based on the file type chosen. This functionality even works in Notepad, as this is just using WEBDAV and a farm solution, not a COM add-in.  


Learning Opportunities

Also available within the same view is the ability to run a quick search against the entire farm to locate the content you’re looking for. This is a simplified Search Center app exposed through the CFD.


DMA also includes custom functionality for copying and moving content from one location to another in SharePoint without having to use explorer view or some other 3rd party add-in. It uses the same CFD view as the Office suite, and it makes it quite simple to move documents around. A move will actually move the document’s entire version history and the document ID, even across site collections.


Challenges and Lessons Learned

Of course there are many challenges when moving a law firm to SharePoint, and certainly one of the world’s largest ran into many. Charlie identified the top challenges as follows:

  • Required a full trust solution for DMA customizations, therefore no Office 365 any time soon
  • Could not deploy a single global SharePoint farm due to network complexities
  • The information architecture plan was complex and took many cycles to complete
  • A robust DR plan required careful planning and many considerations
  • The management of SharePoint over time required a proactive approach.

As of this writing, Clifford Chance has deployed this solution to roughly half of the firm’s roughly six thousand employees worldwide. Going forward, Clifford Chance will continue to roll out the current DMA solution to all firm employees.

Even though the current SharePoint 2010 solution has yet to be fully deployed at Clifford Chance, the firm is still considering the adoption of SharePoint 2013. With many new exciting features in SharePoint 2013, Clifford Chance is looking to continue to streamline its customized solution as much as possible, while possibly taking advantage of the new Apps model in Office and SharePoint.

Furthermore, they will continue to work closely with Microsoft on Wave 16 (code name for the next version of the Office/SharePoint release), which will continue the efforts of influencing the product team on what new features might be considered in the next core product.

Editor's Note: To read another of Mike's articles covering the SharePoint Conference, check out Overview of e-Discovery Across the Microsoft Office Platform #spc12

About the author

Mike Ferrara

Mike Ferrara is a vice president in the Legal Management Consulting practice at Duff & Phelps. He has over 12 years of experience with information systems integration, and he specializes in the Microsoft SharePoint and Autonomy WorkSite platforms.