Case Management and Document Management Retooling Law Office Information

By Natalie R. Kelly

Natalie R. Kelly is director of the State Bar of Georgia’s Law Practice Management Program. She may be reached at .

As law firms strive to become more efficient in managing information and delivering quality legal services via technology, they are focusing increasingly on practice management systems (also known as case management systems). Although one might think that every practitioner would have had by now the chance to implement this technology, the legal industry has reached only about a 20 percent saturation rate with this seemingly ubiquitous organizational tool. Even more amazing, perhaps, is the ever-increasing number of firms that look to implement document management instead of case/practice management. Driven by client demands, electronic filing, the “paperless” office movement, and the common internal law office stress of “just find me the *&^(#)ing file,” document management implementations are clearly on the rise.

Defining practice/case management and document management remains a requirement because of continued confusion over the exact role each plays in the legal information management arena. For the purposes of this article, the term “case management” is interchangeable with “practice management.” Many people believe that the term “case management” is simply a type of software that helps deal with cases that are involved in litigation. There is even some confusion over what “document management” means when it is available within case management programs. We will examine the various procedures for using both case and document management.

Case Management

A case/practice management system is generally a relational database collected and organized in such a way that one record may be used in more than one place throughout the database. So if the system records a client’s address and that address changes, the address is updated everywhere that particular address is used in the database. This makes case managers the ideal systems for handling client information.

In fact, the information does not have to be solely collected for the purposes of a case. Addresses and all of a firm’s communication can be recorded in these systems, too.

Although there are some contact manager programs that can easily deal with contact records such as those discussed above, a case manager is generally more powerful. The one feature that sets such programs apart is not just the fact that they allow for the tracking of client and non-client information alike, but that they allow the generation of work from a file, case, or matter. This functionality is not available in simple contact managers, such as Microsoft Outlook. Case management software can reproduce a physical file on the computer and manage all of the information in a firm.

During the past few years, the breadth of features in these programs has expanded and has become more reliable. The industry has responded by making these systems so robust that today you simply should not practice law without some form of a case management software system.

Well, you may ask, if that’s the case, why are there only about 20 percent of the firms in the country using these programs? Here are some of the most likely reasons:

• Learning curve and time for implementation. These systems take over so much of the data gathering in the front office and are so customizable that they are complex no matter how simple you want them to be in use.

• Misunderstanding about functionality. The myths surrounding what they do still exist and continue to confuse many potential users.

• Confusion over number of choices. With well over 15 programs marketed to solos and small firms, it is difficult to decide which program will be the best fit.

• Inherent duplication with other systems. Many practice area-specific applications track the same type of data as practice management systems, and, if you use both, there is no easy way to avoid dual entry of the same information.

So, what’s new with these case management programs? Actually, not all that much. The list of features expanded quickly in response to user demand, so these programs have been very robust for years. The newest trends are further collaboration and integration with time billing and accounting functions, allowing “one application” to do it all in the law office.

Another trend is enhancing e-mail capabilities. As information overload and management of that overload become real issues for law office, the adaptation of systems to better handle e-mail has emerged. New versions feature better and tighter integration with key e-mail services such as Microsoft Outlook. Where e-mail was once available only to transfer data from the inbox into a particular file/case or matter, several case managers now let you better handle attachments or even store the e-mail itself.

A final trend worth highlighting is the better handling and transfer of information in and out of remote PDA devices such as the Palm and BlackBerry. For years, it has been relatively easy to get contact and calendar information transferred between the case managers and the PDA, but now vendors are focusing on matter information that did not traditionally exist as records on PDA devices. With this new category of record type, lawyers can now have basic versions of their case/file and matter on mobile devices. The enhanced e-mail functionality discussed above makes this ability even more attractive.

Document Management

Document management software has typically come in the form of an indexing and retrieval system based on the profiles of the indexed documents. The “paperless office” and e-filing initiatives have played a great role in getting firms to recognize the importance of document management. And, after a long slumber, Internet-based systems have started to re-emerge with the push for greater collaboration and access. It seems that everything old is new again.

So what is new? And what does case management have to do with this? As with the discussion of case management above, some definition may be required. This time, however, the definitions involve what is expected of the system, rather than the nature of the system itself.

Systems that are suited for larger firms typically require a separate server for indexing and storing the data for indexed files from other servers. Larger firms’ solutions also deal with metadata and compliance with records management standards on a larger scale. WORLDOX has been the one product that does not carry the requirement for a separate server, and it remains the most suitable document management software for solos and small firms. For some lawyers, desktop search engines are proving to be a good way to find what’s been saved who knows where.

Some general applications are beginning to improve their document indexing and retrieval through desktop searches. Law practices can integrate scan-to-desktop programs to quickly organize documents as they are being put into digital form. For legal document management, however, there is the all-important part of profiling these documents to identify the appropriate categories for searches. Having documents grouped by client, document type, creator, and the like gives power to the search process. (Some industrial-strength copiers and scanners are actually being developed with this type of functionality.) So, although the general programs have been proving useful, the implementation of a more robust document management system such as those described above may be better suited for firm-wide management of documents.

For some years now, legal document management programs have been connected to case management systems. There is even a document indexing and managing feature built into one of the top programs for solos and small firms. Robust profiling and quick searching have been around for years. This integration is being enhanced and the information is flowing more freely in the “links” between case management and document management systems. This tighter integration has made it easier for both the case manager and the document manager to share the same profile information.

In case management systems, documents are “pointed to” and “referred to” in the database. They are “managed” in the sense that they are organized by contact record and/or the file/matter or case record. This process usually requires some limited form of profiling, but like general desktop searching, it does not reach the level of detail that is provided in the legal document management programs. Because documents that have been attached to case managers can be searched for conflicts and general management needs, one could also argue that this activity may be loosely called document management. Again, the functionality that comes with the profiling of documents is not readily present. However, this may be changing.

Beyond tighter integration with case management, document management vendors have seen the need to extend access to handhelds, just like practice management vendors. New integration for Palms and BlackBerrys allow remote or mobile users to profile document entries and then integrate the documents back into the overall document management systems. The accessibility of documents via a remote handheld device is now a reality. Finding and making good use of this technological advance for lawyers is currently being tested.

Another trend for document management is to allow online access to the document index and documents for collaboration. Even though most lawyers remain wary of Internet access to documents for security reasons, some are finding it useful to have their document management system available online. Lawyers simply use the Internet to access and profile firm documents. This access can then be extended to clients, opposing parties, and others related to particular record types. Collaboration on firm information may be strengthened with this easy-access setup.

Conclusions

There is not necessarily a whole lot of new technology being put into place with practice management and document management, but the industry is seeing an evolution toward tighter integration between systems that make, store, and use law firm information. As the hurdles of sharing data are cleared, the idea of a single application for all law office tasks begins to take shape.

Copyright 2007

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