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In the past, lawyers who attempted to integrate computer technology into their law practices were often frustrated with the steep learning curve and high cost. However, each year computer hardware and software has decreased in cost and become more user-friendly, more reliable, and practical for lawyers who are not necessarily interested in technology as a hobby. A good personal computer can be purchased for less than $2,000, and today’s computers are many times more powerful than their expensive predecessors. This processing power has led to significant improvements in software tools, which are quickly becoming indispensable in the practice of matrimonial law.
Computer technology in the law office is all about efficiency. In our office, we are constantly communicating with one another about our cases. The billing clerk may have a question about time spent on a case on a particular day. An attorney may have instructions for the paralegal about what discovery is needed. In the past, twentieth century solutions to these communication needs relied on a handwritten note, a meeting, a telephone call, or a one-on-one conference with the client.
Today, e-mail and case or practice management software is so much more efficient. Using these software tools, all communications on a particular file are automatically linked together. This provides an audit trail if there is ever any question about what work was done and when.
A profitable matrimonial law practice requires accurate time-keeping and time management. Electronic management of calendaring, contact, communications, tasks, and other information is more efficient and effective than paper-based systems. Several widely known case management products are Amicus Attorney ( www.amicusattorney.com), TimeMatters ( www.timematters.com), Abacus Law ( www.abacuslaw.com), and PCLaw ( www.pclaw.com).
In our office, we use Amicus Attorney, which allows us to communicate effectively within the office, prioritize tasks, delegate work to assigned team members, and organize the vast amount of information on all cases being handled by the firm. One of our biggest challenges is the scheduling of hearings, trials, client conferences, and prep time. Amicus Attorney provides an electronic calendar, which is vastly superior to any paper-based system. Because the calendar is always available to all assigned team members, there is no need to cross check with other staff members for scheduling conflicts, and the calendar is always up to date. If one team member makes a change to the calendar, the change is instantly available to all team members. In fact, Amicus Attorney e-mails all assigned team members whenever the schedule is modified.
Another time-saving feature of the software is a centralized database for contact information. All addresses, telephone numbers, notes and other information about clients, adverse parties, expert witnesses, other attorneys, and all sorts of other contacts are in one central place for everyone in the firm to use. If an address or telephone number changes, we update our records once for everyone in the firm. The contact also can be linked to all cases, events, communications, and documents associated with the contact. Background notes are accessible at the click of a mouse.
Loose paper telephone slips are no longer used at our office. Incoming calls are logged into Amicus Attorney, along with the caller’s telephone number and a detailed message. The call slip is then linked to the appropriate electronic file and routed to the appropriate staff member. When the call is returned, the time, date, and a short note are placed on the electronic call slip. With a click of the mouse, a time entry is made on the client file. This procedure eliminates the real possibility of misplaced paper call slips and the need to file and retrieve them manually. The information on the electronic call slip is always readily available.
Case management software makes conflict checking quick and easy. Whenever we open a file or discuss a case with someone over the telephone, we enter that person as a contact in Amicus. This way, anyone in the firm can search for a particular name in the contact database to screen for a conflict and get a response within seconds.
How much time do you and your staff spend each day searching for files and information on a case? An hour? Two hours?
At our firm, virtually all documents associated with a case are scanned, logged, and stored on our file server. This enables any member of the firm to view instantly any portion of the case file at any time, without having to look for a paper file. Using Amicus Attorney, we are able to link each document to the client’s electronic file for easy retrieval while working the case. Many routine tasks, such as answering a client’s question about a support order, preparing a letter to opposing counsel, or contacting a guardian ad litem can be performed without retrieving the paper file. This is a real time-saver.
Scanning and storing documents in this manner makes finding the document you are looking for much easier in complex cases, such as business valuation or separate property tracing cases.
Support staff sorts and scans the mail as it comes into the office on a central scanner that is also the office copier. By scanning all documents into our file server, we are able to e-mail incoming documents to clients in pdf. Although we still often send copies of documents by “snail mail,” attaching a pdf format to an e-mail saves time because our staff does not have to copy the incoming document, type the dictated cover letter, address an envelope, copy the dictated letter, and put the document with cover letter in the mail.
Another tremendous advantage of scanning is that when using a laptop along with the “make file available offline” synchronization feature of Windows XP, you can take your entire caseload of files with you wherever you go simply by taking your laptop with you when you leave the office. There is no need to lug home bulky paper files because everything in the file has been copied automatically and synchronized to the laptop. This allows work to be done on any file at any time, even if you had not originally planned to work on the file when you left the office.
Many of our clients appreciate communicating with the law office by e-mail. E-mail communication over the life of a case can save days and weeks compared with “snail mail.” By creating pdf files of all documents received by the office, we are able to get documents to the client and get virtually instant feedback on them. Separation agreements and other sensitive documents can be sent to the client for approval or collaboration, and the e-mail record is an excellent audit trail should there be a need later to review communications with the client. (See also Hot Tips, page 7.)
The successful matrimonial practice is still based on the billable hour. The importance of time-keeping and billing cannot be over-emphasized. During a typical workday, most of us are constantly switching from one task to another. Unless time entries are made throughout the day, there is no way to capture all of the billable hours, and valuable billable time may be lost forever.
For most small firms and solo practitioners who are not using case management software, manual time-keeping and billing often does not get done. It is put off as more urgent tasks are undertaken. You quote a retainer fee; you intend to keep track of the time spent on the case; you never really get around to billing the client; and you figure that you may lose money on the cases you have to try, but maybe you will make it up on the cases that settle. Billing by the hour is better, and it is not that time-consuming if the time-keeping and billing tasks are done with computer software.
