First Impressions: SharePoint 2010 for Law Firms
Guest Author: Mark Gerow
Fenwick & West
SharePoint 2010 will bring significant changes that will likely be both empowering and disruptive for law firm users and technical staff. Unlike SharePoint 2007, which was released when SharePoint adoption levels were still low, the 2010 release finds its predecessor with over 100 million licenses sold and well entrenched in law firms of all sizes. Upgrading to SharePoint 2010 will therefore have a significant impact on both firm users and clients.
Given this state of affairs, it’s crucial to understand the key benefits that might justify the disruption and cost of upgrading to SharePoint 2010. What follows are a list of new enhancements and subsystems that hold the greatest potential for law firms, which deserve consideration when developing your SharePoint 2010 strategy. Combined with an understanding of the unique circumstances at your firm, this information will help you to make the best decision as to whether and when an upgrade makes sense for you.
LARGE DOCUMENT LIBRARY SUPPORT
Microsoft heard the concerns of its customers with regards to scalability of document libraries. Document libraries can now handle millions of documents without difficulty, which makes SharePoint an even more interesting option for general purpose document management. In addition, new capabilities such as records management, tagging, and rating improve the ways documents stored in SharePoint can be managed and found.
A growing concern in many firms, as more and more documents have found their way into SharePoint, has been the lack of a robust records management capability. Most law firms found SharePoint 2007 unsuitable to manage records. SharePoint 2010 has reworked and expanded its records management functions to allow for multiple repositories, as well as the ability to designate documents as “in place” records, i.e., without the need to move them from the list in which they reside. Workflows move documents through their various lifecycle stages, including retention, archival, or destruction. Whether or not SharePoint 2010 can replace dedicated records management software for managing all firm records remains to be seen, but the new capabilities for records should greatly reduce concerns regarding the management of content stored in SharePoint.
FLEXIBLE CONTENT STORAGE
With the ability to handle large numbers of documents, there is a need for more flexible storage management. While the default storage option continues to be Microsoft SQL Server, firms now have two additional options based on the External Blob Store and Remote Blob Store models. EBS and RBS both store document content on a file server rather than in a database, and differ primarily in which server on your SharePoint farm does the heavy lifting. With EBS, web front end servers intercept requests to read or write documents directly to a file server. With RBS, read-write tasks are performed by the SQL Server. EBS offloads processing from the SQL Server, but must be installed on all WFEs. RBS adds to SQL Server loads, but does not need to be replicated across WFEs.
IMPROVED SEARCH WITH FAST
The ability to reliably and quickly search across all documents and content related to client matters is a significant driver of law firm efficiency. The right content must be available to attorneys and legal staff, minimizing the need to spend precious time sifting through irrelevant documents. SharePoint 2010 includes the option to integrate the FAST search technology (acquired by Microsoft in 2009). FAST is a enterprise-level search engine that combines scalability to billions of documents, the ability to extract metadata (e.g., client name, industry, or area of law) from within the body of documents, deep-faceted search that enables rapid drill-down to only the needed documents, and thumbnail preview of office documents that allows users to avoid opening documents to determine relevance.
The FAST option will come at an additional licensing cost and increased complexity, so you will want to consider whether the additional scalability and features warrant the expense and effort. Without FAST, the native SharePoint search will still index and search content from SharePoint, Exchange, file servers, the internet, and other line-of-business applications via the Business Connectivity Service, formerly the Business Data Catalog.
USER FRIENDLY WORKFLOWS
Automated workflow was a diamond-in-the-rough in SharePoint 2007. Simple workflows could be created in SharePoint Designer, but there were significant (some would say severe) limitations. Among these was a user interface that made it difficult to visualize any but the most basic workflow logic, and the fact that workflows created through the Designer were tied to a specific list on a specific site. SharePoint Designer 2010 can now create workflows that are portable across sites, allowing non-programmers to author workflows that can be used by others anywhere on your SharePoint farm. In addition, workflows can be visually manipulated in Visio 2010, which makes it much easier to understand the business processes that a workflow is modeling.
IMPROVED PAGE EDITING
Throughout SharePoint 2010 the process by which authorized users edit pages has been significantly simplified; having a similar feel to that of editing a Word document. Users can type text directly into the page, resize images, set colors and fonts, and perform other simple editing tasks in a more intuitive way. This should improve the ability of practice groups and departments to maintain their own content with limited support from IT. However, this ease of use may be a double-edged sword. As more users assume responsibility for authoring their own pages, increased governance around style and content will be required.
SharePoint 2007 wikis were clearly an afterthought. SharePoint 2010 significantly improves on the wiki functionality of its predecessor in several ways. First is support for multiple wiki page templates – for example, you might create different templates for a forms library or a general procedure. Second is the significantly improved page editor, which has the ability to embed web parts directly into wiki pages, enabling quite complex “mash-ups” of unstructured and structured content. As with all lists in SharePoint 2010, users can rate and tag pages, making it easier for others to find the wiki pages of greatest interest to them.
READ-WRITE ACCESS TO EXTERNAL DATABASES
Many readers may have worked with the Business Data Catalog in SharePoint 2007. The BDC provided a means for connecting to external data stored in SQL Server, and displaying that data through the BDC web parts, or indexing it through SharePoint Search. Microsoft has re-branded the BDC as Business Connectivity Services, and expanded its functionality to allow for full read-write operations. This functionality is exposed through what appears to be a SharePoint list, so the user’s experience in editing SQL data is similar to that of editing data in a native SharePoint list. This opens up a host of possibilities to develop applications for which storing data in a SQL table is preferable to storing it in a SharePoint list.
OFFLINE ACCESS VIA SHAREPOINT WORKSPACE
SharePoint Workspace (formerly Groove) provides the ability to take SharePoint documents and data offline, edit that content, and resynchronize it back to SharePoint at a later time. This provides intriguing possibilities for travelling attorneys who need access to client or matter specific documents while at locations without easy access to the internet. For example, if an attorney will be appearing in a court without Wi-Fi, or is on an airplane in route to a client’s location, they could use SharePoint Workspace to view and edit copies of the needed documents until a connection becomes available.
Note, however, that offline access may be a feature with diminishing returns. The number of locations without internet access is rapidly diminishing. Also, one needs to consider the number of documents that will require synchronization. For small document libraries an offline copy may be feasible, whereas for libraries holding tens-of-gigabytes of content it may be better to require a direct connection through the SharePoint web interface.
The next version of SharePoint contains hundreds, if not thousands, of significant changes to its predecessor. They range from architectural enhancements to promote scalability to user-interface enhancements that bring SharePoint into conformance with Office 2007 and 2010 and everything in between. Given the sheer breadth and depth of these changes, most legal IT departments are likely to take an iterative approach to evaluating and deploying SharePoint 2010 — selecting those features and subsystems that offer the most value first, and then gradually layering on additional components as the benefits become clear.
This article is reprinted with permission from the April 19, 2010 issue of Law.com. ©2009 ALM Properties Inc.
Guest Author: Mark Gerow
Fenwick & West
Mark Gerow has more than 20 years of experience in IT, professional services and software product development and has provided consulting services to hundreds of companies throughout the San Francisco Bay area and Northern California. He currently works for Fenwick & West, where he leads the application development team and is responsible for defining and implementing the firm’s intranet and extranet strategies using SharePoint technologies.