General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice Guide

WINTER 1998 - VOLUME 1, NUMBER 2 << BACK TO TABLE OF CONTENTS

Can You Manage Without Case Management Software?

By Terri Olson

What is Case Management Software?

Everyone (at least every practicing lawyer), it seems, wants case management software. However, if you put five lawyers in a room and asked each to explain what case management software is, you would probably get five very different explanations. This is because each of the lawyers queried probably have five different case management needs. One lawyer may want the ability to handle financial records; another may need to track court and filing dates; a third may simply want note taking capability; another might want a combination of date tracking and database functionality; and the fifth may require all of these capabilities.

Although the varying needs of the lawyers in the above hypothetical dictated their understanding of case management software and what it could do for each of their practices, we can establish some ground rules for what case management software can and should do. Case management software is designed to provide legal professionals with (1) an up-to-date database of information regarding the status of a matter, (2) the parties involved, (3) the dates connected to it, and (4) any other relevant information pertaining to the matter.

Because there is so much confusion about what actually constitutes a case management program, it would be prudent to start our discussion with some basic comparisons between what is being marketed as case management software and other related products.

Where Do You Find Case Management Software?

PIMs designed for the mass market, like Ecco or Lotus Organizer, can be found on the shelves of any full-service computer store or mail-order software company. Most products developed specifically for the legal market must be ordered directly from the company that developed them. The following list may assist you in locating the right case management program for your practice. Other sources of valuable information include the various specialized computer and technology magazines currently on the market . You may also want to call your state bar office to find out whether yours is one of the dozen or so states or provinces with a Law Office Management assistance service. Such services may be able to provide you with product reviews, buying advice, or software training.

Product: Abacus Law
Company: Abacus Data Systems
Number for inquiries: (800) 726-3339
Website: www.abacuslaw.com
Downloadable demo: yes—
updates only
Current version number: 1.1
Lowest price (single user):$599

Product: Amicus Attorney
Company: Gavel & Gown Software
Number for inquiries: (800) 472-2289
Website: www.amicus.ca
Downloadable demo: yes
Current version number: 2.53
Lowest price (single user): $299 (attorney); $149 (assistant); $99 (annual support)

Product: TimeMatters
Company: Data.TXT
Number for inquiries: (800) 328-2898
Website: www.timematters.com
Downloadable demo: yes
Current version number: 2.0
Lowest price (single user): $350

Product: Case Master III
Company: Software Technology, Inc.
Number for inquiries: (800) 487-7111
Website: www.stilegal.com
Downloadable demo: yes
Current version number: 8.2
Lowest price (single user): $295

Product: Gryphon
Company: Poseidon
Number for inquiries: (800) 547-9746
Website: www.poseidon.com
Downloadable demo: yes
Current version number: 2.0
Lowest price (single user): $995

Product: Pins & Needles
Company: Chesapeake Interlink, Ltd.
Number for inquiries: (410) 363-1976
Website: www.needpins.com
Downloadable demo: yes
Current version number: 1.06
Lowest price (single user): $5,000

Product: Trial Lawyer’s Assistant
Company: Oakley Associates, Ltd.
Number for inquiries: (800) 960-0644
Website: www.tla2.com
Downloadable demo: yes
Current version number: TLA2
Lowest price (single user): $595

Product: Jr. Partner
Company: Millennium Software
Number for inquiries: (800) 577-2786
Website: www.millenniumsoft.com
Downloadable demo: yes
Current version number: 2.01
Lowest price (single user): $349

Product: LawBase for Windows
Company: Synaptec Software
Number for inquiries: (800) 569-3377
Website: www.lawbase.com
Downloadable demo: no
Current version number: 2.2
Lowest price (single user): $3,000

LegalEdge for Windows
Company: LegalEdge Software
Number for inquiries: (610) 975-5888
Website: www.legaledge.com
Downloadable demo: no
Current version number: 3.0
Lowest price (single user): $3,200

Product: 21st Century Lawyer
Company: CLCS, Inc.
Number for inquiries: (800) 492-5279
Website: www.21stcenturylawyer.com
Downloadable demo: no
Current version number: 2.5
Lowest price (single user): $2,999

Time and Billing Software. Since over two-thirds of law practices now use some type of automated billing system, most lawyers are aware that case management and billing (including entry of time and invoice generation) are separate functions. But the demarcation line between the two is not always a well-defined one. Billing software and case management software are both built around databases. In most instances, the databases overlap considerably, in that both ask the user to input basic client information (name, address, telephone number, etc.) and basic information relevant to the matter (case number, docket number, name of opposing counsel, etc.). In addition, some case management programs can mark calendar entries as billable and export them to a linked billing program, further blurring the lines between the two products.

