May/June 2003  Volume 29, Issue 4
May/June 2003 Issue
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Technology / Innovating
How Smart Firms Implement Case Management Systems
by Ross L. Kodner
Is case management the long-awaited killer application? It all depends on how you roll it out.

Case management systems can transform the most disorganized law practices into super-efficient engines. Firms that effectively implement case management software consistently report higher profitability, because less time is wasted looking for case information; increased client satisfaction, because of quick response to case status inquiries; and improved lawyer satisfaction, because of reduced aggravation and increased billables.
True, some firms will loudly proclaim their case management systems as the bane of their existence, not to mention the culprit responsible for less money in the firm's coffers. What is the difference between these two widely varying experiences? It's all in how you roll out the system and integrate it into the firm's work flow. You can start by letting everyone know how the system will improve their work lives and benefit the firm.

What Is a Case Manager?
Case management programs are the "everything but the kitchen sink" of the legal software world. Here's an overview of their top capabilities.

  • Case information tracking. Case managers track enormous amounts of information. This spectrum includes related-party contact information as well as information regarding courts, administrative bodies, opposing counsel, experts and witnesses. Moreover, these systems track fact patterns and case issues and strategies. They provide case chronologies and "date chaining" capabilities that permit a series of related events to be tied together and posted automatically.
  • Calendaring, docketing, tickler and to-do list management. This extends well beyond the schedules of individual lawyers. Case managers can easily track the calendars of multiple people who may be working together on a matter and want to see a full case calendar, without having to jump back and forth between numerous individual calendars. These programs also provide a case to-do list with a system of sophisticated and impossible to ignore "alerts."
  • Conflicts checking. Do you check for conflicts of interest by standing in the hall and yelling, "Anyone ever heard of ABC Corporation?" If so, your life is about to change. In case managers, conflicts checking is an incredibly powerful text-search system, scouring every scrap of case information in your system, down to individual time-slip entries.
  • Billing integration. Case management programs integrate with legal billing systems such as TABS, PCLaw, Timeslips and QuickBooks Pro, allowing client-matter information-as well as time entries-to pass between the case manager program and the billing system.
  • Custom information for document assembly. The vast array of information tracked and stored by a case manager can be extracted and flowed into other software programs so that you can build "smart documents." By treating the mass of information stored and tracked by a case manager as the perfect repository for assembling routine documents, you can integrate with your word processing system, with or without HotDocs or Ghostfill, for comprehensive document assembly.
  • Remote systems and laptop sychronization. Whether via laptop or Palm or Pocket PC, or between the main office and a branch office or a lawyer's home computer, all the information stored and tracked by the case management system can be accessible to firm members, from anywhere at any time.

What's in It for Me?
Who wouldn't want these kinds of capabilities in their practices? Case management software satisfies some very basic, and very motivating, needs for everyone in the firm. But the typical lawyer or legal assistant might not arrive at that conclusion without your help. You want to demonstrate clearly the personal benefits of the system to every person in the firm. Failure to do so up front means that roadblocks will appear. At best, those roadblocks can undermine the success of the project; at worst, they can derail the project and turn it into an expensive disaster.

Focus on what makes different people tick and which "buttons" you need to push to get the buy-in you seek.

You can, for example, tell managing partners that the new system will help lawyers avoid malpractice by making it difficult to miss deadlines and making it easier to keep clients apprised of case statuses.

You can tell firm administrators that they'll be able to track otherwise disparate information, such as equipment leases and depreciation schedules; log staff vacation time and other human resource information; and monitor legal research subscriptions and equipment maintenance.

And you can tell associates and paralegals that they'll be able to respond to clients' and partners' requests faster and deal with happier clients. The bottom line: "You're going to look good!"

Choosing Your Case Management Software
For some law practices, it is neither economical nor logical to decide on a case manager without outside assistance. Representing yourself "pro se" in making case management decisions could be like one of your clients deciding to handle a corporate merger on its own—it's going to be a very expensive disaster.

If you would like to find a qualified case management expert to assist in the software selection process, there's a list of capable legal technology consultants at www.lawcommerce.com/t3.

