February 8, 2011
Law Office Automation 101: Choosing and Implementing a Case Management System
No technology project can positively impact the efficiency of a law firm like the selection and implementation of a good case management software system. Strangely enough, however, the majority of law firms in the U.S. still do not have case management systems. This fact can be attributed largely to a lack of knowledge about what case management software is and what it can do. Hopefully we can clear that up here.
What is a Case Management System?
Simply put, a case management system is a piece of computer software that allows you to make fewer trips to the filing cabinet by tracking a great deal of client information right on the computer, and then using that information to help you run your practice. Although different systems have different levels of functionality, there are certain functions that are central to virtually all case management systems.
The focal point of any case management system is a shared database of all your client information. This information is stored in a common location so that it is accessible to all of your staff. The information stored varies by system, but typically includes anywhere from a few dozen to several thousand fields of information about your cases and contacts. Aside from basic biographical information (names, addresses, phone numbers, etc.) many systems also allow you to view and instantly retrieve any document related to a specific case.
Document handling and document generation capability are very important defining factors of a case management system: The better ones have very powerful document generation capabilities built right in. In just a few mouse clicks some case management systems can create complex documents right in your word processor with the pertinent case data merged in automatically. Higher-end systems can also save them for you, diary them automatically and make time and cost entries in the appropriate case file.
Having your documents and case data integrated into a single system gives you several significant advantages over doing things the old-fashioned way. The first is shared access – If you’re relying on hardcopy files you have to deal with the physical reality of possession. That is to say, if one person HAS the file, it means by definition that nobody else has it, and thus nobody else can work on that file. A case management system eliminates this problem by allowing ALL users on a network to share the same information at the same time.
Another important advantage of a computerized case management system is the ability to work remotely. Once the information you need to work on is centrally stored on your office network, you can easily access that network from home or anywhere else where you have internet access. You no longer need to take a stack of files home with you if you want to work at home – all you need is a way to connect to your office network. This capability is built into most Window’s Servers. On other operating systems the solution can be as simple as setting up an account with Logmein.com. If you’ve got a high-speed internet connection both at home and at the office, you’ll find that the speed of working remotely is very nearly equal to that of actually being in the office.
Just about every case management system in existence has some sort of calendar function built-in. This function brings with it many important advantages. First of all, you don’t have to worry about who’s got “The Book” when you want to schedule an appointment. By definition, EVERYONE has “The Book” in a computerized case management system. You can instantly see any user’s calendar from any computer on the network. If one user schedules an appointment, all other users see it immediately. Many systems also allow you to download your calendar and task lists to a PDA or smart phone(e.g. iPhone, Android, etc.) with the touch of a button. This saves you from having to constantly print out your calendar when you leave the office.
Most case management calendars also include task or “to-do” lists for each user. This function keeps you aware of approaching deadlines with warnings and reminders that pop up before things become past-due. Aside from keeping you out of trouble, these task lists give you the peace-of-mind that comes from knowing anything that doesn’t get taken care of today will automatically show up on tomorrow’s list.
Choosing a System
Before you start looking at case management software packages, take a long look at your practice. What are you hoping to accomplish by implementing one of these systems? You need to start out with specific goals in mind, and then evaluate systems based on how well they can help you achieve those goals.
The first thing you need to look at is the diversity of your practice. The systems you see on the market will generally fall into one of two camps: The purpose-designed systems and the generic systems. A purpose-designed system is one which was developed for a specific area of practice (e.g. personal injury litigation, workers’ compensation, etc.). These systems tend to already be set up with all the necessary fields and functions required for the practice area for which they were designed. Generic systems, on the other hand, tend to be very open-ended. They can be configured to handle a wide variety of cases, but right out of the box they’ll do very little. If you go with a generic system, plan on spending several thousand dollars for customization for each type of law you want the system to handle.
Which type of system works best depends on your practice. If yours is a homogenous practice (that is, you do mostly one type of case) you’ll probably get up and running quicker, and ultimately get more functionality out of a system designed specifically for your area of practice. If, on the other hand, your firm has a number of disparate practice areas you’d do well to look into a generic system. While it might not provide all the specific functions required by each practice area, it would at least provide basic functionality to all of them.
When selecting a system, pay special attention to user-friendliness. If you can’t look at a screen and immediately tell what it’s for, look elsewhere. Remember that the resistance you’ll encounter from your staff in implementing a system is directly proportional to the learning curve for that system: The harder it is to use, the less likely it is to be used. Unless you’re ready for a battle with your staff, select a user-friendly system.
Implementing Your System
The best way to get up and running with a new system is to get your data into it – QUICKLY. People will use the system if the data is in it. The faster you get your data in, the better. If it means paying overtime, pay it. If it means hiring a temp, hire a temp. Getting your data in should be a sprint, not a marathon.
During this process, seek to identify and enable your “power users.” It will quickly become clear that one or more users on your staff “get it” better than others. Take advantage of this fact. Give these “power users” responsibility for helping with the implementation and sharing their knowledge with others.
Make sure you maintain frequent contact with your vendor’s technical support during the whole implementation process. You’ll have a lot of questions in the early stages of your implementation. Ask them ALL. Don’t be shy about calling for tech support. That’s what those people are there for. Don’t assume your software can’t do something until you call tech support and ask if there’s a way it can be done. There are frequently a number of different ways to solve a given problem – and the tech support representative is the person most likely to know them all.
It is almost always a good idea to spring for onsite training: Even if your vendor doesn’t require onsite training (many do), it’s a good idea. Firms that have had onsite training tend to get up and running roughly twice as fast as those that haven’t.
Throughout the whole process it is important to remember that it’s just that: A process. Implementing a new system is a process, not an event. Be realistic: Productivity is going to go DOWN while you’re struggling through the implementation process. Be ready for it and don’t freak out when it happens. It’s completely normal.
Once you get past the initial struggles, productivity will go back up and quickly surpass its pre-implementation level. There’s a lot of work involved in this process and there will probably be some turmoil as well. Look past all that. A few months down the road your firm will operate more efficiently than ever.