For small law firms or legal services programs, Office 365’s SharePoint Online just might be the perfect litigation support platform. My legal services program recently has started to use SharePoint Online to store, index, and markup discovery for easy retrieval. It doesn’t do everything tools used by the big law firms do, but it might have the right balance between ease of use, cost and features for you.

Many years ago, my organization was lucky enough to receive a donation of the Summation litigation support software, along with donated time from a local litigation support consulting group, Target Litigation. Summation is a good product, and Target Litigation has been very kind to us over the years, including offering trainings and one-on-one support for major litigation. But as the version we received aged, and the number of features that we actually took advantage of stayed small, it stopped making sense for us to keep using Summation. Luckily, so far it looks like SharePoint can fill the gap for us.

Key features of litigation support software

Litigation support software is usually aimed at big litigation. Cases with many boxes of discovery, where a spreadsheet just won’t cut it to keep track of the key exhibits. It may also help with producing discovery. At my organization we don’t usually have to produce large volumes of discovery, but we may receive it from opposing counsel in an affirmative case.
SharePoint (and Exchange) Online both offer great litigation hold features that can help you respond to discovery about your organization. Think: your company is being sued or you have employee misconduct that you need to document. That’s not what this post is about though. Some key features that are relevant for receiving and not so much for producing documents might include:
  • Marking and tagging documents and pages
  • Indexing and searching
  • Providing visualizations of data
  •  Organizing your case

What can you do with SharePoint Online?

SharePoint is tremendously extendable. To keep the scope simple, I’ll just talk about how we were able to use SharePoint native features, without paying for third-party tools or doing any custom coding.

Documents instead of pages

Summation, and maybe other similar tools, use page-level indexing and markup. By contrast, PDFs stored in SharePoint can be referenced on the document level, only. There’s no way for the search result to pull you to a specific page of a document. One easy way around this problem is to mark up the PDF in Adobe Reader and to store brief summary comments as a field on the PDF in SharePoint. Those comments can include a page number.

Tagging, labeling, and indexing

Tagging and labels can be very structured, or completely free form. Below is an example of adding “enterprise keywords” to a PDF stored on SharePoint:

I am able to edit the fields associated with a document in SharePoint just by clicking on the document. I get a preview of the document on the left side as I’m marking it up. This can’t get much easier to use.

Notice the “Document Date” below, which is a Date field.  Document Libraries in SharePoint can use any of the SharePoint field or “column” types. You could set up a multiple choice column, for example, that lets you classify each document by the interrogatory or document request that it corresponds to. Enterprise Keywords are a flexible way to allow users to label and organize documents, but some advance thought should be given so that the keywords are consistent across the document library.

I recommend using Enterprise Keywords instead of folders to organize the documents. Folders are great when each document has only one relationship, but the organizing idea breaks down pretty quickly for something like litigation. Think of a scenario where you want to mark a single exhibit as applying to two different witnesses, for example.

Marking up PDFs

Tagging and updating other properties is available, but more complicated in Adobe Reader than it is in the normal SharePoint interface. In particular, you can’t add new Enterprise Keywords although it is possible to view them. Adobe Reader does allow you to highlight text on your PDF documents and store them in SharePoint. Adobe has a good overview of its SharePoint integration.
My recommendation? Don’t go crazy with markup in Adobe Reader. The connection is a little clunky. A little highlighting can be useful, but I recommend storing notes about the document in SharePoint online, not as comments in the PDF file.

Finding your documents

Once you’ve uploaded, tagged, and otherwise classified all of your documents, it’s time to find them! This is the main feature that we used from Summation for many years. SharePoint excels at indexing and search. To search, you can either just start typing in the search box:

 

Or you can use Filters on individual columns:

 

Conclusion

SharePoint can be a great tool for basic litigation support, just by using the available column types. Building custom lists could extend its capabilities further, without requiring custom coding. For non-profit law firms that get Office 365 for free, it’s worth giving it a try.

 

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