Volume 19, Number 4
Case Management Systems: Helping Hands
By Ross L. Kodner
Case management systems literally can transform the most disorganized law practice into a super-efficient legal services delivery engine. Firms that effectively implement case management software systems consistently report higher profitability, increased client satisfaction with status-related inquiries, reduced stress, and increased quality of law practice life. People who are suspicious of case management products loudly proclaim them to be a waste of both money and work. The difference often depends on how such a program is integrated into a firm's existing systems. Several factors contribute to successful case management rollouts in any size practice.
Explain the Product
One important fact about successful integration is that the introduction does not start after you've chosen a specific product. Before you talk about software, you should spend time educating everyone in the firm about what exactly case management programs are, what they do, and how they can improve both workflow and work practices.
Case management programs are literally the "kitchen sinks" of the legal software world; you can enter almost any data and track its flow through the firm and trial process. The information can range from obscure references you pull up once a year to party contact info for counsel, courts, experts and witnesses; fact patterns and issues; case strategies; docketing and tickler systems; and to-do list managers. Conflict of interest searches can be done with just a few mouse clicks, and e-mails and all documents related to your cases can be centralized. And it's all portable-whether on a laptop, Palm or Pocket PC, or linked between the main office and branch offices or your home computer. All the information stored and tracked by the case management system can be accessed from anywhere at any time. Who wouldn't want these kinds of capabilities available in their practice?
You also should prepare for an inevitable question: "Isn't the Outlook (GroupWise/Notes) program we already have good enough?" That's like saying, "We have a 40-year-old Radio Flyer wagon with three wheels and a broken handle-can't we use it as our company car?"
Specifically, opting for a "generic" personal information management system like Microsoft Outlook or Novell GroupWise instead of a modern case manager like Time Matters, Case Master, (recently updated to PracticeMaster), or Amicus Attorney will affect office capabilities in the following ways:
o Case calendaring v. people calendaring. Outlook and most PIM-like (Personal Information Manager) systems easily calendar dates by individual people. But, unlike case managers, they are not set up to track multiple people on a case who need to see a "case calendar" to set up future appointments. Huge amounts of time can be wasted as people consult multiple calendars, jump back and forth, and duplicate tasks. Using a program like Time Matters, on the other hand, lets you get a case calendar view at any time.
o Case information tracking. Outlook doesn't track much; legal case managers, on the other hand, track enormous amounts of information, from contacts for counsel, courts, and insurance companies to facts of the case, to-do lists with impossible-to-ignore "alerts" (malpractice carriers love this!), and date-chaining capabilities that permit a series of related events to be tied together and automatically counted and posted. Another blessing is that the entire chain can be rescheduled with one move if the trial gets bumped! And all this information is easily searchable, printable, Palm-able, etc.
o Document management. I believe most firms are better off with designated document management products, but case management capabilities allow you to attach documents to cases and launch them while looking at-and thinking about-the case you're currently working on. Such capability doesn't exist with generic personal information managers.
o Conflicts checking. Legal case managers contain an incredibly powerful text search that scours every scrap of case information in your system, down to the level of individual time-slip entries. Generic personal information managers don't do conflicts searches.
o Integration with billing systems. Programs like TABS, PCLaw Jr., Time-slips, and QuickBooks Pro, to name just a few, are useful for passing client/matter information back and forth and also for passing time entries from the case manager to the billing system. Typically, a few months of captured time that otherwise would have fallen between the cracks will pay for the entire case management implementation. Generic managers cannot provide this.
o Easy integration with current word processor. Integration of address/contact info into WordPerfect or Word documents is a snap with case managers. (I suspect it might be possible using Outlook/WordPerfect with VBA programming, but VBA opens computers to serious macro-virus threats.)
o Document assembly/Building "smart documents." The mass of information stored and tracked by a legal case manager makes it the perfect source for assembling routinized documents. You can integrate with Word or WordPerfect, with or without HotDocs. Not using such an easily available system is-to me-completely unfathomable for routine documents where little content changes other than client or counsel names, captions, etc.
o The timeline/chronology function. In Time Matters, for example, this shows the progress of work on a case and lets you see a pattern or chain of case events, which is incredibly useful, as is CaseSoft's TimeMap.
o Synchronizing with laptop/remote systems. Using Time Matters and Amicus Attorney, for example, to send files to a branch office PC, a mobile lawyer's laptop, or a partner's home via plain ole e-mail is easy and-most importantly-reliable.
The next step is to get everyone-and I do mean everyone-to buy into the case management concept. An easy way to do this is to develop consensus on the "team reasons" for implementing the new system-the "what's in it for me?" angle. Hold staff meetings in which technology or other department heads anticipate and answer the most important questions and clearly demonstrate the personal benefits of case management software to every employee of the firm. Focusing on the benefits for each department or person will likely gain the "buy-in" you seek.
