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Computer Counselor - November 1997

Document Management Systems Turn Haystacks into Gold Mines
A document management system can save you time and money

By Daryl Teshima

Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Law Office Computing, a bimonthly technology magazine, and serves on the executive committee of the State Bar's Law Practice Management and Technology Section. 

According to a recent Gartner Group study, computer users typically spend up to 50 percent of their time searching for previously stored documents and data. This unproductive and frustrating activity ranks among the most time-consuming for professionals working with computers. For many legal professionals, the 50 percent estimate may even be too low, especially since law firms use computers to create and edit large numbers of contracts, pleadings, and other legal documents. Nevertheless, generating documents with a computer offers several advantages. Documents in digital form require no office space for storage and can be accessed from a central server by many networked computers. Additionally, electronic documents are easy to edit and copy. Electronic documents, however, also have a disadvantage -- they can be more difficult to search. It is not easy to riffle through a "stack" of digital documents to find the right one. For this reason the time-consuming process of searching a computer disk for a document can be a problem. One solution may be a document management system. 

Part of the problem stems from historical limitations in naming computer files. All versions of DOS and versions of Windows up to 3.1x adhere to the "8.3" file-naming convention, which limits document names to eight characters to the left of the period and three characters (called an extension) to the right. With the thousands of documents that law firms produce, this strict naming rule made it difficult for legal computer users to give each file a memorable name. 

With the release of Windows 95 the 11-character limitation finally was overcome, but the problem of finding documents remains. Despite the benefit of having a file name that can contain up to 255 characters (including spaces), users may now find it more, rather than less, difficult to find a particular file or piece of information. The reason is that there are more computerized data and files to search. Even worse, users have to search not only their office work stations but also coworkers' computers, the server, notebook computers, home computers, and stacks of floppies on their desks. The needle may have a better name, but the haystack has grown to alarming proportions.

The right solution to this problem depends on your firm's size and the amount of paper it produces. If you work as a solo practitioner or in a small firm and generate a manageable number of documents, you may be able simply to utilize the document management features of your word processor. These features typically include full-text searching and the creation, when the document is saved, of a document summary that can contain an extended description of the file, including client and subject information. All it takes is learning how to use these features, some planning, and some commitment to the plan.

If your work generates a lot of documents or you work in a medium or large firm, consider implementing a document management system. A document management system is a customized database program that tracks and manages every legal document created by everyone in your firm. These programs will save your firm time and money because they lessen the time spent finding a particular document or piece of information.

These systems also serve as a great knowledge base for your firm. For example, if you need a good indemnification clause for a lease agreement you are working on, a document management system can find it. All you need to do is enter the terms "lease" and "indemnify" into the system. In seconds, the system will list every document that contains both of these words. Once the list is generated, you need only choose the right clause for your particular agreement. 

Choosing a Document Management System 

Although it is easy to see how useful a document management system can be for a law firm, selecting the right application requires considerable investigation and research. Before plunging into another computer improvement for your office, there are some questions that you will need to answer.

The first question: what document management systems are available? Before Windows, there was one dominant player -- SoftSolutions, which was tightly integrated with WordPerfect 4.2/5.1 for DOS. When Novell bought WordPerfect, SoftSolutions was part of the deal. Novell (800-861-2507) has kept SoftSolutions, upgrading and integrating it into a network software product, GroupWise 5. GroupWise 5 has added calendaring, e-mail, and scheduling features, but it also lacks several useful features that SoftSolutions had, including an archiving capability and the ability to access documents from the user's local (instead of the network) hard drive. If your firm has an existing SoftSolutions system or Novell network, however, GroupWise 5 remains a strong contender.

For large firms (especially those with multiple offices), Docs Open (617-273-3800) from PC Docs is perhaps the most powerful document management system available. From powerful search tools to secured Internet access, the feature set of Docs Open is hard to beat. However, those features do require an investment in computing power, including a separate data server to index and house all the firm's documents.

For small and midsized firms, an alternative is World Software Corporation's Worldox 96 (201-444-3228). This impressive newcomer has a feature set comparable to Docs Open, yet has a lower per-user cost, less stringent hardware requirements, and works with both DOS and Windows. Worldox has quietly turned the market into a three-product race.

Second, what computer network and database do you now have? As may be apparent, one prerequisite for a document management system is a network. Without one, almost all the benefits of such a system are lost. For this reason, you should first verify that any document management system you consider works with your existing computer network operating system. All three contenders work with current versions of Novell and Microsoft Windows NT, for example, but GroupWise 5 works only with Netware 4.1x. Both GroupWise and Docs Open also work with OS/2 and UNIX.

If you have or plan to use an SQL database (an open database architecture that allows an organization to access data from a variety of databases), Docs Open is your best choice. Docs Open also employs an SQL database for document management purposes and can easily be integrated. However, while SQL is extremely powerful and offers wonderful benefits, it also requires a large investment of capital and time to install and maintain. If you choose not to use SQL, both GroupWise and Worldox offer comparable alternatives.

Third, how does the system find information? A document management system should provide several ways to search and retrieve documents. Your system should allow for query-by-example (QBE) searches, which allows you to search for documents that match certain criteria. For example, if you are looking for a letter a colleague drafted for a particular client, but you cannot recall the date and name of the document, a QBE search will list every document created by your colleague for that client.

Besides QBE searches, a good system should also allow you to perform more advanced full-text searching -- such as Boolean, proximity, date, and wildcard searches. When researching document management systems, be sure the system can search for information in a manner that is intuitive and understandable to the people who work at your firm.

Fourth, does the system work with your current applications? Document management works only if everyone in the law firm uses the system. Otherwise, the searches you perform will be incomplete, missing the documents created by those who do not use the system. The one way to ensure participation by all is to integrate the program seamlessly with your firm's word processor. This means that anytime someone creates or saves a document, the system will automatically name the file, record the document creation information (author's name, date created, type of document, and so on), index its contents, and prompt the user for other descriptive information (for example client or subject number, description of contents). This way, all documents will contain information that the system can database and catalog. Accordingly, make sure that the document management system you choose will work with your firm's word processing software. The three products all can support popular Windows word processors. Worldox, however, is the only product that supports WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS if it is running in a DOS box in Windows.

Fifth, can you customize the system to work for your law firm? A good document management system is flexible, since all law firms handle documents and information differently. For example, verify that your existing client and matter information can be included with any document you create in the system. Both Docs Open and Worldox offer impressive customization features.

Also examine how your office creates and revises documents. For instance, do you work on documents away from the office? If you do, then you will probably want a system that allows you to "check out" a document -- just as you would check out a library book -- during those times you cannot be connected to the network. With GroupWise and Docs Open, a checked-out version is "locked," so that no changes and revisions can be made until you check the document back in. This feature also prevents your colleagues from making revisions to an older version of a document.

Sixth, does the system archive and delete documents after a certain period of time? Another important feature is the system's ability to utilize and manage network storage space effectively. Even though the prices of high-capacity hard drives have dropped, tempting firms to store great numbers of documents on servers, there comes a time when older documents need to be archived and removed from active storage. Make sure the document management program purchase can perform these functions automatically.

Ironically, searching for the right document management system is not as easy as searching for a key document using the system. Perhaps the best advice is to negotiate a trial test period. Only under battle conditions can you truly assess the reliability and performance of document management software.

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