by Gabriel Karawani, from ClearPeople’s Business Solutions team

While many law firms have made significant investment in technologies, including case and practice management to improve working methods, their inhouse cousins can feel like they’re being left behind. Many lack formal document and content management systems, instead relying on simple files shares, emails and document folders on their C-drive, or struggling with a document management (DMS) system that hasn’t been tailored to suit their needs. But could SharePoint be an effective DMS for inhouse counsel?

Many lawyers in corporate legal teams have spent part of their careers in larger private practice firms and are accustomed to using dedicated case and document management systems to find, store and share documents and emails. This kind of specialised legal-team system is, unfortunately, beyond the budgets of most inhouse teams, which typically number 20-200 staff, in an organisation with thousands of employees. Even where corporate document management systems are available, it is rare for those systems to meet the specific needs of the inhouse legal team.

Despite the inadequacy of these systems being reported by users, the cost of providing and maintaining a system solely for the legal team rarely makes financial sense. Ironically, most major corporates already have an infrastructure strategy in place that can, with some modification, provide their legal teams with a comprehensive document and email management solution. That piece of existing infrastructure is SharePoint and enhancing it is a cost-effective way of establishing a full DM and knowledge sharing system.

While SharePoint is often used as the basis for knowledge sharing or the corporate intranet, standalone SharePoint does not provide a strong enough user experience for the in-house legal teams. Even the latest version, SharePoint 2010, does not quite make the grade from the users’ perspective as an inhouse legal DMS – despite a host of new features such as centralised metadata taxonomies and automated routing of documents to folders/libraries. However, the idea of SharePoint as the underlying infrastructure is an important one; it provides the underpinnings of a highly effective document management and collaboration system. As mentioned above, SharePoint does not by itself offer an intuitive user experience to lawyers and supporting administration staff, who are trying to save and share documents and emails. Indeed, the user interface can be an obstacle, as SharePoint’s management of email through integration with Outlook is anything but seamless.

We often use the analogy of SharePoint as a plain vanilla cake – great ingredients but, without icing or a plate, the cake is not that appealing and is unlikely to be eaten. But, by adding custom features and add-ons to suit specific needs, the way users work with SharePoint can be dramatically transformed. This is where legal teams and their IT departments need to recognise what functionality (or ingredients) are required to make SharePoint successful. For example, add-ons that fully integrate the SharePoint environment into Microsoft Office enable users to collaborate from within the applications they use every day, while simplifying the process of meeting compliance requirements – all without the need to leave the familiar Word or  Outlook environments.

SharePoint, when customised well, offers a number of advantages to inhouse legal teams:
1.    Low initial setup and configuration costs. A tailored SharePoint-based DMS is an affordable solution even for small in-house legal teams (in most corporates) largely because they already have some SharePoint infrastructure in place and the incremental costs are low.
2.    Low on-going costs. Most large corporates already have licensing in place for SharePoint. The only additional costs are for third-party customisations. Support costs also tend to be lower because corporate IT is already likely to have (or to be developing) SharePoint skills to manage the organisation’s existing SharePoint assets.
3.    Ease of use. Training requirements are reduced and staff familiarise themselves with the system quickly thanks to the ubiquitous Microsoft Office user interface.
4.    Sign-in time is reduced. Users only have to remember their network password to access all their documents and applications through SharePoint’s Active Directory integration.

In our experience, some of the primary considerations when customising SharePoint are:
1.    Security and visibility. What security and visibility systems are in place for information when sharing it with external advisors? Can access be controlled and taken away? Will changes be tracked? Can information be found easily without having contact outside counsel?
2.    Links to other systems. Can you get access and aggregate information easily that lies outside the legal department yet within the company?
3.    Collaboration. What are the requirements for sharing and managing unstructured data (emails, documents, audio, video, images) in consolidated workspaces?
4.    Usability. To what degree should SharePoint itself be ‘invisible’ to the legal team; is drag-and-drop type functionality from MS Office important when retrieving and storing matter files in document libraries?
5.    Automation. Which ‘standard’ business processes relating to documents and emails should be automated and to what extent (e.g. automating matter inception or storage of documents in briefs or practice management systems)?

The general expectation is that budgets for 2011 will continue to be frozen or cut, which will compel inhouse legal to spend their funds wisely on products and services that add real value to their business, minimise inefficiencies and improve the status of the legal team within the company while also continuing to meet ever changing compliance requirements.

With Microsoft technology omnipresent in large corporates and SharePoint a part of the overarching IT strategy, there is no need to reinvent the wheel for document management capabilities. Indeed, at ClearPeople, we have just launched a DMS specifically tailored for the corporate legal sector. We integrate SharePoint and add-ons (such as MacroView DMF SharePoint add-ons for Office). This allows users to manage documents in approval and compliance processes directly from within the Microsoft Office applications they use every day, such as Outlook – letting the users work efficiently within their comfort zone.

* GDF Suez has engaged ClearPeople to deploy a SharePoint document management solution for their inhouse legal teams in Dubai and Bangkok. ClearPeople’s solution – using SharePoint with MacroView DMF add-ons – was selected over the traditional document management solutions. 

GDF Suez required a platform that was both web based and which could demonstrate tight integration with Office applications, including Word and Drag & Drop within Outlook. 

ClearPeople can implement solutions supporting a combination of MS Office 2003, 2007 and 2010 with a SharePoint 2007 and/or SharePoint 2010 infrastructure.
www.clearpeople.com/CorporateLegal