The Importance of Secure Document Management for Law Firms



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Law Practices Need Secure Document Management

The sheer amount of paper produced by any law firm can be staggering. Contracts, briefs, pleadings, motions, discovery – and that’s not even counting evidentiary documents, letters, emails, and photos, all of which must be painstakingly generated, sorted, annotated, collated, and filed for future reference.

Even with digitization helping legal firms replace paper documents and create paperless offices, documentation must still be scrupulously filed and maintained. Without a standardized, streamlined process in place, information management, security, and file retrieval can be overwhelming. The correct document management program can increase productivity and efficiency, automate many basic filing tasks, improve file security, and simplify document retrieval.

Email systems and shared file drives are clumsy and ineffective as a document management option for law firms. Folder-based filing systems can create problems as you scale, with lack of version control, non-standardized naming conventions, and multiple sub-folders destroying attempts at hierarchy and logical indexing. Implementing an email folder system makes file retrieval difficult and can cause server overload due to massive email files. In addition, unencrypted email is extremely insecure, and even encrypted email is vulnerable to user error when forwarding or replying.

According to the 2015 edition of the annual Legal Technology Survey Report (which is compiled by the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center), only 35% of lawyers used email encryption during the four years preceding the surveys publication. When asked what security precautions are used when sending confidential or privileged communications to clients via email, 71% of lawyers said they rely on the confidentiality statement in the message body.

Document management systems are more secure than email
Document management systems are more secure than email

Instituting a document management program in place allows sensible, streamlined organization of all files, including email, documents, and electronic media. Searchable and indexable protocols can be readily established, with documents filed hierarchically and indexed in a virtual, centralized, hub for easy access. Email and scanned comment profiling, metadata indexing, and optical character recognition (OCR) conversion make finding documents accurate, easy, and fast.

Lack of document security poses a serious privacy risk for any law firm. Multiple levels of internal and external security that permit users access to read, delete, and/or edit each document are required, and authentication protocols are crucial to client confidentiality. A good document management system will provide a complete audit trail for the document’s entire lifecycle and help ensure that the firm’s intellectual property and confidential client information are being handled properly.

Sharing documents with clients and colleagues is a constant requirement, but while sharing via email or paper copy is easy and fast, it’s neither reliable nor secure. Once an attached document is sent or forwarded to an incorrect recipient, there is no undoing it. If sensitive or confidential information was exposed, there is risk and liability if it is used against your firm or your client. A secure document management program provides safe alternatives to colleague and client communications, with authentication required to retrieve or view any documents.

A designated, encrypted portal can allow documents to be privately sent, received, and reviewed with no exposure.  Only appropriate document access is assured, while version control and document history are maintained. Documents can also be safely collaborating on within the document management program, which creates a secure shared environment within which documents can be reviewed, copied, edited, tracked for changes, saved in the latest format for all users, and shared with pertinent viewers for review or annotation.

A uniform scanning process ensures that scanned files will be organized, indexed, and secured, while OCR can be implemented on image files such as pdfs to enable full text searching across all documents. Physical media such as photographs, DVDs, and CDs, can also be digitized and indexed to reduce the space needed for a physical media library and facilitate sharing these files alongside pertinent documentation. This also improves searching capability and can produce immediate benefits for the entire firm.

The American Bar Association, in Opinion 477, laid out updated recommendations for safeguarding client privacy, and strongly urges the security of client data to be discussed with legal clients to ensure they are aware of risks if less secure forms of document sharing are used. With a safe, secure document management system, many risks can be eliminated or minimized.