Comment: Achieving a Successful DMS Project

By Keith Lipman, co-founder and president of Prosperoware
Firms must adopt their DMS — owning the technology, which 98% do already, is insufficient.  In part I of this series, I discussed the concrete business drivers that should help firms make the business case for adoption and the particulars of client governance mandates.  It’s one thing to point out a problem that everyone knows about, however—but another to offer a solution.  From experience as the provider of the number one technology[1] law firms choose to make their document management systems successful, here are thoughts on how to achieve a successful deployment.
Leading Cause of DMS Death:  Analysis Paralysis
DMS deployments take too long, and this, in a nutshell, ultimately kills the project. While there is a direct ratio of firm size to length of deployment–i.e. the larger the firm, the longer the deployment– no matter the size, too much time is spent analyzing and collaborating around how the end users, i.e. lawyers, are going to use the system. While it may seem like the best way to ensure buy-in and apt design, this prolonged, collaborative approach to DMS design rarely meets mostly with failure, defined as lack of adoption.
The reasons why collaboration meets with failure when it comes to DMS design are multiple: 1. many partners and senior associates will not ultimately attend the meetings to provide input; 2. the partners who do attend may by a vocal minority and not necessarily represent the consensus of the department; and, 3. even if attendance is fantastic, the collaborative time gap between design sessions and deployment can be months, or even longer.
This gap has been generally been between 6 and 24 months and, unfortunately, by the time the system is rolled out, users have forgotten why certain decisions or taxonomy agreements were made, etc., and the user community ends-up frustrated because the design does not fit their needs.  The IT team found the process so difficult, they do want to change the design. A frustrated lawyer will work around the system and not within.  This is analysis paralysis and it is the leading cause of death of DMS adoption.

DMS Reality Check
Of firms that claim adoption of the DMS, the reality is somewhat different. If the DMS can be divided into two essential cases:

Work-in-process: drafting, versioning and delivering documents – getting the document out of the door

The electronic matter file: creating a record of all documents related to a matter plus email in a single location

In many firms, the DMS is only used for work-in-process and a dumping ground for email.  This is a problem because firms mainly need a well-governed electronic file and a reasonable and systemic approach to securing and governing the client data stored there.
The electronic file is complicated by cybersecurity, laterals and associate turnovers, but the increasing complexity does not diminish the business mandate.  The standard of care for organization that deal in non-public data continue to increase.   The legal risk also continues increase.  Recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has created a cause of action for negligence for cyberbreach.  This means that law firms could be sued for a data breach by third parties.   Smart law firms should drive the electronic file in the DMS and limit access of non-public data to those who need to know—but all of this this depends on people putting the data in the right matter file.
Agile Design Maximizes Success and ROI
Agile design is the antidote to analysis paralysis, i.e. the leading cause of DMS death.  The term “agile” has been applied to much of today’s business processes–maybe even too much, but in fact has meaning and is not a vacuous marketing buzzword.  “Agile” means to allow for an approach that provides for flexible and continuous adjustment instead of a traditional straight line or waterfall approach to design and implementation.
The core philosophy of “agile” is that firms quickly design, learn, and then adjust on a continuous basis.  Rather than spending months navel-gazing in  prolonged collaborative efforts that spin out a folder designed for every niche practice group’s hypothetical use case, agile design launches at an optimal point of imperfection and feeds user-experience into a continuous improvement loop.  It is the opposite of set it and forget it; the goal is continuous change as processes change, and enabling firms to readily adjust the system to fit their needs.
Agile document management design achieves better and quick ROI because it gets document management deployed to the users as quickly as possible, gets their feedback on the changes, adjusts and grows alongside the users.  Agile deployment is particularly suited to cloud technologies which turn on the money meter often within 60 days of purchase.
In an agile design deployment, firms would need to make the following basic design decisions:

Save location for work-in-process for client-matter ( “Documents”, “Working Doucments”, etc,)

Location for email correspondence, whether external or internal (“Email”, “Correspondence”)

Location of matter or client level administrative documents (invoices, engagement letters, outside counsel guidelines, etc.)

A basic set of optional folders for the electronic file for each major process (e.g. litigation/dispute, transactions, intellectual property, regulatory, etc.)

The optional folders should support the ability to have user inputted prefix or suffix to provide better clarity of purpose (“Witness – John Smith” or “Agreement – SPA”).

Naming conventions for workspaces

Other rules for success include:

Users should never own their folders instead a system account should own the folder. This enables the firm to control security and the name.

Limit the depth of the folder structure to 3 or 4 levels.

Once people start using the system, the feedback becomes practical rather than just theoretical.  DMS administrators can leverage analytics to understand how the system is being used.   Users quickly discover that they need another optional folder with a prefix or suffix, or perhaps users want another folder in every workspace of that type.  Firms may also find that certain optional folders need to be removed.  In all cases, agile deployment will provide the rapid ability to adjust and change.
Firms will likely need third-party technology to effectively do this as the major DMS providers don’t have the specific tools nor sophisticated level of management capability to enable this kind of deployment. Such a tool will quickly pay for itself as deployments can be managed in a far more rapid manner enabling much quicker ROI.
IT investments in document management are completely dependent on user adoption, no different than CRM, collaboration platforms, or project management systems.  Historically, firms have not invested in managing and working to improve adoption of these systems.
Most of the challenge comes from the fact that the document management system is an interactive business system that enables a process rather than just infrastructure (e.g. email servers, firewalls, phone switches, etc.).  For most firms, there is no separate business owner of the DMS – instead, it’s the IT department who owns the deployment.  Rather, the document management system would be better served if owned by a combination of the practice, knowledge, and risk management teams.  Ideally, these teams should comprise the long-term steering committee for the system.
[1] 2018 ILTA Tech Survey
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