One category of clients I help configure SharePoint for are law firms. SharePoint makes perfect sense for the legal industry, as it allows to easily store documents in the cloud and be able to access them from outside of the office (i.e., courtroom). Additional SharePoint features, like versioning and metadata, allow for a very robust management of legal documents, court or client correspondence. I worked with many attorneys in my life who helped me with life’s various legal battles, so I am very familiar with their lifestyle and processes. I like creating case portals for legal firms, since this is the only time when I talk to an attorney and they have to pay me for services, and not the other way around. :-)
So here are the options available to law firms that wish to manage and organize case documents in SharePoint (using Out of the Box functionality).
Option 1: Organize client cases using Folders
This option is no different than what probably most attorneys currently do on their network drives. Essentially, you would provision one site in SharePoint with one library and organize all cases in respective folders, with a folder for each case + lots of subfolders underneath.
Limitations of folders in SharePoint are well known and documented, and I myself published a post on the topic.
Also, I see the following possible issues with the above approach:
- Not scalable
- Pain to archive old cases
- Seach will become challenging as the library grows exponentially in size over time
- Unique security per case/folder (if necessary) might not be easy to set up
Option 2: Organize client cases using SharePoint sites
This option mitigates most of the concerns from Option 1 and is best when you need to manage more than just client documents. Maybe you need to track case events, tasks or store contact info. If this is the case, SharePoint sites are the way to go. This is very similar to project/team site approach, where for each client you would provision a whole separate site. While this option does carry some overhead, in terms of site creation and security configuration, it is most scalable one.
Each case gets its own site and can contain a number of document libraries, other web parts (calendar, task list) to manage a given case. Moreover, you can create a template for each case and provision new sites based on the certain (standard) look and feel – this is huge from the consistency standpoint. Each site can also have its own security (in case you represent VIPs and case needs to be confidential).
In addition to a Case Site Template, you would also have a Case Dashboard – a site that details all the ongoing cases in a SharePoint list. This will allow for easy case access and tracking. When the case is completed, you can mark it as such on the dashboard and hide from the view.
Option 3: Organize client cases using Office 365 Groups
Another option that is becoming very popular with law firms is the Office 365 Groups option. This stems from the requirement that emails often sent to attorneys contain information often pertinent to the legal case and need to be stored accordingly (and be easily accessible). While having all the other traits of a SharePoint Site, Office 365 groups also have an email conversation feature, which allows emails sent to that Office 365 distribution list be stored as part of Office 365 Group. This is a huge advantage, in comparison to classical SharePoint team site.
Moreover, Office 365 Groups ecosystem, provides other tools, like Planner for Task Management and Teams for chat/communication capabilities. I have not seen these being used that much by attorneys just yet, but do think it is a matter of time before these new tools will be adopted.
Option 4: Organize client cases using Document Sets
The option that is also very popular with attorneys is Document Sets. At the end of the day, attorneys need to organize various case documentation. Document Sets have some unique features which make them perfect for attorneys:
- Folder (Document Set) for each client
- Folder-level metadata. In our example, it will be case-level metadata, like Client Name, Attorney/Paralegal name, Opposing attorney name, type of case (i.e., divorce, criminal, medical malpractice, etc.)
- File-level metadata. Additional metadata can be set at a file level, allowing attorneys to segregate files by document type (i.e., Client correspondence/materials, Court notices, etc.)
The screenshot above shows a Document Set in the context of a project; Legal Case Document Set would look similar, with case-level metadata at the top and documents at the bottom.
Any of these options are valid, and I have seen all four used. My favorite one is Option 2. It is scalable, allows to templatize the case site, and case dashboard (list) is a bonus! You can’t go wrong with it!