Thursday, March 14, 2019

Case Study: A Better Way to Access and Organize Legal Documents

Key Challenges

   Improve document organization and collaboration without third-party tools.
   Include support for on-premises, cloud, and hybrid environments.
   Create a solution that is accessible from any device.

A Profession That Revolves Around Documents

Lawyers’ work involves more than just court appearances. Lawyers spend significant time preparing clients, engaging in negotiations, and carrying out painstaking research. But if you ask a lawyer to describe their profession in just one word, most would probably give you a blank look and then a small smile before simply saying “documents.” Documents dominate every facet of a lawyer’s professional existence. Lawyers search for documents for case research, and they write documents to support their cases. Court reporters even write documents to capture lawyers’ every move and utterance within courtrooms. With so many documents, document management quickly becomes a problem.

Our client, the legal department of a large software company, needed a better way to organize their documents. Their existing solution, a vast SharePoint implementation, had two major problem areas. First and foremost, lawyers within the department spent an inordinate amount of time searching for the right documents and organizing related materials. Second, because so much time was spent finding the correct documents, the progress of collaborative work was slow. Third-party tools to improve functionality existed, but the legal department was wary of the additional costs and maintenance these tools would require. Adding third-party software would increase inefficiency and result in more ways for work to fall through the cracks.

Our Process: Add-in vs Add-on

The legal department knew there had to be an easier way to get the information they needed, so they reached out to us. We’d previously worked with the legal team to create a policy portal, so they knew that we would deliver a useful solution quickly. As we started work on the project, we determined that either a Microsoft Office add-in or an add-on would be the most effective solution for the lawyers’ needs. An add-in or an add-on would give the lawyers the ability to search for and store documents within SharePoint without leaving the program where they created or received a document (such as Word, Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint, or even the web). This, in turn, would improve the efficiency of collaborative work, and with the creation of a centralized repository, lawyers could manage documents more efficiently. We set a goal to create a solution that would support on-premises, cloud, and hybrid environments and would be accessible from any device.

The first decision our team had to make was whether an add-in or an add-on solution was more appropriate. The logistical problems surrounding add-ons quickly made it clear that an add-in solution would be required. Add-ons presented an insurmountable challenge for our client; an add-on would require each user to install the application and check for updates. Add-ons also required on-premise resources. In contrast, add-ins pull code from online resources, making them much more suitable for synchronizing a legal department of several hundred people and much more suitable for access from any device.

Our initial version of the add-in was strictly designed around improving the search functionality of the database. When users opened Word or Outlook, they were presented with a thin pane—our add-in—which allowed them to search and contribute to SharePoint repositories without opening another window. In Outlook, legal department team members were now able to drag and drop documents from their emails directly into a library of related documents, improving the effectiveness of collaborative work and ease of access. Collaboration was further improved with OneDrive and Delve integration. Most importantly, these documents were automatically tagged. Metadata was automatically generated for all documents in the repository regardless of how they were entered, dramatically improving searchability.

Expanding the Scope to Outside Organizations

As the development of the add-in progressed, our client realized that complexities related to document organization were common throughout the legal world. Understanding that other legal departments and law firms could benefit from improved file access and collaboration, our client decided to sell the add-in implementation as a product. At the time, many law firms relied on multiple third-party document management systems. Our add-in offered a central location to access and organize documents, simplifying workflows. Our add-in also allowed lawyers to collaborate on documents from any device—an industry first.

After numerous feedback sessions with attorneys from our client’s legal department, we completed the project. The client implemented the add-in in their legal department and encouraged adoption by numerous law firms they associated with. Today, collaborative legal software has become more commonplace, yet few products offer the convenience of access to documents directly from Outlook or Word.