Risk Management for Small Firms: Keeping Your Eye on the Calendaring Prize

Vol. 1, No. 5

Alexander J. Manners is the Director of Technical Operations at ADERANT CompuLaw. He has been working in the legal calendaring field for 20 years and is responsible for the creation and growth of the CompuLaw rules department including the update and maintenance of 2,000+ court rule sets. Alex has been instrumental in creating some of CompuLaw’s most innovative products such as a patented date calculation scripting language. He is a recognized industry expert in the legal calendaring and legal calendaring software fields and has authored many proposed rule amendments for courts nationally that have been adopted into law. Prior to joining CompuLaw in 1997, he managed a docketing department at a large multi-national law firm. Alex is a Computer Studies graduate of Oxford Brooks University in the UK.

     

     

    • Calendaring is crucial for successful risk management.
    • Court date calculation services are proving to be greatly helpful in increasing firm productivity.

     

    Once a firm has recognized the need for a formalized risk management or “loss prevention’”program, and decided to establish or enhance processes and procedures designed to address liability to clients, third parties, and regulators, an initial step involves figuring out what sources of risk to focus on.

     

    As described by Anthony E. Davis and Peter R. Jarvis, authors of the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s book Risk Management: Survival Tools for Law Firms, 2nd edition, the flavors of existing risks and the management thereof resemble a full menu in a restaurant, or a comprehensive list of medications available to a physician—firms will choose to manage risk germane to their own particular needs, and few will have sufficient appetite or desire to digest the entire “offering.” With that said, key areas that are part of a comprehensive risk management program, regardless of firm size, structure or complexity, typically encompass: New Client/Matter Intake (e.g., file opening and conflict checking); Client Relations (e.g., confidentiality policies, billing & collection procedures); Docket/Calendaring Systems (e.g., calendar automation, critical date and court rule reminders); Practice & HR Management (e.g., CLE requirements, liability insurance); Trust Accounts, and Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity Planning.

     

    For the sake of this article, we will focus on calendaring and critical dates as a lynchpin for successful risk management. Why? According to the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Lawyers’ Professional Liability and its most recent Profile of Legal Malpractice Claims survey data, over one-third of all malpractice claims are due to calendar-related errors, and more than 70 percent of current malpractice claims are associated with firms with fewer than five attorneys. This presents a real challenge for the small firm demographic since resources are often constrained and expertise or, in this case, calendaring “know-how,” might be limited.

     

    When is the last time small firm and solo practitioners proactively focused on malpractice risks versus putting stop-gap measures in place to minimize or divert risk? As with any aspect of firm risk management, the process of shoring up your internal calendaring systems and procedures should begin with a comprehensive self-audit. Ask yourself or whoever “handles” calendaring and dockets, some rather basic, but extremely critical questions: Is there a central calendaring system in place for the firm, each office, and individual practice groups? Are you aware of any personal/nonshared calendars? Are there any lawyers, groups, or offices with no central, and only personal or individual, calendars? Who is responsible for overseeing the firms’ central calendars and how is technology being leveraged to provide docket control and monitor individual/offline calendaring? How comprehensive and reliable is the reminder alert system, and does it work effectively to prevent missed deadlines and last minute date changes? Who do you rely on for critical date calculations and court rules?

     

    Enter automation. Technology has evolved into a great equalizer when it comes to the court calendar, making it possible for even the smallest firms to affordably automate certain aspects of the calendaring process. With the latest date calculation services, solo practitioners can gain many of the advantages of large firm rules-based calendaring without the extensive investment in software or training. With such online systems, attorneys can quickly and painlessly generate a complete list of court deadlines by simply entering a few bits of information such as area of law, court location and the trial date or other critical events. With this data in hand, the deadline calculation service produces a full list of deadlines and critical dates which can then be printed, synched with Outlook, downloaded directly to the user’s calendar or uploaded to specific mobile and wireless device.

     

    Armed with this knowledge, there are several tips to keep in mind when contemplating implementation and use:

    • Accessing calendars online and having redundancies “housed” in multiple locations greatly aids disaster recovery. Maximizing calendar exposure firmwide, establishing one cohesive, central, easy to access calendaring system, will also minimize errors and reduce billable time spent on researching and calculating deadlines.
    • Court date calculation services are a tremendous productivity enhancers often saving days, if not weeks of research time while simultaneously reducing human errors.
    • Software-as-a-service means flexibility and mobility: web-based deadline calculations portals, for example, can provide mobile lawyers, anytime, anywhere access to critical dates and deadlines.
    • Review and analyze. Understanding malpractice carrier mandates, calendar automation requirements, and disaster recovery plans can streamline compliance and possibly result in insurance discounts.
    • Effective risk management is based on self-executing controls meaning that the control works as an automatic alert and fail-safe. This type of control is commonly in place with calendaring automation which checks for duplicate entries and alerts users if pertinent court deadlines are being overlooked or have changed.
    • A “pay-as-you-go” or “pay-by-case” pricing model best meets the needs of firms’ with limited budgets and those that prefer to bill calculation fees back to clients.

     

    Solos and small firms are often defined by their flexibility, nimbleness, and creative client solutions, and a proactive risk management strategy including easy to establish rules-based automated calendaring should be part of the overall strategic plan. As a leading source of malpractice claims, calendar and critical date errors, via technology and web-bases solutions, can be effectively reduced and managed.

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