Major case management software companies also keep a roster of consultants who can assist with planning, customizing and deploying their software. You can, for example, obtain information on TimeMatters consultants at www.timematters.com/sale/consult1.htm and on Amicus Attorney consultants at www.amicusattorney.com/partners/index.html. Remember that these may not be independent advisors, but they will assist with the specific program for which they are certified. If you're seeking an independent consultant, be sure to ascertain whether the source is biased in any way by ties to a specific company or product.

Books and periodicals are also great sources of information. A leading publication on the topic is Andrew Z. Adkins' Computerized Case Management Systems: Choosing and Implementing the Right Software for You (ABA, 1998). Also, Law Office Computing magazine, at www.lawofficecomputing.com, features a major case management review article every year in its December/January issue. Plus, there's a broad range of case management resources at the online free CLE section of the MicroLaw Web site, at www.microlaw.com/cle.

Attending legal technology conferences that feature case management-focused sessions is another approach. National conferences include the Law Practice Management Section's annual ABA TECHSHOW® ( www.techshow.com), along with LegalTech ( www.legaltech.com) and LegalWorks ( www.glasserlegalworks.com), as well as numerous state bar-sponsored functions. (See the Links to Readings)

Creating a Planning Team to Implement the System
Nothing is more important than planning. This "techno.truth" cannot be overstated when the subject is case management systems. Unlike many other software applications you might deploy in your law practice, when it comes to case managers, you can't just click on "Install" and expect instant productivity miracles.

The key to case management success is acknowledging that the project is similar to managing complex litigation for a client. Think of it as a multistep process, spread over a period of time, where you must coordinate the talents and efforts of a number of people in the practice. All that coordinated effort is directed at winning the case for the client. But in this situation, the case is the "case management project" and the client you're going to win for is none other than your firm.

Pick a cross-section of people in the firm, so a variety of perspectives will be represented. There should be a partner (at least one in a smaller firm; in a larger firm, there might be a partner from each practice department), an associate, the firm's administrator, the head of your technology committee, a paralegal (again, in a larger firm, there might be one from each practice group) and, of course, your consultant, who will guide you through the implementation process.

You now have your Case Management Implementation Team. (I like the acronym CMIT, pronounced "commit," for obvious reasons.) This team will develop an action plan, plotting out the time line of the entire process. Your consultant, who may be the veteran of many case management implementations in many different kinds of practices, has experience that can and should be tapped at this stage. In a sense, it is the same as sitting down with a legal pad, or a "thought processor" such as CaseMap ( www.casesoft.com) and outlining the skeletal structure of the process from beginning to end.

Allow at least 30 days to arrive at an action plan for how to best configure and roll out your new case manager. Don't worry about filling in every minute detail in your plan outline—much of what happens will be fleshed out along the way.

Training: Thinking Backward for Success
With most software in the average law practice, you install it and then learn it. With case management systems, the process runs 180 degrees in the opposite direction. First you need to learn the program and then install it.
Your implementation has to incorporate time to learn the software to determine the best configuration approaches; to develop a comprehensive training plan that fits your firm, your schedule and your practice approach; and to decide when to activate advanced capabilities such as document assembly systems. This is impossible to plan and coordinate absent a fairly deep understanding of the specific software. Of course, getting to this level of comprehension without physically installing the software may be impractical, if not impossible. Systems such as TimeMatters, PracticeMaster and most other products can be installed in a "demo" or "tutorial" mode, allowing the firm to work through the key functions of the program and its "flow" using canned demonstration data files.

Have your consultant provide a detailed overview of the program and explain the level of customizability that exists within each major area of the software. Such a review will help your implementation team supercharge its action plan creation process and better direct ensuing discussions about the initial configuration and customization of the program to fit the firm's practice approach and work-flow patterns.

The Paper Process: Documenting Your Case Procedures
Before you even contemplate how to configure a new case manager, you must document the "flow" of your practice. For most firms, this exercise in and of itself will have significant long-term value. In many instances, you'll also unearth archaic systems that no longer need apply.