Case management software prompts you to make a time entry each time you perform a task, such as returning a telephone call, sending an e-mail, attending a court appearance, or reviewing the file. In Amicus Attorney, with the click of a button marked “Do a Time Entry,” the task, appropriate file, and client are automatically included in the time entry. This makes it extremely simple and convenient to create a time entry for everything you do on a case.
With the click of a mouse, you can see how much time you have actually spent on a case. This is a powerful tool for setting retainer fees in future cases and determining whether time is being spent productively. Billing for time spent significantly increases the likelihood of being paid, and serves as a powerful tool for communicating to the client all that is being done by the law firm on the case. Finally, contemporaneous daily time-keeping also provides helpful information in the event of a malpractice claim or grievance.
Most case management software can share information with popular billing and accounting programs such as PCLaw, Tabs III, Timeslips, and Juris. Because case management software facilitates contemporaneous time entries, information can be posted quickly and easily to the client’s bill. By sending an itemized statement on a regular basis, the lawyer informs the client of work done and provides a timeline for when that work was completed.
As stated above, every divorce case involves acquiring, organizing, and presenting financial information on real estate valuations, personal property, bank accounts, investment accounts, pension and retirement accounts, debts, and liabilities. Tax consequences must be taken into consideration in almost every case, from low-income cases involving minor children where allocation of the tax dependency exemption and calculation of earned income credits is an issue, to high-income cases where spousal support or capital gains tax is an issue.
Software packages for tax analysis in divorce cases include FinPlan ( www.divorceplanner.com) and Family Law Software, Inc. ( www.split-up.com). Turbotax ( www.turbotax. com) is an inexpensive and popular tax preparation software that also can be used to generate pro forma tax returns as demonstrative evidence at trial. As long as all of the mathematical steps and data are shown on the reports, courts generally have no problem accepting them as evidence in a case. In fact, most judges welcome the information.
We use FinPlan Divorce Planner to calculate tax consequences. FinPlan, which is now owned by Thomson West Publishing Company, is an excellent tool for analyzing the tax consequences of divorce. It allows you to generate multiple “what-if” scenarios to determine the net impact of a particular spousal support award after tax consequences are taken into account. It makes determining the value of the tax dependency exemption for minor children easy.
In many divorce cases, there is barely enough net income to cover the basic needs of both parties and the minor children and pay all of the debts incurred during the marriage. Using only “net pay” from the parties’ pay stubs to calculate dollars available for monthly expenses and debts often presents a distorted picture because it does not account for any over- or under-withholding for tax purposes. The earned income tax credit is another potential source of “income” that should be taken into consideration, if applicable, in any divorce settlement or trial presentation. It is not practical to have an accountant testify in every case; however, by using software to calculate the parties’ actual tax liability, every after-tax dollar can be accounted for in the settlement or judgment entry. Effective use of these software tools add significant value to a client’s case as proper allocation of the tax dependency exemptions alone can amount to thousands of dollars in tax savings each year.
FinPlan is updated annually and throughout the year as the tax laws change. The company offers excellent reasonably priced seminars for hands-on experience using the product. Courts around the country are beginning to recognize that such programs are a legitimate tool for calculating the tax consequences of a spousal support award. Often, the results are not what you would expect. Once the client sees the tax impact, negotiating and settling cases becomes easier.
Expect to pay for training and consulting when implementing a small law office network with case management and accounting/billing software. Most small firms learn this lesson the hard way: they order a few computers and purchase the software, thinking they can follow the directions and make it all work. Inevitably, problems arise because, even though computer hardware and software have become more powerful and user-friendly, setting up a network that requires multiple software packages to communicate with one another is generally beyond the technical ability of the average consumer.
We recommend asking the company that makes the case management software you purchase for a recommendation regarding a consultant in your area. These companies have a vested interest in making sure the installation is done right.
Training is also a key ingredient to successful integration of case management software and other software solutions. It is probably the most important part of your technology budget, because there is no point in owning technology if your staff is
not trained to maximize the features available.
A specific list of hardware and software recommendations for the solo practitioner or small law firm is beyond the scope of this article. However, for an excellent discussion of hardware and software, including computers, printers, scanners, case management software, accounting and billing software, training and installation costs, see The Five Thousand Dollar Law Office, by Barron Henley of Henley, March & Unger Consulting, Inc. ( www.hmu consulting.com).
To implement software solutions, everyone in the firm needs a reasonably new computer running Windows XP. A file server also is recommended. A file server enables all members of the firm to access information quickly and easily. It serves the vital function of retaining all the data in one place so that a back-up copy of the information can be created on a regular basis in case of a hardware failure.
Our clients expect information about their cases in a timely manner. We live in an age of cell phones, voice mail, instant messaging, and instant access to information via the Internet. Today, millions of Americans have access to the Internet. Clients expect access to information regarding their cases as soon as possible after it reaches our law offices.
Software solutions for the twenty-first century will keep your clients informed and confident in your competence and give your law firm a competitive edge.
Amicus Attorney—case management (electronic calendar, master client/contact database, conflict checker, electronic call slips, time keeping)
FinPlan Divorce Planner—tax analysis software Thomson West Publishing Company www.west.thomson.com/
The Five Thousand Dollar Law Office by Barron Henley—hardware recommendations
William R. Biviano is the founder of the Biviano Law Firm and has practiced law for 31 years. He is Board Certified as a Family Relations Law Specialist and is a member of the State of Ohio and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania bars and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Thomas D. Dawson is an associate at the Biviano Law Firm. He is a former Domestic Relations Court Magistrate and a member of the ABA Section of Family Law and the Ohio State Bar Association Family Law Committee. The authors can be reached at www.bivianolaw.com.
Published in Family Advocate, Volume 28, No. 3, Winter 2006. © 2006 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.