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June 2000
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Small & Home Office

Ten Questions to Ask Before You Consider Investing In Case Management Software

Computerized case management is no longer a luxury or a sign of a cutting-edge firm.

By Robb Steinberg

Ten Questions to Ask Before You Consider Investing In Case Management Software I'LL NEVER FORGET the case that put me "over the edge." That case generated more than 1 million documents and exhibits. It was enough to make my head spin (along with five other associates, seven paralegals, and two partners at the firm). On the flip side, it was that case that served as the impetus to explore the world of case management software.

Since then, I have come to realize how automated case management can bring greater efficiency to law practices. Computerized case management is no longer a luxury or a sign of a cutting-edge firm, bit has become a necessity.

In fact, case management software may be the single most important component for organizing a law firm. Its price has become part of "the cost of doing business," and more than pays for itself over time due to added billable hours, greater efficiency, and faster turn-around.

If your firm doesn't have case management software, don't panic! It doesn't mean you're "washed up." However, it does mean that it's time to begin finding a program that fits the needs of your firm.

In today's era of e-everything, it's easy to become self-conscious about a lack of technology savvy. But many lawyers are still getting used to moving their cursor around with a mouse, and many don't have a clue how to navigate the techno-jargon associated with automated case management systems.

Fear not. Take it one step at a time, and start the process by asking the right questions.

1. Is the program scalable to your firm's size at a reasonable price?

Most solo or small firm practitioners can't afford a $100,000 software package. Conversely, a program with a price that sounds "too good to be true" probably won't meet the needs of a 250- lawyer practice.

Ideally, you want to find a program that is "scalable." This means that the software is technically equipped to grow (or shrink) with your office, and is priced according to the number of users.

For smaller firms, scalable programs eliminate the problem of paying for technology you don't need; for larger firms, they provide all the power to handle sophisticated case management needs for hundreds of users, at a price in step with the firm's size.

2. Is the program a glorified calendar and contact manager, or is it a true case management system?

Unfortunately, there are several high-profile products marketed as "case management" software, when in fact, their functions are limited to calendaring and contact management.

True case management programs offer calendaring/docketing functions as well as document management. These more sophisticated programs allow you to file all your case documents and search for them when needed. You should also look for document assembly functions, image scanning, and image storage.

3. How easy is the program to use?

We're lawyers -- not programmers -- so it is essential that your case management system is easy to use for lawyers.

The most intuitive systems feature tabs that mirror a lawyer's file cabinet with tabs for depositions, discovery, subpoenas, pleadings & motions, etc.

4. Will the program manage case collateral?

Beyond document management, your case management program also should manage case "collateral," such as photographs, exhibits, doctor bills, etc. This allows you to scan the collateral item and label it. When you need to access it, you simply open the image (instead of digging through a box of exhibits).

 

5. Can you customize fields and create document assembly templates?

Lawyers, depending on the nature of their practices, need to keep track of different kinds of information. Look for the ability to customize the program.

For instance, personal injury attorneys may want to keep track of the police officer on an accident report. Therefore, it is helpful if the software allows you to create a custom field titled "Police."

Similarly, if your firm frequently uses a particular document template (i.e. Request for Medical Records), be sure the case management software includes templates for document assembly and allows you to create additional templates.

6. Does the software track e-mail?

Three years ago, this probably wouldn't have made a "top 10" list, but the use of e-mail has increased dramatically and its integration into your case management software is crucial.Many programs allow you to create and send e-mail; however, most do not file the originating message. (Once it's sent, your record of the message disappears.) Therefore, you want to look for a program that files e-mail messages with the case correspondence. Some programs automatically file the response to the e-mail as well.

 

7. Is the program portable?

More flexible case management programs include a "pack-and-go" feature that allows you to copy your case data (including exhibits) onto a CD or onto the hard drive of your laptop.

Then, while you're out and about, you can access relevant case information (without carrying around boxes of files) and even make changes and additions. Once you're back in the office or hooked up to the Internet, you can integrate (synchronize) changes and additions into the case files. This is an extremely helpful feature for lawyers who travel frequently, spend a lot of time at the courthouse, or who work from home.

 

8. Who provides training and technical support?

If you have ever run into problems with computer software, you know the importance of good, competent technical support. When it comes to case management, you also need to take training into consideration. "Out-of-the-box" programs may not offer any training. They leave the learning process up to you or your MIS department.

For programs that offer on-site training along with the installation of the software, make sure the training is provided by the manufacturer, not a contracted consultant. There have been more than a few instances where contracted consultants or vendors have "made a mess" of an installation.

Also, ask if the trainers are conversant in issues pertaining to law. You'll undoubtedly have questions about how the program applies to your practice. You want to make sure the trainer's knowledge of the product isn't limited to general-use technology.

Similarly, be sure that the program's technical support personnel understand the software's day-to-day, real-world applications. In other words, you want technical support personnel who understand lawyers' needs. It's a plus if trainers and technical support personnel have legal training as attorneys or paralegals. While you may not need this level of legal expertise, you at least want support people that understand your business.

9. Does the program use proprietary data, or can you move data with relative ease?

Select a product that will meet your firm's current needs as well as your needs in the future. However, there are many uncertainties that may require you to switch to a different case management system down the road. Check to see if the databases the program creates are proprietary. If so, you may encounter difficulties converting or exporting the data.

10. Who's behind the company?

When you buy case management software, you are making a business decision that will affect your firm for many years. Consider whether it's likely that the vendor will be around long-term to offer you the support and upgrades necessary for your practice to evolve.

It also pays to ask, "Is case management the company's main business, or a sideline?" (Some products on the market are distributed by law firms -- not software companies -- as an additional source of firm revenue.)

Do the program's authors understand the practice of law and the needs of attorneys? If you need to speak to someone from the company, can you reach a manager or executive, or can you only get through to technical support?

Always ask for references. Current users will most likely give you the most insightful information about how effectively the program works (or doesn't work) in their firm. Don't rely only upon references from the software manufacturer. Seek your own testimonials from colleagues.

Attorney Robb Steinberg is president of Lawex Corp., a developer of TrialWorks case management software. He is based in Miami.

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