General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Case Managemant System Software The New Generation

By Andrew Z. Adkins III

Computerized case management systems (CMS) have come a long way since the days of DOS. With law firms facing increased caseloads but not-so-increased revenues, lawyers and legal professionals are looking for ways to be more productive and get a better handle on managing their cases without going broke. There are many ways to accomplish this. Some require changing professions, but a more practical approach is case management system software.

The New Generation Case Management System

We are currently enjoying the third generation of case management systems. First generation systems were few and far between and mostly clunky (the technical term). Of course, back in the early 1990s we didn’t have the luxuries we enjoy today with modern computer systems. The first generation system brought us a database to mate with word processing. The second generation brought in calendaring systems and the ability to "customize" various pieces of the case and client database. Now, those functions, as well as the 32-bit desktop operating system (Windows 95/98/NT/2000), give us seamless integration with other software applications. More than 75 computerized case management systems are now on the market.

Can You Define Case Management?

That’s a tough question to answer. There are dozens of definitions of case management, and I’ve heard most of them. In my experience, the simple answer depends upon what you want to hear. Basically, case management software systems consist of several "functions," all interacting in one system. For example, a basic function is the client database; another is the case database. Don’t get hung up on what a database is—it’s not that complicated. Think in terms of what your firm does now to keep track of client and case information. You likely have a file with contact information for clients, interested parties, and other legal professionals. That’s a paper database.

For each case, you have several file folders stored in a filing cabinet. Again, that’s a database. There are various pieces of case information in that file: correspondence and reports received from the outside, documents generated from within the firm, and numerous handwritten notes. You probably have most of the same information on a computer. Now you can start to see the benefits of the basic case management system: a database with organized information. If all the information in your client’s case is on the computer, do you need to go to the paper file? Of course you do, but not as often as you do now; finding information on the computer is relatively easy, assuming (yes, I know what "assume" means) it’s stored in an organized fashion.

You also keep a calendar, or two or three (one for you, one for your secretary; perhaps another for the firm?). Many firms still employ manual calendars; when trials are rescheduled or postponed, however, it’s a nightmare to change every entry, and that’s not including the time to calculate ticklers. I know secretaries who take several paper calendars home at night to synchronize them. Calendars and dockets are another function of computerized case management systems. Not only do they automate calendaring (and tickling), but they integrate with case information and client information. For example, if you use Microsoft Windows, you can select a date on the CMS calendar; then, instead of retyping the client’s name, simply "link" the client to the calendared time with a "point & click." This way, if you have several calendared items for any individual, you can create a calendar report that lists all calendared items for that person. It’s really not that complicated.

But wait, there’s more! Many lawyers dictate correspondence, memos to the file, or other case-related documents, then have the secretary or paralegal type the documents, which then "magically" appear on the lawyer’s desk later that day or the next. With a computerized CMS that includes document assembly, those documents can be generated in a few seconds. The information previously entered into the client database and the case database merge with the firm’s word processing documents. No more searching for an old case document, changing the date, the client’s name, case number, etc.

But wait, there’s still more! Now, when the document is generated, an entry is automatically made in the case diary (another CMS function). This way, all information is up to date in the computer no matter who works on the case. If the lawyer or paralegals talk with the client or meet with opposing counsel, they can enter the information directly into the system—no more having to look for the file to report status to the client. It’s all there on the computer system.

Those are the basic five elements of a computerized case management system: case and client database, calendaring, document merge, case diary, and reporting. Most case management systems on the market provide these basic functions. The major differences between them are how you enter and view information (the user interface); how information flows through the case management system (the workflow); costs; and implementation.

Where Does Your Firm Fit?

Now you know the basics of computerized case management systems. How do you figure out which CMS is best for you? First you need to understand how your firm handles its cases. I know, you’re telling yourself you already know that—but, do you know how case and client information flows through your office? That’s the key. Knowing how this information goes from the initial client telephone call to case settlement will help you understand two things: (1) the current manual case management systems in use, and (2) where bottlenecks occur (where you can be more efficient).

