Conflicted About Software?
By Larry Crápo
SO, YOUR FIRM has finally settled the issue of what accounting software, conflicts and document management system to use. You've completed your word processing conversions and upgraded your networks and Internet access capabilities. If you still have a nagging suspicion that you've overlooked a key component of your overall case management system, it's likely that your firm is still relying on a generic, non-legal calendar program or worse yet, still doing it manually.
According to a soon-to-be released American Bar Association survey, missed deadlines continue to be a significant cause of malpractice claims against attorneys. In fact, nearly one-third of all malpractice claims have their roots in a calendar-related error. Fortunately, firms now have excellent software tools available to better protect them against date errors.
The more sophisticated products are easy to use, automatically calculate your deadlines based on any court rules, integrate with your desktop groupware (such as Microsoft Outlook or GroupWise) as well as with your accounting, records management and other programs. Furthermore, by implementing a centralized, computerized calendar system, your firm may receive substantial savings on its professional liability insurance.
The following ten tips will be helpful for firms interested in licensing a legal calendar system. Review them carefully, and your firm will make a safer decision, that minimizes your risk while improving over-all productivity.
1. Who will use it?
Decide who will be using the calendar software. One of the first things you need to determine is who is going to be responsible for calendaring dates at your firm. This should be one of your first considerations, because some of the legal calendaring systems currently on the market have not been specifically designed to be used by attorneys, paralegals or other legal staff. Instead, these products were designed for use by calendaring professionals in a calendar/docket department.
Conversely, other programs may seem to be simple and are visually appealing, but lack the sophistication required for use as a true, firm-wide master calendaring system. Some programs may require a great deal of training and experience to use, which will be a problem if you ever decide to change your calendaring model to allow other legal staff, including attorneys and paralegals, to calendar events. Look for software that's easy enough to be used by attorneys and other staff members, yet has all the functionality that may be required by a calendaring department for firm-wide calendaring.
Proper maintenance is essential. It doesn't matter how many bells and whistles your program has, if everyone isn't using it. Like your documents or billing systems, only 100 percent compliance will result in a successful implementation. Only then will your attorneys begin to rely on it. It must be made clear to all staff members how important it is that all the firm's dates get calendared in the new software. This means that documents may need to be channeled first or copied to designated staff members. Procedures must be set up so that all changes are provided by attorneys and entered into the system. Circulating a couple of pages of firm calendar procedures, will protect your firm and help ensure success of your system.
3. Rules-based System
License a rules-based calendaring system. No matter how you currently calendar your legal deadlines, using a rules-based system will be faster and more accurate. Even the most fastidious calendar professional will make a mistake once in a while, be it miscounting days, forgetting about a certain holiday, moving in the wrong direction when a deadline lands on a weekend, or one of many other possible errors that can take place when calendaring by hand. Computers will not make such mistakes when calculating your legal dates based on preprogrammed rules formulas. Therefore, place pre-programmed rules processing capabilities on your 'must have' list.
4. Buy the Best
Once you have committed to a rules-based calendar, in order to maximize your investment and best protect your firm, you will want to license the vendor's pre-programmed rules databases. Your firm will be relying on these databases to be complete and accurate, to calendar all your critical legal deadlines. This is quite a responsibility for the vendor, and selecting the "best-of-breed" in the rules processing technology field is a must.
There are several ways to determine if a vendor is really in the "rules business" or just provides basic "timelines" to help sell its software. Check to see if the vendor's staff includes qualified attorneys and legal calendaring professionals.
Ask about the staff's experience at creating and maintaining rules. Will the vendor provide research services, (and at what cost) if you have questions on calculation results or interpretations of specific rules. Consider how many rules formulas there are in a particular rule set from different vendors. Be suspicious if one vendor has more rules than another. Ask how often rules are updated, and find out what the "turn-around time" is from the point that rules are changed by a court, and adjusted in the software. It's just not good enough for vendors to release updates at its own convenience. Your firm can't take that risk.
Find out if other software companies have selected that vendor to integrate rules into their products. Does the vendor work with courts, judges and administrative bodies to help them with new and amended rules?
Once you start using pre-programmed rules sets, you may wish to add some deadlines or reminders of your own. How easy it is to customize the vendor's software, in order to create your own rule formulas? Can customized formulas be integrated with the pre-programmed rules sets?