For example, partners and managing partners can make more money (by getting more work done and also avoiding malpractice claims-case managers make it really difficult to miss deadlines and make it easier to keep clients apprised of case statuses). Associates and paralegals can respond to work assignments more quickly, which makes them-and you-look good. And firm administrators can track otherwise disparate information such as equipment leases and depreciation schedules, staff vacation time and other human resource information, legal research subscriptions, and equipment maintenance.
The more you can relate the benefits of case management software directly to improved job performance, the more you will help your colleagues appreciate the extra work that learning such a system will entail (sure to be the primary concern of many!). More on this topic later.
Decide on a Product
For most law practices, it is neither economical nor practical to make this decision without outside assistance. Representing yourself "pro se" here is akin to a client's deciding to handle a corporate merger on its own-an expensive disaster! Fortunately, many qualified case management experts and resources are available to assist in this process. A directory of the continent's most capable legal technology consultants is available online at www.lawcommerce.com/t3, the website of LawCommerce.
If you already have a specific case manager in mind, visit its website; the major companies generally have a roster of qualified and/or certified consultants who can assist with planning, customizing, and deploying their software. If you want completely independent guidance, be sure the consultant is certified.
Books, periodicals, and legal technology CLE conferences also are great sources of information. One of the leading publications on the topic of legal case management is Andrew Adkins' book Computerized Case Management Systems: Choosing and Implementing the Right Software for You, available from www.abanet.org/lpm/catalog/511-0409.html. Law Office Computing magazine also features a major case management review article in each December/January issue.
The most helpful piece of advice you can follow is don't skimp! The cost of acquiring the software may seem like the tip of an iceberg, but a large portion of the cost of implementing a case management program takes place after you've bought the software. Get outside help from the start, and ensure your peace of mind.
"Plan" is Not a Four-Letter Word!
The key to case management success is acknowledging that such a project is similar to managing a complex litigated case for one of your clients-a multi-step process, spread over a period of time, with coordinated efforts from everyone in the practice. Nothing is more important to this project's success than planning.
Start the planning by appointing a case management SWAT Team. Be sure they represent a variety of perspectives: a partner (in a larger firm, possibly one from each practice department); an associate (who handles different aspects of cases than partners); the administrator; the head of the technology committee (you do have a technology committee, don't you?); and a paralegal and legal assistant from each practice group. And, of course, your consultant.
The first task of the team is to plot the timeline of the entire process. Use your consultant for experienced estimates. Allow at least 30 days to arrive at the plan for configuring and rolling out your new case manager-you'll need the time if you are correctly soliciting diverse input.
Document the Flow
Before configuring a new case manager, document the "flow" of your practice. For most firms, this exercise in and of itself will have significant long-term value.
Documenting the office work flow means writing out checklists that detail all procedures, from case intake and file opening to file closing and archiving. Trace a test case step by step, documenting everything done, who does it and when, and then let it sink in. The SWAT team should study and critique every step of this flow chart, using an LCD projector if possible: Why do we do it this way? Does it work? Can we eliminate that step? The goal is to simplify the processes to better, faster, cheaper . . . eliminating the stress and aggravation that result from outmoded or inefficient methods.
Once you have reviewed and streamlined current procedures, you can begin to translate these processes into automated form using the case management software. The implementation team should be the training guinea pigs, learning the software in order to determine the best configurations, develop a comprehensive training plan, and decide when to activate advanced capabilities like document assembly systems.
Customize! Customize! Customize!
Case managers like TimeMatters, Amicus, ProLaw, Case Master, and others are chameleon-like programs that can adapt to any area of law practice yet perform as if they were custom-made to fit that particular area.
Today's case managers are easily customized: stretched, molded, and modified to fit your work flow and your practice needs. Customizing can include adding to or modifying common screens to detail subject matter, contact/addresses, and conflict of interest information on adverse parties.
Can customization be done later, after the firm has tried out the software for awhile? Certainly. But successful implementations usually anticipate specifics in advance, so the new software fits like a glove the first time you try it. This leaves everyone in the practice with a positive impression from the start of hands-on implementation.
Most software in the average law practice is installed and then learned. Case management systems require the opposite approach.
It's important to emphasize and reemphasize that case managers mean more streamlined information entry and less upfront work. Information centralized in a location accessible by everyone on the network means no more turning the office upside down to find the right form. Legal-specific case managers can significantly reduce overall stress levels and contribute to a more positive office environment.
The consultant can provide all employees with a detailed overview of the program and explain the levels of customization available. Several systems can be installed as a "demo" or "tutorial" that allows the planners to work through the key functions of the program using canned demonstration data files. This is another area where skimping will backfire: Allow all users ample time not only to learn the basics of the system but also to become comfortable using them, so they're not having to reinvent the wheel every morning at startup time.
Ross L. Kodner is president of MicroLaw, Inc., a national legal technology consultancy based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is a member of the editorial board of GPSolo's Technology & Practice Guide and a prolific speaker and author on legal technology topics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
You can find out more about the services and products mentioned in this article by checking out the following resources:
Time Matters: www.timematters.com
Law Office Computing:www.lawofficecomputing.com
Law Commerce: www.lawcommerce.com
ABA TECHSHOW: www.techshow.com