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September 2000
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Small Firm Focus

Creating Law Firm Systems

By John L. Mellitz

Creating Law Firm SystemsMOST SMALL FIRM lawyers only now are beginning to automate their practices. Many attorneys start by steeping themselves in literature about case management systems, litigation support systems, courtroom presentations, document management, etc.

But soon after they start writing the inevitable checks, many wonder why they haven't become instant millionaires. Wasn't that supposed to happen as soon as they bought the latest, byte spitting, number crunching, digital computing device?

Probably not. If there is a common denominator that distinguishes successful technology implementations from those efforts that fail, it's setting up good, solid systems. There is still no substitute for solid, thoughtful planning in order to insure the success of any project, and automating a law practice is no exception. Before you spend a dime, you need to set up a system, a framework, upon which to build your practice and the technology that enhances that practice.

Your firm already is based on systems, however informal or de facto. Consider something as basic as your filing procedures. Are your client files arranged in some sort of logical order? Perhaps they are arranged alphabetically by last name or company name. If so, have you noticed that as you get more and more cases you are continually trying to sandwich new files into spaces too small to accept them?

An efficiency expert might suggest that new files be numbered consecutively, and that an alphabetical card file be maintained with cross references to the file numbers.

But both methods are examples of systems. There are numerous, valid systems that can work. Some are better than others, but even a poor system is better than no system.

Effective Systems

The basic elements of an effective system are:

  1. Repeatability
  2. Predictability
  3. Rules
  4. Orderliness
  5. Simplicity

I once knew a businessman whose system of bookkeeping consisted of making notations of financial transactions on the nearest available medium, such as an envelope, matchbook, paper napkin, (and an occasional linen one), etc. This was an unstructured system. As a system, it had no redeeming characteristics other than the fact that it was simple, (which, in and of itself, is of considerable value). It required no special training and could be executed by almost anyone capable of reading and writing. Unfortunately, it lacked the other four elements.

Explore how you can improve your existing systems. In addition to a filing system, small firms often use Rolodexes to track names, addresses, etc. They also use a calendar/docket "tickler" to insure that court appearances are not missed and that statutes of limitation are not allowed to expire.

In Missouri, the largest provider of professional responsibility insurance puts out a carrot to attract customers with effective systems. The "Bar Plan" offers a 5 percent discount on malpractice premiums to firms that maintain a docket system with certain minimum requirements: There must be at least two ticklers for critical dates, it must be written, it must be implemented, and it must be followed.

Cost v. Investment

Money spent on effective office systems is an investment from which you can expect a very substantial return. But whatever money goes into developing and implementing a system pales in comparison to the investment of time and effort that goes into designing a system and making it work. There are four key principals that come into play when you set up a new system.

Acceptance: If you want a new system to work, you absolutely must get "buy in" from all affected; from the top partner to the newest paralegal. Otherwise, you face passive or even unintentional sabotage of the system. To the extent that people affected by the system do not accept it, there will be a commensurate loss of benefits. If people responsible for maintaining the system refuse to accept it, it will fail.

Participation: Everybody must use the system. This would seem easy at first blush -- until users' individual quirks come into play. The refusal of one or more key people to relinquish their own personal calendars in exchange for a firm-wide calendar system is enough to render the system practically useless.

Compromise: No one likes change, particularly when that change involves deeply ingrained behaviors. When an individual has spent many years maintaining a personal address book and/or Day Timer, and refuses to give it up, you have trouble. When information important to the success of the system is held by someone who refuses to share it, the system will probably fail.

Scope: The system must be sufficiently broad to include all the elements necessary for its success. A conflict of interest system is usually inadequate if it relies solely on the client list in a firm's time-and-billing system as a source of potential conflicts. More often than not, a conflict involves a tangential relationship -- relative of a client, someone with whom a client may deal in a commercial setting, etc.

Manual v. Computer

Some lawyers would argue that systems are over-rated, or not worth the effort. However, there are thousands of lawyers who come into their offices every day, look at the clutter surrounding them, and say, "I've got to get my act together." What they are really saying is, "I've got to develop some sort of system to make my life easier."

This is the time to look at automation.

First, if the process is approached with an open mind, the lawyer is more likely to accept the necessary changes. Those who believe that the mere purchase of a computer will be enough to bring about the desired result will end up with the same clutter, plus a bunch of equipment that no one has the slightest idea how to use.

Second, after just perusing the directions that come with a simple database or filing program, you may find yourself shrieking, "Eureka! I've found it!" Why? Because databases force structured thinking. Just setting up a simple database results in an instant system, that even without a computer confers substantial benefits.

Third, automation magnifies the benefits afforded by manual systems -- both in physical and mental terms. Non-productive physical work is greatly reduced when the repository of all information is centralized, but readily available anywhere in, or even outside, the office.

Mental effort becomes much more productive, because the computer is, in effect, a mental lever: It enables you to better focus on the issues for which you were retained, while assuming responsibility for the drudgery needed to resolve those issues.

To understand this latter concept is to take a pencil and paper, and calculate, (without the benefit of a calculator), the damages caused by an injury that prevents your client from working for three months. (Of course, you can hire someone to do this, and spare yourself the effort. But first, you have to find someone capable of doing the calculations, and then pay that person upwards of $30,000 per year).

Now, go out and buy, (and use), a program such as CaseMap 3 and you'll be able to see where the benefits of automation become incalculable. This is just one example of a program that can make the difference between winning and losing a case.

John Mellitz is president of Mellitz & Associates, a legal technology consulting firm with offices in St. Louis, Mo., and San Francisco.

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