Firms of all sizes are struggling with the best way to use software to control both their documents and back-office functions. But small firms are especially hard hit as they try to determine what combination of software applications they can afford to acquire and implement to perform these tasks.
Traditionally there have been separate applications that are used to handle word processing, document assembly (the automatic building of documents from previously used forms or templates), document management (in the software world, document management is a specific software such as Worldox or iManage, which acts to index and retrieve word processing documents after they are created), calendaring and docketing (the distinction being that calendars show traditional appointments while docketing software has court rules for case due dates built in) and time and billing.
A program that combines all or several of these individual applications under one interface is typically referred to as case management software (CMS).
The first and most basic CMS programs were actually sophisticated docketing or calendaring programs that track client and case information. Another common alternative for small firms has been the use of a contact manager or personal information manager (PIM) such as Outlook. In addition to e-mail, these programs offer an integrated calendar and appointment book; a "tickler'' or set of reminders with alarms and automatic carryover from day to day; an electronic Rolodex with phone, address and contact directory; and a to-do list with prioritization codes.
Although Windows-based PIMs also have the ability to link their information to other Windows-based programs, they typically do not have integration with word processing, which makes them inadequate for true case management. Sophisticated CMS programs are complex, intelligent add-on systems that provide checklists of tasks to be performed, administer the flow of documents used in a case, and produce management reports.
A good CMS that is properly designed and well matched to the needs of a given law practice can be a critical management tool to help lawyers do their work more effectively. Advanced case managers can handle the entire firm's document workflow by providing imaging and document assembly components that interface with the firm's word processing system and its time and billing system.
Finally, a good CMS can report on the status of cases, on the number of cases recently opened or closed, and on the type of cases. A firm of any size can then use a CMS program to gather and store data on the work performed for clients such as what was done, how much it cost and what amounts are due for collection.
There are many CMS products available, ranging from simple databases to custom-designed applications. With the advent of easy-to-use Windows development tools, some law firms have begun to design their own CMS programs. Firms with sufficiently skilled personnel may develop such systems completely in-house. Other firms may turn to consultants for assistance in system development, following a specific set of project guidelines. Whatever the approach taken, a well-designed CMS can match the needs of a specific practice and assist attorneys in becoming more efficient and productive.
Case managers are integrated systems that provide law firms with a comprehensive package of docketing, calendaring, billing, word processing, database maintenance and information services. Many case managers had their origins in docketing services. Ideally, these systems carry out all but the intellectual functions of a law practice, and they contain built-in logic and expertise that can make the performance of even those functions easier.
A well-designed CMS should be able to:
• Keep all data about the firm's cases (including clients, matters, courts, attorneys, witnesses and relevant statutes and regulations) in a single relational database that is readily available and provides single-point entry for notes on steps completed or to be taken.
• Enable lawyers to create checklists of actions needed and advice given to clients, index any advice given by type of advice and key words, and store the full text of the actual advice.
• Maintain a chronology of work performed on each case and record the time spent and the costs incurred.
• Allow assembly of key documents from checklists.
• Use checklists to walk any attorney through the steps in handling a case, including interviews, document collection, analysis and filings.
• Monitor communications among team members on specific cases and allow free transfer of documents among team members.
• Provide clear reports on work done, case status and advice given.
• Offer a time and billing module or integrate with any Windows based time and billing applications.
This last feature is crucial. Technology allows firms to perform detailed cost accounting. Each underlying production element, such as conducting a deposition or performing legal research, can be costed out, and from these breakdowns the full underlying cost of producing work is pieced together for a particular client engagement. A firm can readily develop a fixed fee for work plus variables for other services that may be performed.
Some large firms have gone as far as installing automated collection systems. In addition to the traditional accounts receivable system, they have built-in management and document generation systems that track collection, write documents, monitor payments, bar further time or cost entry, and perform other collection-related activity.
Many firms, however, continue to run their time and billing functions on systems separate from their other applications, either because the time and billing software was purchased first or is even a legacy system developed years ago when only minicomputers were powerful enough to handle them. The increased power of PCs and local area networks (LANs), as well as the ongoing deterioration of the older systems, has spurred the transfer of these functions to PCs.
There are a multitude of programs in this area, but a firm with an existing package should first explore whether its current software integrates with a CMS before considering its replacement. This solution will be the most effective in keeping all current data intact and reducing training costs.
In summary, CMS tools help lawyers to be good managers. A well-designed system allows supervision of all aspects of a case by combining all relevant information with guidelines about how to proceed. The advantage of such a system is that it can regulate the input of case information and provide regular reports, thereby maximizing the firm's expertise and minimizing its malpractice exposure. More effective performance means more satisfied clients. The proper handling of all of a firm's resources can only improve the firm's productivity and ultimately its profitability.
CMS was once called the future of the legal practice but it is actually safe to say that, in this area, the future is now and that a good CMS program is essential to any modern law practice. It can significantly enhance the quality of work done for clients by increasing the accuracy and speed of work done, while greatly reducing the law firm's costs.
Tom O'Connor is a nationally known speaker and writer working with Litigation Management Consulting, a Searchlight Solutions Partner located in Seattle. A New England native, he has extensive experience in complex litigation management and technology.