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Information Governance + Microsoft Teams: What to Know Before You Make the Leap

By Brian Balistreri posted 04-25-2023 16:43


Please enjoy this blog post composed by Andrew Corridore, Information Governance Compliance Manager at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and Elizabeth Adkins, the Director of Information Governance at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.

Microsoft Teams has become a buzzword in legal industry as professionals speculate on its potential to transform the future of law. At an ILTACON session in 2022, a Knowledge Management Subject Matter Expert predicted that Teams could be the email killer of the 2020s, akin to how email forced practitioners to abandon written correspondence in the 1990s. This idea has gained traction as Teams has emerged as a leading platform for collaboration and communication, offering robust features for chat, video conferencing, document sharing, and more. However, integrating this new technology into legal workflows is not as simple as flipping a switch. It raises important questions about discovery, compliance, and information/data governance (many of which were discussed in two virtual Teams-focused ILTA events called “Mastering Microsoft Teams” in 2022). How do we manage this new world we are quickly approaching?

In this interview, we speak with Elizabeth Adkins, the Director of Information Governance at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP (who was a speaker at the Mastering Microsoft Teams events), to delve into the benefits and challenges of Microsoft Teams integration. Elizabeth is a key member of the group implementing MS Teams at her firm and thus is uniquely positioned to provide insight into what to consider when setting up this potentially powerful software.

Andrew: Elizabeth, thank you so much for agreeing to discuss this exciting topic with me. To start off, let’s discuss some of the basic points – what advice would you give to a colleague at a firm that is newly considering the implementation of Microsoft Teams?

Elizabeth: It’s important to remember that Microsoft has designed M365 and Teams with a default experience that is open to sharing and self-service. Microsoft’s philosophy is to ease the burden of IT support and put more control into the hands of end users. For example, by default anyone can create a SharePoint site or Microsoft Team, using any naming convention, and can define who the owners and members should be. For most law firms it will be essential to change the default settings to eliminate self-provisioning, as a way to ensure client confidentiality and enforce ethical walls.

It’s also important to remember that Teams is a user interface, and that the data associated with Teams is stored in multiple places. For example, posts to Teams channels are stored in an Exchange Group mailbox, while 1:1 or 1:many private chats are posted in the user’s Exchange mailbox. Files posted in Teams conversations are stored in the SharePoint site associated with the Team, while files posted in private chats are stored in the user’s OneDrive for Business. Meeting recordings may appear in the meeting chat, then may seem to disappear, but they are actually stored in SharePoint (if the recording is initiated within a Team channel) or in the OneDrive of whoever hits the record button. Knowing what is stored where can be important when it comes to the need for legal holds or e-discovery, or an internal investigation.

A: That sounds like a lot of information to consider – how would you advise getting started with MS Teams?

E: Many firms choose to start with internal-only firm administrative collaboration, as a way to get oriented to the features, functionality, and controls of Teams/M365 without incurring a great deal of risk. The challenge there can be how to enforce the appropriate use of Teams until the firm is ready to deploy further. This is why a carefully considered provisioning process is so important. As IT and Information Governance gain experience with what is needed “behind the scenes” to meet the demands and ethical requirements of a law firm, it may make sense to expand the use of Teams/M365 to internal collaboration on client matters.

Most law firms that do support client matter collaboration are limiting the use of Teams to internal use only. Preparing to collaborate with the client via Teams takes some forethought. That said, some clients are beginning to request this kind of collaboration, making it more urgent to figure out a way to make it work.

A: Going back to your earlier comment about ethical walls, how would you enforce ethical walls in Teams/SharePoint?

E: This may be the most important question to answer before considering using Teams/M365 for client matter collaboration. Some law firms may be able to manage ethical walls through a manual process of centrally provisioning access to workspaces. But for larger, more complex firms, such an approach may quickly get bogged down. Fortunately, a number of walls-enforcing vendors now offer integration with M365 – although getting it configured correctly often requires the use of implementation partners. And a few years ago Microsoft introduced the concept of Information Barriers, which merits monitoring as a possible ethical walls tool as the product matures over time.

A: Let’s talk about files, chats and posts. If you use Teams to collaborate on client matters, what should happen to the Teams content when a matter closes?

E: Almost all law firms mandate that client matter files must be maintained in the firm’s document management system (DMS). This can be done by including a tab within each Teams channel that has a direct link to the DMS, or by mandating that the files be uploaded to the DMS at the close of the matter. Both of these approaches require training and awareness; there are few ways to enforce compliance via native controls.

