Bringing Big-Firm Technology to Small Firms
Big law firms have the swank offices with the high-profile addresses, along with the latest in cutting-edge technology and staff dedicated to matter management and court calendaring. For years, many of these perks have been limited to larger firms with the outsized budgets to match. However, you no longer have to represent the rich and famous to use top-notch, high-end court calendaring technology.
Litigators and other lawyers at large firms have benefited from automatic deadline calculations that have been beyond the budgets of smaller firms. The advantages of automatic date calculations and rules-based calendaring are substantial—calculating court dates manually takes a tremendous amount of time, requires frequent updates, and is highly error prone throughout every step of the process. To miscalculate—or simply miss—a critical date represents a huge risk to law firms of any size. According to the American Bar Association, failure to properly calculate deadlines associated with changing rules is one of the leading causes of malpractice claims.
Missed deadlines can haunt firms of any size. Several years ago, both lawyers and the firm secretary at one small law firm had personal issues that converged at once, resulting in a missed deadline in a bankruptcy case. One lawyer was in China adopting a baby. The other attorney had been deployed to Iraq with the military, and the secretary went into premature labor. The bankruptcy judge in that case ruled that the firm’s neglect was inexcusable and refused to grant an extension.
The fact is, most lawyers have not been able to afford comprehensive calendaring software. The vast majority work at small firms or in solo practices—in fact, according to a recent estimate, nearly 80 percent of all U.S. lawyers work in smaller offices. These may well be the very lawyers who would benefit most from court calendaring technology. Not only do lawyers at smaller firms and in solo practices lack the legions of specialists, paralegals, and administrators employed by the largest firms, but small-firm lawyers often wear multiple hats. A general practitioner may appear in court on Monday, draw up a will for a long-time client on Tuesday, and fix the copy machine on Wednesday. Today’s litigators are short on time, and that is why they need easy-to-use technology that complements their routines without requiring hefty investments or extensive training. Fortunately, automated deadline calculation programs are becoming increasingly affordable and accessible to virtually any law firm, in any jurisdiction, of any size.
Benefits of Rules-Based Calendaring
If your practice focuses on litigation and is generally limited to one local jurisdiction, calendaring court dates manually may not be such an overwhelming task. You know nearly all the local rules and holidays backward and forward. You are familiar with the ins and outs of that particular courthouse. You know exactly who to call to double-check that a judge hasn’t shifted a particular date in your upcoming case. You still have risks, but they are minimized.
But general practitioners who work in several different jurisdictions must cope with a very different situation on a day-to-day basis. Without a steady practice of focused litigation, it’s difficult to become familiar with all of the court rules, and the “home field advantage” of a local courthouse may not exist. When a court date is scheduled in a less-than-familiar jurisdiction, lawyers or staff need to take numerous steps; they must get on the phone or online to determine the court rules and verify how much time they have to file paperwork; they need to find out and factor in any relevant local holidays; they must make sure they have accurately figured the correct dates on the calendar; and they need to verify they have accurately recorded the date on the firm’s court calendar, whether that is a paper calendar or on a personal digital assistant. After those dates have been calculated once, they must be verified and checked again to make sure there have been no changes in the court date or rules.
With an affordable, comprehensive rules-based automated court calendaring program, these steps can be handled quickly and efficiently.
Ten Factors to Consider
When considering any new technology, research is the key. Despite what some service providers may say, there is no one-size-fits-all solution that works for every law firm. When researching different court calendaring programs, you should consider the individual needs of your law firm, lawyers/staff and your clients. Here are 10 points you should consider when shopping for the best fit for your firm.
Initial costs and ongoing fees are a major issue for small firms and solos considering a rules-based calendaring program; after all, if money were no object, smaller firms would just buy the expensive, comprehensive software programs that large firms have used for years. Be sure you understand what fees—if any—are required to set up an initial account and how the vendor bills on an ongoing basis. For example, does the provider offer pay-per-use rates? Carefully evaluate how often you will need to check court dates to determine which billing system works best for your firm.
2. Jurisdictions and Practice Areas
A calendaring program won’t provide much value if the jurisdictions that your firm practices in aren’t included. It will also be of little help if it doesn’t include all the practice areas you need. Before signing on with any program, make sure it includes the courts you practice in, whether that is a bankruptcy court in Nevada or an appeals court in the First Circuit.
3. Billing Methods and Capabilities
Consider how the service bills. Can you easily set up one account for everyone at the firm, or does each individual who needs to access the calendaring program have to pay separately? Can individual searches be coded by matter, so that costs can be associated with the correct client or billed directly back? Billing is a tedious process—a service that can automate the process will save time and paperwork.
4. Training/Tech Support
Ease of use and an intuitive interface are important considerations for small firms and solos—the last thing you and your staff want to do is sign on to a complicated program that takes hours to figure out. When considering different service providers, be sure to ask about the level of training needed. Also inquire about tech support—what are the various methods of inquiries, and how quick is the response time?
Is the service provider constantly working to improve the program? Are the numbers of jurisdictions covered being expanded frequently? If your firm is growing, or if you and your fellow lawyers are taking cases in different jurisdictions, your calendaring programs should be able to keep up. You don’t want to be in the situation of growing comfortable with one program, only to have to replace it soon with another. Most important—does the provider keep the rules current?
6. Integration with the Firm’s Other Software
If you make a mistake transcribing a court date into the firm’s court calendar, the system obviously loses much of its value. Check and see what types of software the calendaring data can interface with. Can it be imported seamlessly into the firmwide calendar? Can it be uploaded easily into lawyers’ hand-held PDAs?
7. Features/Customization Capabilities
Every firm has its own culture and way of doing things. It helps to take a mental inventory of the personalities at your firm and what factors are most important. Any program you adopt needs to work within your system, in a way that lawyers and staff feel comfortable with. Carefully investigate the different features that each program offers and determine if they can provide what your firm needs.
In some instances, it may be important to back-date a court date or other event. If your firm ever needs to do this, make sure the service provider can offer this type of information.
9. Off-Site Capabilities
In today’s fast-paced litigation world, you may frequently take your work home with you. If you and your fellow lawyers travel regularly or work from home, remote access to court calendars and rule changes may be an important feature. An online, automated rules-based calendaring service will allow you to view court dates and calendars or check on rules changes from anywhere, at anytime.
10. Vendor Expertise
The legal field can be attractive to software companies that don’t necessarily have expertise in the law. You should be sure that any vendors you consider have a solid background in court rules; if those rules aren’t complete, accurate, based on the applicable rules of the court and factor in all jurisdiction-specific rules and holidays, they will do your firm more harm than good.
Litigation is complicated enough. You should be able to focus your energy on your clients, not on paperwork and the mind-numbing task of calculating court dates. By taking advantage of affordable technology that is now available to firms of all sizes, you free up time to practice law, not count off days on a calendar.