Litigation Support. Litigation support programs may provide many aspects of case management, but their primary function is dealing with the massive amounts of paper that accompany litigation. This software offers users the ability to search through, annotate, organize, and report on such items as deposition transcripts, correspondence, and depending on the program, nontext documents such as blueprints, medical notes, and videotapes. Contrast this to case management software which may, but not always, have some litigation support functions built in.

Calendar/Docket Control. All case management programs offer calendar control features, but not all calendaring programs offer case management features. In its simplest form, a calendaring program graphically replicates a desk or personal calendar into which the user can input appointments, reminders, and “to-dos.” More sophisticated calendaring programs provide multiple views, individual and group calendars, recurring appointments, and other desirable calendaring features. The distinction between calendaring and case management programs lies in their underlying databases. Calendaring programs keep track of dates and events, while case management programs track all information related to a matter, of which the dates and events are but one important component. Because case management programs attempt to accomplish so much more than calendaring programs, they frequently lack the graphical “bells and whistles” of their cousins.

Personal Information Managers. Personal information managers, or “PIMs” as they are also called, have been on the market for more than ten years. Borland’s Sidekick was an early and beloved example of the product. PIMs are generally built around two central items—a calendar and a card file similar to a Rolodex. As savvy practitioners discovered that calendars and card files were critical to their efficiency, they became avid users of general-purpose PIMs such as Ecco, ACT!, Instant Recall, Lotus Organizer, and others.

So, in some ways, PIMS can legitimately be regarded as case management programs. But PIMs designed for the general public often lack the specific features that lawyers need, such as ticklers for critical dates, statute of limitations warnings, and the ability to easily link multiple items related to a particular case. There are products marketed as legal PIMs such as TimeMatters and Amicus; functionally, there is little difference between these products and true case management programs. (See Spring 1997, Volume 1, Number 1 of Technology and Practice Guide, p. 30, for a more detailed discussion of PIMs.)

What Features Should Purchasers Look For?

When shopping for a case management program, you may want to identify and prioritize your needs relative to certain general categories, such as calendaring functions, database functions, level of integration with other products, and operating system/network system issues. For example, a practitioner who uses a Macintosh must immediately narrow the list to programs like CaseTrack and Amicus which are available for that platform. Similarly, if a practitioner decides that strong integration with his or her existing billing software (e.g., STI’s TABS) is a high priority, the number of available products shrinks to those offering that capability, such as STI’s own CaseMaster.

Case Management Software for Specialty Practices

If your practice is limited to a particular area of law, such as estate planning, bankruptcy, immigration, or criminal defense, you may not be happy with standard-issue case management software. Certainly these programs are a big improvement over databases or PIMs designed for the general public, but generally they are not adequately tailored to the demands of specific practice areas.

So where can a user with a specialty practice turn? Fortunately, more and more case management programs now permit the user to customize some or all of the fields in the database. So, instead of “opposing counsel’s cellular phone number,” the criminal defense lawyer can track something more useful like “arraignment date.” In many cases, this level of customization is all that is required. Since most case management programs are built around a litigation model, this approach works particularly well for specialized litigation practices, like criminal defense, family law, and personal injury.

But a practitioner who relies on unique deadlines or financial calculations may wish to look at those case management programs designed for specialized areas of law. Bankruptcy, collections, probate, personal injury, workman’s compensation, and real estate are all represented by customized products that track information (and often generate documents) specifically for that particular kind of practice. The bad news is that specialty case management software may cost double or triple what a generic litigation package costs.

Network Versus Single User

As mentioned above, PIMs are often limited to a single user. Although they can be installed on a network, they are designed as personal information managers and are most effective as such. Most case management software, on the other hand, is available for both single and multiple users.

