Why Microsoft's Matter
Center Matters


Why Microsoft’s Matter
Center Matters

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The legal document management system landscape has not changed much in the past 10 years. The major players introduced a few new features and plenty of bug fixes. Some cloud-based vendors have seen moderate success and seem to be gaining momentum. There was some stir about SharePoint 2010 being a possible candidate to dethrone those major DMS players, but it never saw widespread adoption. Even firms not completely satisfied with their DMS felt they had no better option, and that it would take a significant change in the market to make them consider a DMS replacement. That’s why the big news from ILTA’s 2014 conference in Nashville was Microsoft’s announcement of their own DMS: Matter Center for Office 365.

Matter Center is a document management system built on top of SharePoint and Office 365. This is Microsoft’s first product geared specifically to the legal vertical — a niche it had previously left to partners. Ultimately, Matter Center is designed to replace the traditional legal DMS with a solution that tightly integrates with the growing variety of Office 365 applications and services.

At its core, Matter Center leverages SharePoint to handle its back-end search and storage, and it provides a matter-centric interface for the front end. Users can save and retrieve documents and email, much like with any other commercially available DMS, but Microsoft has seized the opportunity to offer functionality that meets the needs of today’s legal market.


At press time, Matter Center has only been provided to select partners and clients, so technical details are still scarce and subject to change. Matter Center is not a standalone product and has several key integration points and dependencies: SharePoint 2013, Exchange 2013, OneDrive for Business and Office 2013 (including Word, Outlook and OneNote). In order to run Matter Center, your firm will likely need all these products, with at least some portion of this infrastructure running in Office 365. Microsoft has committed to supporting hybrid environments with Exchange and SharePoint on-premise, but it is not yet clear what other parts of the infrastructure can be run on-premise and what must run in the cloud.

The front end of Matter Center offers a significant departure from Microsoft’s traditional approach. Nishan DeSilva, Senior Director of Technology and Strategy at Microsoft, says: “We are running our entire Matter Center solution today with no code on the desktop so we can be cross-platform and we can write on any device. With the way we are looking at innovation and how we want to evolve, we feel very confident that this is the future.” Microsoft is quick to point out there is already a native iPad app, and an Android app is in development.


Prior to Microsoft Office 2013, extending the capabilities of any Office product typically involved using add-ins (sometimes referred to as plug-ins), which were installed on each user’s computer. Matter Center uses the cloud app model to extend Office rather than add-ins, leveraging the same underlying technologies used to build Web applications such as HTML5, JavaScript and CSS.

Apps like Matter Center have a very light footprint because they do not install directly on the user’s computer. Instead, they run in the context of a browser control, so they can be maintained and updated easily. This will go a long way toward avoiding the “blame game” sometimes played by vendors when troubleshooting issues.

While management and deployment become simplified with the cloud app model, external dependencies expose a potential downside. OneDrive for Business allows users to synchronize files for offline access, but the cloud app controls in Word and Outlook could lose some degree of functionality without cloud connectivity.


Part of Microsoft’s marketing around Matter Center is that it grew out of the needs of its Legal and Corporate Affairs (LCA) group. While this message should underscore the idea that the product is built for lawyers, it also brings up the point that lawyers in a corporate setting work differently than lawyers in a law firm. Depending on the area of law in which they practice, an attorney can have hundreds of open matters at one time, needing access to all of them. Consequently, there has been debate as to whether Matter Center’s user interface is aligned with the needs of today’s law firms. Microsoft has steered away from listing matters in Outlook’s left-most pane, where users are used to seeing them listed with their email folders. Instead, they have opted to use a grid layout which might not lend itself well to the traditional hierarchical client-matter structure.

Instead of merely mimicking the interface of the major DMS players, Microsoft has elected to change the paradigm entirely. Filing an email, for example, takes place in the same pane as the content of that email, rather than via dragand-drop or a right-click menu option. These kinds of changes might require retraining for existing DMS users. In a conversation with John Anderson, Chief Information Officer at Shook, Hardy and Bacon, he described the iterative process through which Microsoft collected feedback from half a dozen law firms over the last several months to refine the user interface. Anderson is confident that “while the user interface is a departure from the past, it will be a welcome change from the conventional approach.”