"Performing a workflow analysis is best left to a professional." "Don’t try this at home." Yes, well, we’ve all heard from the professionals. While there are many good consultants and systems integrators in the legal profession today (many are my friends and colleagues), you can start the exercise and at least get some feel for how things work in your firm. I’m going to lead you through a typical workflow analysis.

1. Follow a case or two through your firm. If your firm handles several different types of cases, you’ll need to consider whether you should do this exercise for each; after you follow one or two, you’ll get an idea of the similarities and differences. Keep in mind that we are trying to determine how information flows into the office, through the office, and out of the office. Remember the five basic functions described above (case and client database, calendaring, document generation, case diary, and reporting). Here you learn how case information fits into these different functions.

2. What forms are used or specific information collected for the initial case intake? If your firm uses a client intake sheet, bingo—you’ve discovered the first piece of the puzzle. The information your firm gathers on this sheet is the information that will go into the case management system.

3. How do you set appointments? Your firm may calendar several deadlines and/or items based on one key date. Determine how you do that and the "rules" that apply to those dates. This becomes the "rules-based" calendar system employed by many CMS developers.

4. What documents are produced by the firm, and when? You may generate several documents when opening a new case. Gather those documents and note what materials are added for each (usually client name, dates, and other case-related information). This information will be merged from each case and client database into your template documents.

5. What types of reports does your firm require? You probably use administrative reports to track the firm’s work (i.e., how many active cases, how many cases with a particular lawyer, etc.). You will also need case-related reports (calendar by case, current case status, case diary) and attorney-related reports (calendar by attorney, number of active cases per attorney). This information is already available within the firm; now you determine which pieces you need from the case management system.

There may be more steps, depending upon the type of case you’re tracking, but you get the picture. Remember, this exercise is not pointless; it helps you better understand how information flows through your office. There’s an old saying in the legal technology industry, "You can’t automate CHAOS." If your firm doesn’t have a smooth manual case management system, then trying to automate it may lead to more problems than you’ll care to handle.

Successful Implementation in Your Firm

Notice I haven’t mentioned any case management system software developers in this article. There are two reasons for that: one, there’s not enough room to give them justice, and two, there are plenty of resources (see "For More Information") that offer software reviews and evaluations. It’s more important for me to provide you with the guidelines and advice about what these systems can do for your firm. If you understand the essentials, then the homework for selecting a CMS will be much easier. As developers and sales consultants demonstrate their software and report the costs, you’ll know what you need to implement the system in your firm.

You will have to do some work. Most case management systems available today are customizable, meaning you can tailor them to specific ways your firm works (that’s why it’s important to perform the workflow analysis—to determine how information flows). Your firm will need to prepare for the CMS integrator:

1. The client intake sheets. These define the user interface.

2. The word processing documents used in the firm. These will become templates. (If your firm’s lawyers take pride in authorship, and prefer to reinvent the wheel with each document—well, you’ll have to figure out how to handle that).

3. The calendar rules used for the firm’s cases. If you don’t gather this data yourself, you’ll likely pay someone to do it for you.

When you select a case management system, there is at least a two-step implementation process. First, the integrator configures the system for you, using the information you provide. That will take a little time, but it’s usually a one-shot deal. Once it’s done, the system is ready for use. (Complex case management systems may take a few weeks; the simpler ones, only a day or two). The second process is training. Do not (I repeat, do not) let this phase slip. You’ll save a little money by not providing training, but you will lose a lot of staff and lawyer productivity time, the system will not be used because no one can figure it out, and you’ll own another piece of "shelfware." Figure one day of training time for simple systems and up to three days for the more complex ones.

Wrapping Up

Case management systems can make the firm more productive. Case management systems will change the way your firm practices law. Case management systems are in their third generation, they are easier to use, they integrate with other systems (such as time and billing, document management, scanners), and they are now "web-enabled." These advances will help shape the industry and determine the future of law office management computing. n

Andrew Z. Adkins III is a nationally recognized expert in the law office automation industry. He is the director of the Legal Technology Institute at the University of Florida Levin College of Law; author of Computerized Case Management Systems , published by the ABA Law Practice Management Section; and the "Legal Tech News Briefs" columnist for Law Office Computing . He is chair of ABA Techshow™ 2000. He can be reached at adkins@law.ufl.edu.

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