Why we should move beyond filing cabinet thinking and demand more from document management systems.

The world of legal document management has been buzzing over news of mergers and acquisitions. With Netdocuments acquiring Worldox, and customers looking at an impending move into a different system, several prospective clients have asked me to give my thoughts about where document management is headed in legal. 

To understand the road ahead, I believe we first need to come to terms with an old technology, and parse the ways it continues to shape the ways we think about document management. 

The vertical filing system was invented a few times in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This dull piece of office decor continues to haunt our workplaces. Even as our data goes digital, the filing cabinet provides the dominant motif for document storage. We organize and save items in endless hierarchies of folders, and delete or archive our materials with bins that resemble a world of paper.

No.722, 709 | Patented March 17, 1903

If this were just a borrowing of familiar designs from the physical world, it might not be a problem. New technologies often rely on metaphors and analogies that link them to traditional objects. We still call the small networked computerized sensing device we carry around in our pocket a “phone,” even if making calls is only a tiny fraction of its use. We don’t really buy a smartwatch because we want to know the time. Even a “face book” once just meant a directory with photos in it. 

In each instance, a new device explodes our old ways of interacting with information and each other. But the metaphor reassures us in this moment of transition by weaving a story of continuity and connection. It grounds us in familiarity, so we don’t feel bowled over or by dramatic change. 

Easing into New Legal Tech

Grounding metaphors are especially important for complex systems, like legal offices. Imagine if, a few decades ago, tech companies had told busy law firms it was time to toss out their precious physical files and instead rely on a series of zeros and ones distributed in servers around the globe. No one would have digitized their data. But when the icons look like file folders and they’re stored in the same file hierarchy as before, the switch feels far more manageable. We get the same old filing cabinet, but better: it doesn’t take up office space and you don’t have to leave your chair to rifle through it. 

Metaphors have power. But they can also limit us. When the mindset of the filing cabinet limits our imagination about what can be done with documents by forcing the recreation of a paper world, we end up with broken imitations rather than meaningful digital systems and tools. 

When you had a paper file, you immediately knew what correspondence looked and felt like. The creases in the paper from having been stuffed in an envelope, the overly ambitious letterheads that crowded out actual content. In many document management systems that are in use today, users are prompted (or required) to fill in metadata fields to indicate that the record on their screen is correspondence, noting whether it was inbound or outbound, when it was delivered, etc. The idea being that these endless sets of data points will give us some semblance of the control that we had with paper files. 

I should note that, as technologists, we need to do a better job to meaningfully capture what is valuable about paper. I find that when I’m engaging with digital documents, I often use a device that doesn’t connect to the internet. It’s simple, aesthetically pleasing, and easy to read. Rather than always scolding legal professionals about using paper, we need to create a more pleasant, seamless transition that preserves what people like about paper.

At the same time, the real control of documents rests in their use, and the intricate network of relationships and ideas that power them. 

Documents as Networks

Paper is inert — and so are the metal boxes that store it. But legal documents hold the capacity to be far more lively.   

In simple terms, you can see this in document tagging, which turns an immobile file hierarchy into a rhizome of connections. Tools like optical character recognition crack open a document or image, making it searchable and giving you rapid access to its contents. I could give many more examples — from limitless storage to versioning to audit logs — each one opening new ways to think outside the filing cabinet. 

But new document assembly breakthroughs are pushing us even further beyond old metaphors, transforming documents into active partners in the quest to deliver a better legal product.

We’ve been able to log the words on the page: but new technology can understand the story behind those words. It can automatically build records from a document, and keep them synced to the latest updates. It can deploy the right wording into clause libraries. It can make legal work faster, higher quality, and more accurate — but only if we start to think about documents differently.

Instruments of Generation

Academic and “education futurizer” Tryggvi Thayer explores the “double-edged sword” of metaphors for emerging technologies. As an example, he points to the synthesizer, the electronic musical instrument that brought us everything from Donna Summers disco to Hans Zimmer film scores. 

Thayer tells how Robert Moog popularized the synthesizer in the 60s by putting it in the form of a piano keyboard. There was nothing inherently ‘keyboardish’ in the technology to begin with. It could just as easily have taken the form of any other existing instrument — or a typewriter or series of tubes or any other shape. But by shaping it into a keyboard, Moog cut down the instrument’s learning curve for many people. Anyone familiar with a piano can instantly plink out a song on the synth. And so the synthesizer went from a strange toy to serious music. Now “keyboard” is basically synonymous with synth.

But this development also carried with it its own limitations. Thayer explores how other synth pioneers rejected the keyboard metaphor, instead embracing the unique freedoms within the technology to create and manipulate sound. Their synthesizers are a series of knobs and wires that look like no other instruments, and their music tends to be far more experimental, utilizing the capabilities that are closed off by the keyboard format. They’re not thinking like pianists: they’re starting from a much more open framework.

As Thayer puts it: 

“At some point the metaphor ceases to serve its initial purpose of helping us to relate to changes in our environment. The metaphor may even become a hindrance that obstructs forward movement.”

Legal documents are meant to be put to work, not stacked in ever-higher digital cabinets to collect dust. At Filevine, we’re not building better filing cabinets: we’re opening new ways of conceiving of and engaging with your documents. When we move beyond the limitation ingrained in traditional ways of thinking about technology, we can offer you fresh forms of control. You decide where documents appear in workflows. You decide how they get assembled, organized, tagged, and put to work for your clients. 

And when you move beyond the limitations that restrict your competitors, you build the future of legal.