Every firm has its own internal systems, procedures and terminology, and it is important to make sure that the calendaring program can be adapted to work your way. For example, one firm may call the number they use for billing clients the "client-matter number", while others may call it the "file number." Your calendar screen should be able to include your own wording for that or any other field.
6. Intuitive Interface
Look for a program with an intuitive and simple user interface. Attorneys dislike programs that require too much "drilling down" just to calendar a date. Avoid programs that have a cluttered interface with excessive amounts of information on the screen, too many icons or multiple windows open at one time Some programs require you to remember and use cryptic acronyms and codes to select and schedule court-related events that you wish to calendar. (This brings us back to an initial question, "who is going to use it." Make sure the interface you choose will be easy for those users.)
In order to make the best use of your calendar, product training by certified trainers is recommended.
Certified trainers will work with you and your firm to customize the program to suit your firm's needs and to help ensure that the installation is as rapid and successful as possible.
Ask for integration with existing programs that you already license.You should not have to perform multiple data entry within your firm every time you get a new client or matter. Select a calendar system that integrates with other vendor's software. MS SQL-based systems are now standard, and will enable your firm to integrate tables and avoid data duplication.
Even if a calendar systems vendor claims that they already integrate with your existing software, it's best to contact your current vendor and check out these claims. Unsanctioned integrations can sometimes void warranties or cause data problems. Your best bet is to work with a calendar vendor that has a positive relationship with your accounting or other vendor suppliers.
With the advent of technologies such as the Internet and handheld computers, (Palm Pilots, Blackberries) many attorneys are now expecting easy, up-to-the-minute access to their schedules.
If your calendar program integrates with Microsoft Outlook or Novell GroupWise, attorneys can automatically download their dates to their handheld devices, (which will make them very happy). This feature alone is worth the initial system license fees.
9. Use Advanced Features
The most advanced legal calendars can automatically update your firm's calendar, when the rules that were used to calculated a deadline change. For example, let's say you create a formula to remind your attorneys to pay jury fees 25 days prior to trial pursuant to a rule. Then the rule changes to require jury fees to be paid 35 days prior to trial. Imagine that you have calendared hundreds of trials for your firm, using that rule. To manually seek and find all these deadlines and move them would be very time consuming. But some programs will automatically go out and find every deadline created and move all the required deadlines in seconds.
The best of these systems even know which rule sets apply to which jurisdictions, in what order of priority, and will warn you if you've made incorrect selections. Document tracking, that integrates to third-party document-based programs, is also helpful.
10. Risk Management
Look for a program that is sensitive to audit trails, passwords, and date checking. Remember -- your calendar is a risk management tool. Look for a program that provides detailed audit trails of what was changed, when and by whom.
When dealing with critical legal deadlines it is vital to record this audit information, so make sure that your program can be set to capture this information automatically.
You must be able to fully control who at your firm has the rights to add, change or delete calendar events. Many firms limit attorneys and general staff access to viewing, leaving the adding and changing to more experienced calendar personnel. Also, from time-to-time, you'll want to double check your dates; the better systems provide the authority for each rule in any rules database, allowing your staff to quickly look up a rule for verification purposes.
The calendar software should provide a variety of reports, both graphical and textual, for your use. Ideally, you'll be able to customize the reports to adapt to your firm's requirements. Nothing can sink the acceptance of a new system more quickly, than the inability to please a key attorney or staff member who needs an extra piece of data on a report, which is captured in a system, but inaccessible in the reports module. Therefore, a report writer module is just as important for a calendar system than in your accounting program.
If you use Outlook or GroupWise, be sure the program fully integrates with these programs and can re-calendar events on your Outlook or GroupWise calendar if as the dates change.
12. Internet Access
Web access to view calendar data is also helpful for litigators that travel and is increasingly available with the most advanced systems. Few, if any other professions compare to law, with respect to the critical nature of deadlines and calendars. Considering the technology readily available today, there's no reason why your firm (and therefore clients) should be at risk of missing dates.With careful consideration of the calendar product and the vendor behind it, your firm can implement a system that will increase productivity, while it decreases risk and saves on insurance costs. It's time to consider your firm's calendar solution.
Larry Crápo is vice president of sales and marketing, for CompuLaw L.L.C., based in Los Angeles.