Small & Home Office
How to Determine the Best Options
By Carol L. Schlein
OVER THE PAST few years, many lawyers have discovered the benefits of case management software. At the core, all the major case management products include individual and firmwide calendars, a firm-wide contact list and a case list to manage the activities pertaining to the firm's cases.
Once you move beyond these core functions, the list of features differs and, more important, how they are implemented and work in different legal practice environments vary tremendously.
The dominant case management products for solo and small firms are: Time Matters by Data.txt Corp. in Cary, N.C.; Amicus Attorney from Gavel and Gown Software in Toronto; AbacusLaw from Abacus Data Systems; CaseMaster from STI Legal, the makers of TABS III; and Albuquerque-based ProLaw Software's ProLaw.
[Last January, Time Matters partnered with Lexis-Nexis to incorporate more tools for legal research within their practice management product. This partnership has increased Time Matters' already high visibility. In August, 2001, West announced that it had purchased ProLaw.]
In choosing the right case management program for your firm, there are a number of considerations. My ideal choice would take the best features of each and combine them into a single, perfect program. Of course, that won't happen any time soon!
Every case management program is like an octopus with tentacles out to your other critical applications, which is why they are also sometimes known as practice management systems. Every one of these programs can be used to provide data to produce documents in your word processor or document assembly program. Most can be used as an alternative for data entry into your billing program and can eliminate the need to update client addresses in a variety of applications.
Most also can manage contacts' e-mail addresses and several can be used as your e-mail program, allowing you to eliminate another duplicate copy of your contact list. Most of the major players can also share data with Palm and Pocket PC devices.
My ideal choice would take the best features of each and combine them into a single, perfect program.
Factoring in what other applications you use will go a long way to fine tuning your decision. For example, if your firm already uses TABS III for billing, you should give Case Master, from the same company, a close look. If, on the other hand, your firm has been using Timeslips since version 2.2, you should be looking at Time Matters, Amicus or Abacus. If you need to also implement a billing system and do not have one yet, then you might want to consider an integrated approach such as ProLaw.
No matter which program you select, in my opinion, none of these programs can be used effectively without some formal training and customization by a knowledgeable consultant. In helping law firms improve their use of technology, I often am dismayed at how easily lawyers will start with, "We need a 'you name it' type of program to solve all of our problems."
The more successful implementations of case management start with the identification of specific issues that must be addressed and then determining what tools would best address that need. Can you imagine someone starting with "I need a Mercedes Benz because..." Well, maybe that's a bad analogy!
Here are some examples of how case management software is used, to provide some food for thought, and help you evaluate the different products.
Litigation: I recently worked with a medium-sized firm that purchased Time Matters. Its primary goal was to provide a calendar and deadline manager for the firm's litigators.
We spent one day working with the firm to make sure the classification codes for the types of events, to-do lists, contacts and cases met lawyers' needs. We set up "Quick Tabs" and column labels so lawyers could sort their lists quickly, the way they wanted. We also set up a trial list calendar report that could be printed while making the transition from paper records to a computer-based litigation docket.
We actually spent the bulk of the day importing case and contact information from the billing program. In one day, we were able to get the firm ready to use the program. We didn't automate everything we could have, nor did we customize the program extensively; we simply made it a better fit for the way the staff prefers to work and meet their immediate goals. Using Time Matters to manage calendars, task lists and a contact list has enabled the firm to begin doing more pro-active marketing and avoid much of the duplication inherent in its old system.
E-mail: Several programs allow firms to handle the Internet and internal e-mail within them. This means one can send and receive e-mail using the e-mail addresses from the database and connect them to the appropriate cases. The ability to see a complete picture of activity concerning a case including fields of information, notes, phone messages with their notes, incoming and outgoing e-mail messages and documents makes a case management program a critical component to any law office.
Organization: Purchasers of case management systems have always been attracted to the notion that implementing one of them will organize their office. Most programs include a function allowing you to set up a chain of activities based on a starting or ending date. For example, if you're preparing for a real estate closing, the base date would be the date of the closing. Beforehand, you might have a checklist of items, such as preparing and sending certain documents, making phone calls and receiving specific papers. Some of these items also may be dependent on other activities. After the closing, there may be a few follow-up items, such as preparing and sending a closing statement to clients.
According to most surveys I've seen, only a small number of law firms use any case management product. No matter which you choose, you must prepare yourself and your office to ensure a successful implementation. Firms fail in implementing case management programs by starting with unrealistic expectations about the time commitment required to set it up, complete the conversion and cleanup phases.
Most times, firms will be converting a contact list, case list or calendar from other sources. They will expect the new system to flawlessly accept the data and not allow time for cleanup. This extra work at the front end will pay off over time, but often can sabotage a new system when employees become frustrated by all the extra steps suddenly required to prepare a simple letter.
The best thing to do when implementing a case management system is to set everyone's expectations realistically, focus on the features that were the reasons the program was bought and customize it slowly as everyone understands the implications of different design options. I usually tell clients they will hate me for the next several weeks, but in a few months when the data is cleaned up and they're comfortable with the system, they will wonder how they survived without case management.
Attorney/consultant Carol L. Schlein is president of Montclair, N.J.'s Law Office Systems, Inc. She is a Time Matters authorized independent consultant; former chair of the Computer and Technology Division of the ABA Law Practice Management section; and an emeritus member of the LTN Editorial Advisory Board.