Enterprise Legal Management: It’s Not What Gartner Says It Is

There is a big change in the wind with respect to legal technology and its focus on matter-centric computing. This change has major implications for how we best leverage work product, share knowledge and collaborate with clients. This change is transformative to the way we track, store and search for information. This change has major implications for the technology we currently use (or not use) and the continuing need for third-party products not part of core enterprise information architecture. This change is being driven by Microsoft.

When I first began consulting on the use of legal technology, the term used to describe the ultimate legal computing environment was the “attorney desktop.” The thought was that all information needed by a lawyer would be available through a few (preferably, single) ERP-like applications accessible as icons on the desktop. Lawyers would not have to “hop” from application to application to find what they needed. All information would be packaged and made accessible through an electronic file folder similar in nature to the physical Balancing people graphicrepresentation of a “Redweld” expandable filing folder. Although we have come far in the last 20+ years (e.g., the move from the desktop to the cloud), the desire still remains—let’s create a mattercentric computing environment in which all information is centered around it’s related matter or project and where lawyers can get what they need, where they need it, without much clicking from place to place.

What is ELM?

The latest iteration of this concept was first expressed by Gartner in its October, 2013 report, Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Legal Management. This was the first time I had heard the term enterprise legal management, or ELM. To be incorporated in Gartner’s report, vendors had to address a minimum of 4 out of 5 categories, namely:

  • Matter Management – considered by Gartner to be at the core of an ELM application platform, due to this category dealing with all relevant data that is related to legal matters.
  • Financial/Spending Management – applicable to the tools an organization uses to create budgets and monitor spending.
  • E-billing – Gartner describes this as programs that help third parties, i.e. external law firms and other vendors, to deliver legal bills securely for review and payment.
  • Business Process Management – including workflows and automated processes.
  • Legal Document Management – according to Gartner, provides corporate counsel with the capabilities to manage the creation, revision, approval and consumption of documents, paper and electronic.

Now used widely by legal technology vendors, I continue to find fault with the term ELM for two primary reasons. First, I believe the term “enterprise” should be reserved for applications that are used across the organization and not those used purely by lawyers. Second, “enterprise” has connotations of a system that can do it all—a cradle-to-grave solution. Yet the organization and management of structured (or fielded) data is much different than the management of unstructured (or text-heavy) data. These reasons are why I am confident that for most law firms and legal departments, there exist much better document management solutions than those inherent to a matter management system.

I am, however, a big believer in “matter-centricity”—an electronic file environment that captures all relevant matter content in one centralized location (including email). This should be the ultimate goal.

Problems with ELM’s Reliance on Inherent Document Management

The problem for ELM must be looked at from the differing perspective of both law firms and legal departments; each having unique needs and legacy technologies to contend with. With respect to the legal department, traditional matter management/eBilling vendors have met most criteria—document management being the exception. None of the approximately dozen vendors I have evaluated have the same level of functionality or process flow as available through a third-party, independent document management system (DMS). Fortunately, most vendors don’t even pretend to do so, instead calling their offering “document management lite”. In the majority of cases, documents need to be imported into the system after having first been saved into a shared network or local drive. There are also limits on version control, collaboration and security capabilities in comparison to a dedicated DMS. Some vendors are now looking to directly integrate with third-party DMS in such a way as to “white label” the feature—Mitratech’s integration of M-Files as the Document Vault module of eCounsel being one example.

With respect to law firms, it is the exception that a relational database management system (RDBMS) similar to those used by law departments is deployed. Instead, firms rely on a combination of information managed through their new business intake, time and billing, and document management systems to achieve matter-centricity. But lawyers are constantly having to hop across applications to connect all the pieces. And IT has to manage applications that are costly, require their own servers and are outside the core enterprise application stack.

No matter the scenario or organization, the elephant in the room has always been use of Microsoft SharePoint. It is the matter-centric solution that everyone—corporate and law firm—has hoped for but yet to realize. Its promise stems from several likely advantages:

  • SharePoint has already been purchased as part of their existing (and strategic) application and technical architecture;
  • SharePoint has already been deployed and is being used in other areas of the organization. Often, it’s the corporate standard.
  • SharePoint has already been designated as strategically central to an enterprise application and data architecture that can be used by all interest groups, thus reducing cost and complexity of managing one-off or “point” solutions.

Yet, reality has never lived up to expectations, particularly as a result of difficulty in organizing legal content by matter. As a result, most lawyers have denounced the use of SharePoint as being non-intuitive and too process intensive. But all is about to change.

Introducing…Microsoft’s Matter Center

In 2014, Microsoft renewed its commitment to the legal industry and began development of a product intended to improve usability and adoption of SharePoint. That product is now commercially released and available to all. In summary, the Matter Center is a “skin” that sits on top of SharePoint, turning it into a matter-centric solution for managing documents, emails and all other forms of unstructured legal content. It makes full use of the power and potential of not just SharePoint, but the entire Office 365 and cloud experience. In fact, it serves to prove the advantage in moving to this tightly integrated and robust environment.

By way of functionality, there is an ability to keep fielded information (metadata) about a document, the ability to “drag and drop” emails/attachments into matter folders, and the ability to work directly within the Microsoft Office business suite of applications in both creation and storage of documents directly into a highly-searchable database. Similar to other third party DMS’ (like iManage or NetDocuments), version control and inheritance of folder properties can be used to manage documents as corporate records. There is heavy emphasis also placed on knowledge sharing/transfer and collaboration with others both inside and outside the organization.

For all its power and features, there remains some functionality to be worked on further. For example, the ability to create/provision matter numbers directly within the solution calls into question the need to do so given a law firm’s existing new business intake processes/technologies. A law department’s matter management system also is capable of managing the matter creation process. Regardless, I’ve already had significant hands-on opportunity to both use and deploy the solution. That experience leads me to claim that Matter Center is a likely game changer. And that is not just me talking; certainly the incredible response from the legal community has exceeded all expectations regarding interest. In regards to its impact on ELM in particular, Matter Center replaces the need for an inherent document management function within the matter management/eBilling or other relational database structure—tools primarily designed to manage only fielded information—and integrate in its place a true enterprise-level DMS. To that add an enterprise-ready, Corporate IT-accepted solution with the backing of a major software powerhouse. In effect, the lawyer gets the best of both worlds and we move that much closer to a true legal ERP solution.

Scott Rosenberg is Managing Director and Corporate Counsel of LegalShift, LLC. He is former Sr. Manager of Legal Operations at Kraft Foods Group and Managing Director of Huron Consulting Group’s Legal Business Services division. He can be reached at (312) 967-6319 or at srosenberg@legalshift.com.