March 2003  Volume 29, Issue 2
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Choosing Case Management Software: Top Shopping Tips
by Andew Z. Adkins III
Want to automate your case management, but the topic looks too tough? Here's what you need to know to make the job easier.

A good case management system can bring many returns to a law firm. The benefits have, in fact, multiplied in the past couple of years, with CMS programs becoming more sophisticated and efficient.

Most legal technologists will agree that case management systems are now in their third generation. These programs not only operate as stand-alone systems but also integrate with Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect as well as Microsoft OutLook and Novell GroupWise. On top of that, CMS programs integrate with third-party document management systems such as iManage, DOCS and WORLDOX. Many also integrate with other financial management systems and are becoming an essential software cornerstone for firms looking to move into the knowledge management arena.

There are more than 75 CMS applications on the market today. Roughly half are general purpose. The other half are unique to particular practice areas. With so many options out there, how do you go about finding the right one for your practice? You have to do your homework. Here are tips to help you in your CMS studies.

You're in Charge
Tell the CMS salespeople what type of practice and what type of firm you have. Give them enough details to enable them to customize their sales presentation to your needs. There are lots of bells and whistles in all these systems, so concentrate on what's important to you. Your time will be limited during the demo-make the most of it. If you're attending a trade show conference, plan on spending at least 20 to 30 minutes with the exhibitor.

One Size Does Not Fit All
Some sales representatives will let you think that their system is the end-all, do-all in CMS. A good rule of thumb is the old adage, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." Most CMS developers, though, will tell you if their system is not a good fit for your practice. The last thing a reputable developer wants is a bad fit leading to an unhappy customer.

On the other hand, many of the higher-end CMS applications can be customized for different practice groups. That means you can purchase one CMS application and customize it for each department, thereby using a single system throughout the firm. Ask about the percentage of the system's total installations in small firms, midsize firms and large firms to get a good indication of the market segments in which the software is used.

You Need to Put Them Through Their Paces
Ask the sales rep to demonstrate the five essential CMS processes, providing answers about these specific tasks:

  1. Create a new matter: How do you create a new matter or a new client entry? If the CMS program integrates with time and billing, how is that matter information shared?
  2. Create a calendar entry: How do you create a calendar entry and tie it to the matter? How does it integrate with Microsoft OutLook and Novell GroupWise? Is the calendaring a two-way street, that is, can you create an entry in OutLook or GroupWise and have it appear in the CMS calendar?
  3. Generate a document: How do you automatically generate a document or a series of documents? Does the CMS integrate with both MS Word and Corel WP? Does the document generation process make an entry in the case diary? How does the document generation process work with document management systems (such as iManage, DOCS or WORLDOX)?
  4. Use a case diary or case notes: How does the case diary work? Are there limitations? How do you know if your secretary enters information into the matter? Is there an automatic notification? What is automatically entered in the diary from the CMS?
  5. Produce reports: How can you determine how far along this matter is? Is there a way to automatically report the status of a case? Can the system give you a list of experts the firm has used in other cases (such as for electronic data discovery)?

Company History Is Important
Find out how long the company has been in business and how many CMS installations it has completed. Be aware that some companies are the result of spin-offs or mergers; check the history. You don't necessarily want to be the first kid on the block to purchase and install a given program.

(If a company has at least 20 successful installations over the past year, I'll take it into consideration when I'm consulting with a law firm on CMS-though I may be a little more conservative than other consultants).

Customization Has Its Ups and Downs
All-repeat, all-CMS programs are customizable to some extent. Most provide for customization of data input screens, document generation, reports and the calendar-tickler system. The key question is: How much is customizable and how difficult is it?

This generation of CMS software is highly customizable-which usually spells "more complex." With proper support and training, however, most firms can take on the task and, over a period of time, have a highly customized system that works for the firm, and not against it. This task does, of course, take commitment from the top.

A Successful Rollout Needs Some Time
Once you purchase your system, you have to implement it. What is the usual time frame for a complete rollout? Implementation is typically covered in several phases:

  • Installation on the server
  • Implementation into the existing environment (such as integrating with MS OutLook, or Novell GroupWise, and the document management and time and billing systems)
  • Customization at the user desktop level (such as setting up different input screens for the firm's various practice groups)
  • Conversion of the firm's existing or legacy data
  • Training (for end-users as well as IT staff)
  • Support (on both a start-up and an ongoing basis)

A typical midsize firm might expect implementation to be complete in two to three months. A larger firm, with more practice groups, more lawyers and more offices, obviously, will take longer to roll out its system. Look down the road and determine how, or if, the rollout timing will work in your firm.

The Cost Includes Much More Than the Software
When it comes to legal technology, costs are constant and continuous. As a general rule of thumb, the software's purchase price is only about 50 percent of the program's total installed cost. Somebody has to install the software, customize or configure it for your firm, integrate it into your existing technology environment, train you and your staff how to use it, train someone in your office how to maintain it, and provide follow-up technical support as well as maintenance.

There are two important points to remember about cost: One is that everything is negotiable. The initial proposed price (meaning the total installed price) is not necessarily what you'll end up paying for. Run the numbers out for three years, including the figures for support, maintenance and training. Although maintenance and support costs may look good for the first year, they may increase dramatically for the next two years.

Second, you don't want to negotiate a great price only to bankrupt your CMS developer. It needs to remain in business. There's always room to negotiate-and negotiation is always a two-way street. Your firm may save some dollars if it takes a bigger role in the implementation process.

Vendor Support: Part of the Package
With the newer generation of highly customizable CMS programs, there are probably few, if any, developers that will provide you with their system without attaching support and maintenance costs. Some CMS developers use a three-tier system (such as platinum, gold and silver options) that allows you to purchase so much support on a monthly or quarterly basis.

Other developers charge a flat fee of 18 to 20 percent of the software cost, which buys you get as much telephone support as you need as well as updates on a regular basis. It is common for developers to release two to three minor updates a year, with a major upgrade every 12 to 18 months.

Training Is the Key, So Beware the Lack Thereof
Training is always the first thing that gets cut from a technology budget. But it is a mistake to have the impression that, just because they have college degrees, your lawyers can educate themselves on using CMS software. (I've heard this time and time again: "We bought the CMS software, but it didn't work for our firm …. No, we chose to do our own training." Is this oxymoronic, or what?) It's almost impossible to understand how such highly educated people-lawyers-just don't get it.

It is not enough just to pay for training. You also need to mandate training for lawyers as well as staff. It doesn't matter if your partners say they can't find the time to send their staff, or themselves, to training-CMS implementation will be a sure failure if the firm's decision makers don't require that people learn how to use the system. Lead by example: Have your managing partner, executive director and technology committee members take the training along with the rest of the firm.

As a general rule of thumb, training costs should constitute approximately 10 to 15 percent of the total installed price. Training is the number one reason CMS installations succeed. Lack of training is the number one reason CMS installations fail.

Continue with Your Studies
Armed with the preceding tips, you can delve more knowledgeably into the details of specific case management systems. The chart on page 41 provides information on leading CMS companies. You can also find many helpful CMS resources on the Web, including www.law.ufl.edu/lti/CaseManagement, the CMS site of the Legal Technology Institute at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Remember, when you know the top issues and options in CMS, you are much more likely to choose-and successfully implement-a system that truly fills the needs of your firm and its practice groups.


Andrew Z. Adkins III ( adkins@law.ufl.edu) is a legal technology consultant and Director of the Legal Technology Institute at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He is the author of Computerized Case Management Systems (ABA Law Practice Management Section) and can be reached at (352) 392-2278.