POWER TOOLS FOR THE SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER
Consider the gift of Case Management Software for the lawyer on your holiday list. Although not traditional, it will endear you to your loved one for years to come.
The single most “power(ful) tool” for the small firm practitioner is case management software. Indeed, a good case management program can allow the solo practitioner to function as a fully operational litigation firm without support staff. Humming along at a fast clip, the case attorney can open a dozen files, draft pleadings, call clients, and settle cases without ever leaving her desk or calling for the paper file. (Just remember to stand up occasionally to maintain circulation as needed.)
Litigation and non-litigation firms, specialized and general practices alike, benefit from the efficiencies, organization and discipline of case management software. There are general programs designed for use in any kind of practice and others highly tailored to a specialty. The more generalized programs are less powerful, offer fewer efficiencies for your practice, but cost less. The specialized programs are recommended if you prefer high-octane power, efficiency, intuitive use programming and long-term savings in labor. The specialized programs often require more training at first, but are easier to use when the program is mastered.
In considering a case management program, evaluate each program function in light of your practice. No program is the best at everything, but you can find one that covers most of your needs, when you evaluate the programs available carefully before you buy. Some helpful guidelines follow below:
Central to the case management program is the case information database. This function lets you pick up any phone call and immediately begin discussing the case as if you had just reviewed the file, simply by staying a few keystrokes ahead of your caller.
In addition to the basic information about clients, adversaries and the courts, the database can store the specific information required for each case type. Specialized case management programs have dedicated data fields, for example, the personal injury –tailored programs provide data fields for lien information, treating medical providers, and description of accidents and injuries. All of this information is typed once, into a labeled data field. Thereafter the information is merged into all form documents, including pleadings, motions, and letters to meet every occasion.
This function includes a notes section, which permits dated case notes to be recorded and available instantaneously. Excellent case documentation is easy and fast, requiring only a minimal effort, and thereafter available firm-wide at a keystroke. Attorneys can immediately access all prior correspondence, court appearance notes, client contacts and attempted client contacts. When an unhappy client calls complaining about a lack of attention from the firm, the attorney is ready with the reassurance that calls were made and has the details to back it up, as well as any notes about letters sent or follow up calls, no matter who actually completed the work.
The program may also have a task function, which permits an attorney to assign case tasks to paralegals and permits a managing attorney to assign tasks to associates.
These programs provide a method to record case disbursements. Some even integrate with one or more of the leading accounting programs. When a case disbursement is entered in the individual case file, the case management program will then open the accounting program and allow for easy generation of the check to pay the expense.
The case management program must track and provide ticklers for all deadlines, including external inflexible deadlines such as statutes of limitations as well as self-imposed internal deadlines such as follow-up letter to clients and case progress plans. The program should generate the standard statute of limitation deadlines for the case type and generate reports of the deadlines at appropriate intervals. The program should allow the user to create internal deadlines and generate tickler reports. All malpractice insurers expect attorneys to maintain two active systems for monitoring statutes of limitations. The case management program provides you with one of them.
A program that efficiently generates the many tedious forms required by every case is a joy to attorneys and staff alike. Some programs generate not only letters and pleadings, but motions and basic memoranda of law as well. Others come without any forms at all. For the new practitioner who does not have a well-developed form library, the form libraries included with some higher-end programs can be one of the most valuable functions of the case management program. Be sure to evaluate the ease with which forms can be written and modified. Some programs readily convert existing case documents to forms and provide intuitive methods of code writing, which makes the work easy and fast. Others require use of ancient code and lots of it. And, if you remain committed to Word Perfect, make sure the case management program will merge into Word Perfect without freezing.
The program should write global reports, generating data from all cases in the system. For example, the program should produce reports of all statutes of limitations expiring in the next month, or generate a report of all cases pending unresolved for more than one year. It should also run a report of all cases pending with a particular insurance company (useful for settlement days held by various carriers) and reports of all cases ready for settlement.
The program will generate reports of important data for individual cases, such as all tasks completed or pending, all settlement negotiation notes, or all due dates on the case. The best programs generate reports that provide an instant picture of the case, ready to be printed and taken to court for a preliminary conference.
The program should efficiently allow for calendaring of all case dates including court appearances, administrative deadlines, client appointments and all adjournments. It should permit calendar entry and tracking from within a specific case file as well as from the general case list. The function should be efficient and intuitive. The calendar generated should be easy to sort by various criteria such as by county or by attorney assigned to the matter, as well as by various date ranges. The printed calendar should be easy to read.
Some programs are integrated with an Internet calendar service and will automatically (for a fee) download court dates into your case management calendar as the courts schedule them. These programs can resolve the difficult calendaring issues that typically plague busy firms and keep you from strangling your paralegal over a missed appearance.
This is the easiest place for the provider to bury costs, which are revealed after you are committed to the initial cost of the program and the initial time of inputting your cases into the system. Nail down the price for training and support. Discuss this issue with others who are already using the program. Be sure to identify annual fees as well as start up costs. Learn as much as you can about how much TLC the provider will give you after your check has been cashed.
First determine if the program has the capabilities you require, after reviewing the guidelines above and comparing notes with your colleagues at other firms. Second, decide if you like how the program does its job. Are the functions intuitive, direct, quick and easy? They ought to be. If you find a program that meets these requirements, buy it.
Do not skimp on the purchase of case management software. The right software will pay for itself over the long haul, by increasing your case management capacity and improving the service to your client. It will give you control over your docket that is not otherwise possible. You will be better prepared, more effective and more responsive in handling your cases, your adversaries, your clients and your staff. The best software is not necessarily the most expensive, but it will probably be more than you want to spend. Spend it anyway. It’s worth it.
Start using the program the day you get it, by inputting whatever case you are working on right now. All new cases will be added to the program. Input the basic case data on older cases. You can hire some interns to input the case names, client names and generate the standard deadlines. This will give you essential control over your caseload and allow you to add data, to the extent it is useful, at later dates. If you try to input all data on your own, in your “spare” time, you run the risk of creating such a large task that you abandon the project as impossible. This is a time to delegate.
The learning curve is steep at the beginning. It is helpful to develop a case management program compulsion for a while. Your compulsion shall set you free.
Un prospero año nuevo a todos.