A common pain-point for legal counsel is the absence of any centralized document management system, making it difficult to track work and find content.
This is not surprising. Time lost searching for information has long been recognized as a problem for knowledge workers such as lawyers. In 2001, an IDC report found that service professionals were spending two and a half hours every day searching for information. A McKinsey study in 2012 confirmed this finding, showing that 19% of time was spent searching and gathering information, and another IDC report in 2018 claimed that professionals lost 30% of their time searching, gathering and preparing data.
Without a central repository within which to organize content, and in the absence of an enterprise wide search system, it’s no wonder that legal departments struggle to find the work product and information they need to perform their work.
When the lack of access to suitable technology is paired with inadequate systems and processes, it can lead to:
- An inability to easily find documents,
- Documents saved in many different places, with no consistency or process around matter files, and
- Difficulties tracking performance and other key metrics (such as contract renewal dates).
Happily, there is a simple solution to these problems. Legal teams can improve the way they organize their work and increase the findability of information by exercising basic knowledge management best practices. These practices can greatly enhance the efficiency and productivity of a corporate legal department, even where there is no budget to invest in a dedicated document management system.
Set out below is the framework for a knowledge management project that can be leveraged to support legal departments of all sizes. In small departments (five staff or fewer), the whole team should be involved in key aspects of the project. In larger departments, it’s important that each part of the department is represented in the decision-making: elect a representative from each group to participate. That group of representatives will become the project team.
1. Decide on a Central System of Record
With your team (or, for larger departments, the project team), think about the various systems you have available to you where documents can be saved. Critical attributes of a system of record include:
- Must be accessible by everyone: saving work product locally on a PC doesn’t help.
- Must allow for custom folder structures.
Commonly used systems that may be available to legal departments include Sharepoint, Dropbox, Google Drive or OneDrive. A shared network folder will also work. Speak to your IT department and identify all of the options available within your organization.
Consider the needs of your team in relation to such a system. As part of this exercise, think about the various stages in the document life cycle:
- Creation of a document
- Editing a document
- Saving a document
- Searching for documents
- Retrieving a document
Which systems that you have access to provide solid processes and capabilities in relation to all of these document stages?
Identify the benefits and disadvantages of each system in relation to the needs of your team. You will likely want to take into account:
- What systems people are already using? (existing familiarity will help people to adopt the new processes you’re introducing)
- Do you need to save emails or just documents?
- What types of documents do you need to be able to save and retrieve – e.g. PDFs as well as Word documents? Any images, videos, or other unusual content types?
- Is there a need to be able to co-edit or co-draft?
- Security concerns – does the broader business have any concerns about providing department-wide access to any of the systems you’re exploring? Does your team need to be able to secure certain documents in a way that makes them inaccessible to the broader business?
Once you’ve reviewed the attributes of the various systems and the needs of your team in relation to those systems, it should become easier to select one system as the key system of record for your department.
2. Develop a Folder Structure for the Types of Work that You Do
Sit down with your team and write a list of all of the types of work you do collectively. For example, your department may undertake contract review, contract negotiation, and contract renewals, as well as handling complaints and managing litigation. You may also handle M&A work or real estate lease negotiations. Add to this any administrative needs that your team has and whether there need to be additional folders to accommodate those – you may have a folder for the team’s CLE tracking, one for expenses and another for training.
Once you have a full list of the types of work your team handles, you will need to come up with a folder structure that makes sense to everyone. Some things to consider here:
Levels of Foldering
- Is your folder structure multi-level? (for legal work, it almost certainly will be)
- If so, how many sub-folder levels will you accept as a team? For example, regarding your contract work you may have a “parent” level folder named “Contracts” and then your contract review, contract negotiation, contract renewal work types will fall under this item as “children”. With litigation, you will likely have a top level folder called “litigation” under which you will list the different types of suits your team handles. For each of those, you may want to list the cases that are under way, and then create a standard taxonomy for the phases of a litigation matter. See below for a partial example of such a folder structure.
- Try not to have a folder structure that has more than two or three sub-levels – ironically, browse trees that are too complex make it harder to find things, not easier.
- At the top level, you want a list that is easily digestible, ideally no more than 10-20 items.
- Where there is no other logical order for folders (e.g. phases of a litigation matter), the folders should be organized alphabetically.
- The list should make sense to everyone on your team. I once worked in a legal department where the GC decided on our departmental folder structure without taking into account some of the specialized work that I and some of my colleagues did, and it meant that saving work was confounding to us – there were no folders that fit so we saved things sporadically and inconsistently. You want a folder structure that is helpful to everyone in the department.
