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October 31, 2016 Practice Points

Sound Matter-Management Practices

All but the very smallest of law firms can benefit from a strong matter-management system.

By Taylor Brown – October 31, 2016

A strong matter-management practice and software solution is an essential element of competent corporate-legal-department management, especially for mid- to large-size companies. While smaller companies are unlikely to require sophisticated and potentially expensive software, even simple spreadsheet or homegrown database tracking of matters will benefit from a disciplined approach. This has the added bonus of preparing your legal department to use one of those fancy pieces of software when—fingers crossed, knock on wood—your company makes the leap into the next legal-complexity bracket. All but the very smallest of law firms can benefit from a strong matter-management system too.

The software solution that fits will depend very much on your specific legal needs (e.g., number of cases, complexity of each matter, associated risk, regulatory complexities) as well as the resources available to devote to it, and to some extent the technical savvy of the people who will be operating it. There are a host of software platforms available, covering the spectrum on both cost and capabilities, so it very much behooves you to get good comprehensive demos and speak to some of our colleagues who use those solutions. The products suitable for in-house use may also not translate well into the outside-counsel environment, so choose your comparators well. I’ve used several different products over the years and none of them has been flawless, but they do each have their strong suits. The trick is to find the one that sticks closest to your needs and that your attorneys can use. There’s little point to acquiring a sports car when nobody in the office can drive.

A good program will make the admitted drudgery of tracking and maintaining all this data actually worthwhile. If you’re just writing information down, or typing it into a spreadsheet or summary, you’re really nothing more than a twenty-first century Bob Cratchit. You may acquire fewer ink stains doing it than he would have, but at the end of the day you’re just filling up a ledger book; all that data is just sitting there not doing anything. A good tool will allow you to take the data and turn it into information that has an actual purpose. Rolling up a case overview, linking the cases to the programs that generate them, calculating exposure, and tracking against budgets allows you to have a much better strategic view of your business risks and other issues such as your legal spend and reasonable settlement points. Some tools provide an insurance-tracking module to help ensure that you give notice and make claims to the appropriate places in the required timeframes. You can also create performance metrics for your attorneys or department as a whole, and any brand-new business-school graduate will tell you that unless you measure a thing, you’ll never be able to improve it.

No matter which piece of technology you end up using, they are all vulnerable to one enormous problem: human input. No two people, no matter how in sync they otherwise are, approach every task the same way. The piece of data that I consider critical to convey may seem so obvious to you that it’s not worth writing down. Establishing a few key rules and a general culture of observing them will enormously increase the value you gain by implementing matter-management software.

1. Update the files religiously, and make the person who is most familiar with the matter do it. The usefulness of a matter-management system corresponds very directly with how frequently you feed it information. Being able to inform your client or CEO how things stood two months ago doesn’t serve much purpose when fresher information is available. Also, while it’s tempting to delegate this task to a paralegal or other administrative staffer, you risk playing the old telephone game: Things will inevitably get lost in translation, and there is no way that administrative person will be as well versed in the matter as the attorney who is primarily responsible for it.

2. Input information in a standardized way. A roomful of people who don’t share a language have a difficult time reaching a consensus. Determining a specific set of data points that are helpful to collect is the first step, and the next is deciding which should be required to create the entry and what is a “nice to know.” To do this properly, you’ll need to determine what categories of cases you handle routinely, then determine the relevant fields for each.

3. Be detailed and precise. Entering information is pointless if it’s too vague or general to inform a reader. “Submitted the motion” is nearly useless, while “MSJ filed 10/12/16” is both shorter and more helpful as long as everyone using the system understands the abbreviation.

There are many more questions to resolve as you implement a matter-management system, but they quickly become very minute and unique to your needs. Plan carefully and think through the possible outcomes, but don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Taylor Brown is associate general counsel with PAE in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2016, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).