16 March 2011

Cyberspace April 2011

One of the issues in smaller practice is often the lack of a document management system (DMS). We’ve discussed cloud computing and document management many times over the years, but it’s not done yet.

Some accounting packages have a DMS module as an add-on, but it may be too complex or expensive for small teams. There are quite a number of software-as-a-service offerings available, and these provide robust version control and security. The real value of a DMS lies in access control, filing in ways more flexible than just folders, search and version management. What would make it even better for the mobile lawyer is access to documents from anywhere without security concerns. I’ve written in the past about Zoho and other products that can do this for you, but they tend to all have their own specialist interface rather than using Word, which most of us rely on.

A few recently launched methods (although they’ve been around in beta for a long time) of using the power of Word or Excel while storing the documents online are Google Cloud Connect, Microsoft Office 365, and Microsoft Skydrive (www.skydrive.com) using either the full version of Office or the Web App version. They all make document sharing easy.

Each has its strengths: Google’s concurrent editing is useful for some, and use of labels and collections is great for organising your documents - particularly those that ‘belong’ in more than one folder. However, the Cloud Connect add-in for Office really doesn’t have all the features that it needs. It’s easy to create and store a document using Word, but it’s not clear how you use Word to later edit it. Having said all that, the ability to really organise your documents can be very valuable. Let’s say you prepare a great property development agreement for your client. You would file it under the client and matter, but you could also tag it with “property”, “precedent”, “PDA” and anything that will help you find it and use it as a precedent at a later date. Just search on PDA in a couple of years and quickly find those documents for re-use. You could easily file presentations and papers under appropriate tags and re-use and share that research material with your colleagues.

Office 365 requires some money, time and energy in getting the product up and running and has many features. It works well if you use a lot of Microsoft products. Skydrive is clever and the web-based version of Office works very well (no local copy required), but filing will be a mess after the first few hundred documents, as it is purely folder-based

Something that no-one other than the dedicated DMS companies has addressed for document storage is how the document lifecycle is managed. I haven’t seen any tools in cloud-based systems that allow you to assign disposal policies to folders, tags or classes of documents. You shouldn’t do bulk deletes based just on the date - you need to keep board minutes for the life of a company, but you can delete that old conveyancing file. Another problem may occur if you own a major asset and dispose of it - how do you get the documents out of the system and give them to the purchaser? Or perhaps you decide to move to another cloud provider - how is it easy to get your data moved?

My company regularly receives requests to produce documents that relate to third parties, often when we are not even involved in the relevant litigation or inquiry. Let’s assume we used Skydrive to store our documents, and that was common knowledge - could someone subpoena Microsoft for our documents? A non-disclosure agreement may result in Microsoft notifying us, but without further action Microsoft may just have to comply with the subpoena.