This raises the question of whether a practitioner needs to be connected to a network in order to use the software effectively? As is the case with so many things, the answer is a rousing “it depends.” The ideal vision for any program designed to store large amounts of data is for many users to be able to independently access that data according to their unique needs. For example, a receptionist may pull up a data entry screen for a new client; a secretary may set an appointment for an existing matter; an associate may review notes made during the course of discovery; and a senior partner may review a summary report in that associate’s open files. Obviously, this vision is facilitated by the existence of a network with separate workstations. However, this does not mean that a practitioner who does not have his or her own computer or who is not hooked up to a network, cannot benefit from case management software. For instance, to make training easier and to maintain tighter controls, a law office may have one person primarily responsible for data input and report generation. Partners and associates who do not have their own computers may request reports from or provide information regarding appointments and deadlines to that person. While this is not an ideal use of case management software, it provides many of the benefits without forcing unwilling practitioners into changing established work habits.

The following checklist may be handy in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the programs that you encounter when shopping for a case management software product. While the features listed are not always critical for all users, they are certainly desirable, and also widely available. The list assumes that most users will be running Windows, Windows 95, or Windows NT.

General features

User and program level security

Ability to customize user preferences

Context-sensitive, hyperlinked help

CUI compliant (i.e., the product has standard Windows menus and general appearance)

Year 2000 compliant

The product (i.e., Windows 3.x) has been tested and is stable in Windows 95 and Windows NT environments

Calendaring features

Automatic generation of ticklers or reminders

Multiple calendar views (e.g., daily, weekly, monthly)

Individual calendars for each user

Group or master calendars for the entire firm or practice area

Private or hidden appointments

Recurring appointments

Rules for particular deadlines that are definable and able to be memorized

Database features

User-defined fields

Generous note taking capability

Ability to “clone” information for similar entries

Sufficient number of fields to record all important matter information

Capable of linking contacts (e.g., people entries) to multiple matters

Availability of ad hoc searches and memorized queries

Availability of user-defined reports

Integration with other software

Dynamic links to other database applications, such as time and billing programs

Ability to easily export data such as merge files for word processing

Ability to save data in multiple formats

OLE support

Purchasing Tips

What do You Get For Your Money? If you scan comparative price listings for case management software you will see prices ranging from several hundred to many thousands of dollars. Don’t be fooled by the price. Inexpensive programs can be very feature rich. And even the low-end products should include solid calendar control, flexible contact and case information databases, note taking capabilities, basic network functionality (although sometimes at an increased price), and some level of information import and export (usually in the form of word processing merge files or billing software data files). High-end products should provide all of that and many, if not all of the following: rule-based docketing, custom report writers, solid support for a range of networks and operating systems, imaging support, SQL support, client expense tracking, and built-in document assembly. In addition, the companies will sometimes offer on-site installation, training, and customization of the program as part of the purchase price.

The New Product Blues. No one wants to be an involuntary beta tester for a new product. In the past, purchasers could look at the version number of the software and get a rough idea of the developmental stage of the product. 1.0 was always the first release; 1.01 was a bug fix; 1.2 was a minor upgrade, etc. Now developers are much more likely to assign a version number roughly comparable to those of other products on the market. So the only safe way to know how long the product has been out there is to ask “How many months/years has this particular product been shipping?”Or even better, “How many registered users do you have?” (Be advised, you probably will not get a straight answer to that one.)

Upgrade and Maintenance Policies. A program that costs $500 is no bargain if maintenance upgrades (i.e., patches or bug fixes) are sold at $400 a release. Current registered users should be offered free maintenance upgrades and product enhancements at very modest costs. Users who switch from a version that runs on one operating system to one that runs on another (e.g., DOS to Windows or Macintosh to Windows NT) should expect to pay more, owing to the considerable expense that has probably gone into new product development at that point.

Extra Fees for Extra Matters. Some case management programs, particularly those designed for the specialty law practice, have limitations on the number of matters that can be active and open at any one time in the program. To exceed this number, the user must pay an extra fee to receive an “enhanced” or “deluxe” version. This practice is a holdover from a time when developers of database programs had to set aside blocks of space for all potential records, whether they were actually used or not. In short developers had to set limits in advance. In this author’s opinion, this practice is no longer justified. A user who purchases a program with such limitations and whose practice experiences rapid growth may find himself or herself unable to support the practice’s expanded caseload. n

Terri Olson is the director of the State Bar of Georgia’s Law Practice Management Program, where she provides management and administrative assistance to solo practitioners and small firms. She is a frequent speaker at law-related seminars and conferences, and the author of numerous articles on law office management, automation, and accounting. Terri can be reached for comments or questions about this article at olsontj@mindspring.com.

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