The folder structure list you come up with, including its various levels, is a “taxonomy” that will become an asset to your department because it will start to define how you think about and categorize your work. This can be helpful in other ways too, for example when you speak to the business about the work that you do, as you track the department’s work or when you evaluate costs.
*A note on folder structures: if you work for an organization with a small number of defined customers, or where a few major customers make up the bulk of your team’s work, you may wish to organize your top level folders by customer name instead of work type. Most probably, these top level customer name folders will not cover all the work your department does, which means you will end up with top level folders of two kinds: customer names, and work type. Under each top level customer folder, you will then also likely need subfolders for work type, which means you now have a situation where “work type” can be both a top level folder or a subfolder. This is not ideal, but sometimes unavoidable. We encourage you to think of the consequences of such decisions ahead of time so you can plan for them. For example, you don’t want a situation where someone is confused by whether to put a renewal of the sponsorship contract for Adidas in the Adidas folder under “Contracts”, or in the Contracts folder under “Contract Renewals”.
3. Agree on Process
As a team, you will need to decide on some consistent processes around saving work. Most critically, you need to reach agreement on:
Which documents get saved into the central repository?
Do you want all work product saved, even drafts? Think about various scenarios, including when someone is out sick or unexpectedly leaves the team. Presumably you will want access to the most recent draft they were working on, but if there have been 15 drafts of the same document you may not want all of them saved to the team workspace (very quickly, this will lead to clutter that can reduce the efficacy of your structure). Planning ahead for these kinds of scenarios will serve you well in the longterm.
How do you handle old files?
If your organization handles a lot of litigation, do you want to see old matters that have been closed for a year or more in the same folder structure as the ongoing matters? Same goes for contracts: once a contract has been terminated, do you want it appearing in the same folders where you manage live contracts for which you need to track renewal dates?
Consider having an archive folder in your structure, or work with IT to create an archive for the legal department elsewhere in the organization (presumably it won’t need to be regularly accessible by the whole team). If you create an archive, you will also need to agree on processes and responsibilities for moving files to the archive on a regular basis, and for retrieving them when the need arises.
How do you handle it if someone asks for a new folder to be added to the taxonomy?
Your team’s work will evolve over time, but if the folder structure is a free-for-all and anyone can add a new item anytime, it will quickly become messy and unworkable.
Establish a process for submitting change requests, and then schedule periodic reviews of those requests. If you have a large team, elect a small committee or working group who is responsible for managing the taxonomy and making decisions about whether a new term should be added or not. If your team is small, you can review change requests as a regular item during team meetings.
4. Create Naming and Saving Conventions
Once you have established your folder structure and best practices for when to save work into the central repository, you will need to agree next on how the team names the documents they are saving.
Purpose-made document management systems assign unique identifiers to documents that make it possible to find them regardless of the way they were named during the saving process. If you don’t have that luxury, you need to be more careful about using consistent naming conventions.
Simply calling a document “agreement” or “motion” will make it hard for anyone looking for the document later to know what it is.
Ideally, a saving convention will be simple, yet explanatory, containing some or all of the following information:
- If the work is for a customer, include the customer name
- If the work is for an internal department, include the department name
- Include the type of document, e.g. sponsorship agreement
- If the system you’re using doesn’t automatically save the date when you last edited or saved the document, consider adding the date
- Use a protocol for noting versions, e.g. parentheses around the version number
- You may wish to also specify whether a document is draft or final (this information will be relevant for certain document types – such as agreements and pleadings – but not for others)
Following the above steps would give you document names such as:
Brown – sponsorship agreement (final) – 7.6.22 (1)
ICG – subscription agreement (draft) – 8.2.22 (2)
If these documents are saved in the appropriate folders, it will enable your team to relatively easily identify the work product they’re looking for. If the system you have chosen includes search functionality, even a fairly basic search should be able to retrieve documents named with such a convention.
Finally, you will need to implement agreed processes on where to save which documents.
If your folder structure has been developed properly through consensus, it should be relatively simply to agree upon saving conventions. However, everyone has a different way of looking at content. One person’s “contract negotiation” might be another person’s “contract renewal”. It’s important to have conversations as a team about what types of documents belong where, so that there is consistency in the way that content is filed.
The reality is that a dedicated document management system with built-in processes, version control, unique identifiers and security controls can significantly enhance the way a legal department operates. Not all legal departments will have the luxury of being able to invest in such a system, however.
There is no reason, in those circumstances, to eschew knowledge management and improved processes simply because you don’t have a dedicated system in place. Going back to basics will serve any team well – whether or not they are also armed with sophisticated technology.