Document your work flow by writing out checklists detailing all case procedures, from the intake and file opening to the file closing and archiving process. Go through it step by step—everything you do and who does it—then let it all sink in. Your implementation team should read and reread the resulting checklists together. Use an LCD projector and flash them on a whiteboard in huge characters. Then tear the procedures to pieces. Critically look at every step and ask, "Why do we do that?" and "Can we remove that step?" The goal is to simplify the processes.

Decide how you need to streamline your procedures on paper first. Then you'll be ready to translate those processes and work-flow steps into automated forms using your new case management software.

Customize, Customize, Customize: Fitting Your Practice Needs
One of the most impressive and important characteristics of today's mainstream case managers is the extent to which they can be customized with relative ease: twisted, molded and modified to fit your work flow and your practice needs. Customization can include adding to or modifying common screens for tracking contact and matter information, or modifying how conflict-of-interest information related to adverse parties is tracked. Case managers generally permit you to build powerful automated date-chain templates and document assembly options by area of practice. All these issues need attention as part of the preparation process.

Can customization be done after the fact, months after the firm begins using the software? Certainly. But if you can consider as many issues as possible up front, so that the new software fits like a glove the first time lawyers and staff "slip it on," you'll be glad you spent the time and avoided the initial grumbling about how the program doesn't seem to fit your firm. Also, with some systems, subsequent modifications to the case manager may present technical challenges you won't want to face.

The Keys to Success: Rollout Fundamentals
Now then, let's review. Here's a summary of what you need to do to make case management work its magic in your firm.

  • Plan ahead. Capitalize it! Put it in 12-feet-tall blinking neon letters! Failure to adequately plan the entire process typically leads to one thing: a miserably failed project and someone who will be the scapegoat for a costly mistake. Don't let that mistake occur—plan, plan, plan.
  • Get help. Case managers, regardless of which product you consider, have nearly endless setup, configuration and usage options. How can you intelligently choose the best way to set these up using the "random" approach? You can't. You need to know the product or you need a trained professional to guide you. You probably need both.
  • Build a team. Obtain buy-in from the people who will use the system. Involve both lawyers and staff in the planning and training processes.
  • Don't skimp. The cost of acquiring the case management software is the tip of the iceberg. Failing to understand that most of the cost and effort in the process will take place after you've bought the software is a sure route to disaster—or at best, a completely mediocre implementation.
  • Teach. There are no magic bullets here. Devote enough resources and give everyone enough time to learn to use the product. Otherwise, you're wasting your money.

The bottom line is that case management may indeed be the long-awaited killer legal app. But it can only fulfill high expectations if you understand and follow the key steps for implementation success. Remember that there is no single "best" case management system—the "right" product may be different for each firm. Clearly, though, the "best" product may well be the one that actually gets deployed and used effectively. Don't waste another day subsidizing your inefficient work-flow processes. Get on the case management path today.


Ross L. Kodner ( rkodner@microlaw.com) is an attorney and President of MicroLaw, Inc., and served for years on the ABA TECHSHOW Board and as Chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section Computer & Technology Division.


An earlier version of this article was originally published by LLRX.com ( http://www.llrx.com) on March 18, 2002.


RESOURCES
LINKS TO ONLINE READING

Watch for case management-related articles online. Examples include consultant Sheryl Cramer's "Shopping for a Case Management System" on LLRX.com ( www.llrx.com/features/casemanagement.htm) and Jim Calloway's article making "The Case for Case Management Systems" in the Oklahoma Bar Journal online ( www.okbar.org/barjournal/featurestories/fs011202calloway.htm). Also, look at the series of case management columns I co-wrote with Sheryl Cramer for LLRX.com (including www.llrx.com/columns/kccase2.htm and www.llrx.com/columns/kccase.htm). And don't miss Andrew Z. Adkins' LPM March issue piece, "Choosing Case Management Software: Top Shopping Tips" ( www.abanet.org/lpm/magazine/articles/ v29is2an8.shtml). Finally, check out "Turning Chaos into Cases: Small Firm Case Management Systems" and "Tips for Case Management Implementation Success" (at www.microlaw.com/cle). All are great primers on the process of reviewing different case managers and determining which makes sense for your specific practice mix.

-Ross Kodner