The issue of what to do with chats and posts at the close of a matter is an evolving debate. Some say that chats and posts should be considered transient, similar to the way most firms treat text messages. If that’s the case, then the chats and posts will not be retained. This is especially important to keep in mind if you use chats or posts to communicate with the client. Others suggest that they should be treated more like email, where substantive advice is captured as part of the client record. If that’s the case, chats and posts must be preserved, and currently doing so outside of Teams is challenging. Some vendors are starting to address the ability to selectively retain chats and posts within the DMS, but more often it may be necessary to preserve either all or none of them.

Keep in mind that if the chats and posts contain substantive legal advice, then you may need to figure out how to transfer them to another law firm or back to the client upon request. You may also need to figure out how to transfer the contents of related apps such as OneNote or Planner.

A: There have been rumblings of Microsoft potentially encroaching on the document management world. Can retention and governance of content in Teams be done natively? Can M365 act as the firm’s DMS?

E: Microsoft’s approach to collaboration (co-editing of documents, easier sharing, integration with workflow functionality, availability of additional apps via Teams channels) appeals to the innovative, forward-thinking attorneys who are the source of growth and new business for many law firms. Traditional document management systems offer the kind of carefully governed workspaces and granular access roles that law firms need to meet ethical obligations to our clients. Microsoft and DMS vendors are modifying their offerings to meet in the middle of those two sometimes conflicting goals. Only time will tell who will be able to find the right balance between agility and controls – and in the meantime Information Governance professionals need to stay on top of the evolving landscape.

A: As you’ve become more experienced working with Teams and M365, what additional lessons have you learned?

E: There are two related issues: understanding the underlying architecture, and getting used to the evergreen nature of M365. I started off with a singular focus on Teams, but quickly realized that in order to understand Teams I needed to appreciate how Microsoft Groups provides a foundational architecture for not just Teams, but all Microsoft 365 applications/services. For example, every time you provision a Team, you are creating a Group that comes with a SharePoint site, OneNote, Planner, and a shared mailbox. To make the best use of M365, you need to also understand how it connects with Azure (often data for new apps are stored in Azure before they move to the M365 infrastructure), Azure AD, and Power Apps, since data flows between all of them.

And of course all of these apps/services are cloud-based, and are in a state of continual improvement and updates. This makes it very important to monitor the M365, Azure/Azure AD, and Power Apps roadmaps. That can be a very tall order – the M365 roadmap alone currently has 1,374 updates tracked. I strongly recommend that monitoring the roadmap be done via a group of subject matter experts, since no one person in a firm can understand all of the implications of upcoming changes. In this case, it takes a village.

The evergreen nature of Teams/M365 also makes training challenging, since any custom training can quickly become outdated. This requires a more agile approach to technology deployment than is typical of most law firms. It takes a lot of time and expertise to wrap your arms around Teams and M365. If you expect to master it before you deploy it, you’ll never get it launched. But you do need to learn what you can and be committed to keep learning – because the demand will only keep growing.

A: Thank you so much Elizabeth! You’ve given everyone (including me) a lot to think about. I’ll include both of our contacts at the end of the interview, so please reach out if there are any questions. On behalf of ILTA, I’d like to thank you, Elizabeth, for your time today. I hope everyone enjoyed the conversation.

Andrew Corridore serves as the Manager of Information Governance Compliance for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and operates out of their New York City office.  Despite a relatively brief career within Information Governance, Andrew has successfully deployed and managed projects focusing on key IG initiatives at two different firms with vastly different risk appetites and commitment to Information & Data Governance. He is a self-proclaimed IG enthusiast, with emphasis on physical & electronic data disposition, legal hold process management and improvement, lateral transfer management & review, risk mitigation, and Outside Counsel Guideline review. In 2020, Andrew received the Young Professional to Watch award from ILTA and the following year was awarded the “21 to watch in ‘21”.

Elizabeth W. Adkins, CRM, CA Emeritus, IGP, is Director, Information Governance at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.  She is a highly respected thought leader and experienced subject matter expert in information governance, including records management, data privacy, e-discovery, and data classification.  She is a certified Information Governance Professional, Certified Archivist Emeritus, Certified Records Manager, and a Fellow of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  She has a long and distinguished track record of professional leadership, including serving as treasurer and president of SAA, president of the Academy of Certified Archivists, a faculty member of the Electronic Discovery Institute, a frequent contributor to ARMA International, a leader of the Northern Virginia chapter of ARMA, and a frequent speaker on information governance topics. In May 2019 the Information Governance Initiative recognized her as Information Governance Leader of the Year.