Another interesting feature of the Matter Center interface is the Mail Cart, which allows a user to attach multiple documents from different locations and send them through a OneDrive link directly from Outlook. This experience differs from the way a user would attach documents from different locations on their local hard drive or a network share.

The interface for the Mail Cart uses a shopping cart paradigm, so users can add documents from different locations without opening multiple dialog windows as they would with traditional email attachments. Sending a collection of documents as a link rather than as email attachments will keep unnecessary network load off the mail servers and facilitate collaboration when the email is intended for multiple recipients. Anyone familiar with the product marketplace knows that none of these capabilities are new. What is new, however, is the ability to present them to the end user in a way that feels like native Outlook without plug-ins.

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SharePoint 2013 introduced a very useful feature called a Hover Panel, which allows users to preview a document by hovering the mouse over it in a list of search results. This feature eliminates the need to download and open a document just to get a quick look at the contents. Matter Center leverages a Hover Panel natively in both Outlook and Word to help the end user narrow down search results. This approach will be a significant productivity booster, since navigating between documents and matters efficiently is at the core of what Matter Center brings to the table.


Microsoft has stated there are no plans for storing content outside of SharePoint or Exchange, so in order to fully embrace the Matter Center product, a law firm or legal department would be using SharePoint as their DMS. The legal vertical has some of the most demanding DMS requirements of any industry, and there are questions about how well SharePoint will scale in response to the heavy legal workload. Large law firms have tens of millions of documents and can have several versions of each one in their DMS. Matter Center and SharePoint must handle a document payload of that magnitude to be considered for midsize and large firms. Many of the law firms that have managed to make SharePoint work as a DMS have also leveraged third-party tools to help make the platform viable. Handshake and Epona have already announced support for Matter Center, and others are sure to follow.


Because Matter Center is integrated with Office 365, users will have the ability to leverage all the collaborative features the platform offers, including workflows, simultaneous co-authoring of documents, the ability to “follow” content and integration with Yammer, OneNote for Business and Lync. Law firms historically have not been early adopters of new technology, and several aspects of Office 365 might fall outside of a firm’s comfort zone, such as Yammer’s enterprise social network features. It will also force firms to decide how ready they are to embrace the cloud. Those who were able to attend SharePoint MVP Scot Hillier’s keynote at ILTA’s 2014 SharePoint Symposium heard the message that Office 365 will replace on-premise installations of SharePoint, Exchange, Lync, etc. over time. The discussion among thought leaders in the industry has shifted from debating if that transition will take place to debating when it will take place.

When we discussed with John Anderson how the legal industry has been hesitant to embrace cloud computing and how that might affect Matter Center adoption, he agreed with the notion that running SharePoint, Exchange, Lync, etc. on-premise will soon be a thing of the past. He also noted that leveraging the Matter Center in a hybrid model is an incremental step toward the cloud, which could be beneficial. He also highlighted the success of other cloud-based DMS vendors in legal, like NetDocuments, as evidence that Microsoft is not alone in moving away from on-premise solutions. Anderson also pointed out that SharePoint is already a strategic platform for many law firms including Shook, Hardy and Bacon, and leveraging that existing investment for document management purposes is an attractive proposition.


The ideas behind Matter Center represent the first significant attempt at a DMS that does not hamper the functionality of Office applications and mobility. The legal vertical should be pleased — the major DMS vendors will need to be more innovative in order to compete. It is still too early to tell how well Matter Center will perform in real-world scenarios. There are sure to be revisions before it is released to the public. Microsoft is up against vendors who are well-entrenched in this space, but it has the resources to deliver a quality experience. Applications, services and document storage are moving to the cloud, and if Microsoft has its way, Matter Center will be the best way for the legal vertical to manage it all.

This article was first published in ILTA’s Winter 2014 issue of Peer to Peer titled “Fewer Connectors, More Connections” and is reprinted here with permission. For more information about ILTA, visit www.iltanet.org.

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