Features - Shopping for a Case Management System

Sheryl Cramer is President of Cramer Consulting in Lawton, Oklahoma. Ms. Cramer has worked in technology and management for the last fifteen years. In addition to being a certified consultant, she also manages and integrates technology in her attorney husband's law office. She is an assistant SysOp for the OBA-Net, a member of the Association of Legal Administrators and the American Bar Association. She is also a member of the Solo and Small Firm, Law Practice Management, General Practice and Family Law sections of the ABA.

Clients today expect more work completed faster at less cost to them; case files are getting larger and harder to manage; more paper is coming into your office every day. Instead of practicing law do you find that you are stuck with boring, mundane, repetitive tasks and working harder for less profit? In the time that you already spend daily taking care of existing clients, what if you could bill for an extra twenty minutes a day (minutes that you are already working but not billing for), at a rate of $125 per hour, five days a week, fifty weeks a year, you would have $10,416.67 extra a year per attorney (which more than pays for your vacation time)!

Over the past few years, case management software has evolved tremendously and can now be called Practice Management Software. If you carefully choose the right software for your needs, you can manage your entire practice, which will enable you to practice law more efficiently and allow you take control. With all the benefits that case management software has to offer, it should be the central hub of your practice.

Case management software stores contact, calendar, tasks and all information pertaining to a case in a database. Everything is tied together that relates to a case or matter, which allows everyone in your firm to view current, up-to-date case information with the click of a mouse button. When an event is scheduled, it will automatically show in the calendar. Phone call conversations are entered creating a log of what was said. A to-do can be entered and remind you on a certain date and time to produce a document. Any person in the firm can view the information at any time and know instantly what is going on in a case, what has been done, and what is still remaining to be done on a case. Best of all, time entries can be produced from all of these items so that you can bill the client for all work done on his or her case.

Properly implemented, case management software can:

  • Give you instant access to all of your information.
  • Automate your regular, mundane tasks.
  • Maintain the calendar and task list for entire staff.
  • Allow all staff to quickly view all messages, notes, documents and notes on a case as well as maintain an accurate, historical record of what has been done.
  • Help to eliminate errors and duplication of work; increase efficiency.
  • Synchronize with secondary applications, such as Palm and billing software.
  •  Create and save a wide variety of reports for your firm.
  • Quickly check for potential conflicts.
  • Warn of approaching deadlines, statutes of limitation dates and work remaining to be completed on a case.
  • With one click of the mouse, view what work has been done on a file.
  • Reduce potential liability by allowing you to stay on top of your cases.
  • Allow you to handle paper files much less, thereby not losing information.
  • Save time, eliminate duplication of work and reduce stress!

Calendaring

Case management software will track appointments, tasks and deadlines. How many times with a paper calendar has someone forgot to add an appointment, or made two appointments for the same time because they couldn’t see the calendar because it was out of the office, either with you in court or in another attorney’s office? With case management software, all staff can view the appointment calendar at any time, therefore eliminating the lost appointments and double scheduling that can occur with using a paper calendar. Group scheduling can be done - view everyone’s calendar and choose a convenient time for everyone to attend a meeting or deposition without the usual phone tag that occurs to coordinate a group appointment. Schedule one event for the group and it will appear on everyone’s calendar. If you need a printed calendar, most case management software will allow you to print your calendar in a variety of formats for you to take with you (or synchronize with your Palm, which is another time saver because you don’t have to enter the information in twice).

Need to know when the deadline date is to respond to a Motion? Most case management software has a built in date calculator that you can use to calculate how many days a response is due before a deadline or schedule future appointments and tasks. With the click of a mouse button you can paste that date into your calendar or to-do list.

You can also schedule rooms and office equipment, such as projectors. All staff members will immediately know when something is available and can schedule it for their use. No more scheduling two different depositions for the same room at the same time!

Poor calendering habits can result in missed deadlines and appointments, one of the major complaints for malpractice. Automated case management software allows a firm to maintain and shift calendar dates related to cases as well as calendars associated with individual attorneys and groups within the firm (check with your insurance carrier and see if you can have your liability rates reduced by using case management software).

Task Management

Has anyone in your office ever forgot to do a step in a certain case style? Do you ever want to know what has been done and what remains to be completed on a file? Manage your tasks - create a list of actions needed - track and schedule all work performed. Enter deadlines and ensure that all tasks that are due are assigned and completed before the deadline.

Telephone Calls and Notes

Impress your client with your ability to remember previous telephone conversations. When you receive or make a call, just click on the contact name and start the timer. Enter in the conversation and you have a permanent record. All staff members can view calls to know what was previously discussed. A good case management software program will also let you make notes for a case or contact, which is handy when a dispute arises as to what was previously said.

Document Assembly & Rules-Based Processing (Automation)

Does your secretary retype the same document over and over? Has the wrong name or case information been left in a document from cutting and pasting? Most case management software packages will allow you to automate your documents by integrating with Word, WordPerfect and HotDocs. Your documents can be created quickly and correctly; just highlight or select the contact’s name to automatically generate a fax cover page, appointment letter or other document type using the forms that come with your case management software or documents that you set up. Several documents at once can be generated just by selecting several different contacts. Case management software will pull the information from your records and insert into your form documents. By automating your documents you only have to enter your information once - into your case management software.

Some of the programs have the capability for rules-based processing, which allows you to set up rules for repetitive tasks. You can automatically schedule telephone calls, tasks, etc. based on the a particular event. For example, if you change a contact to “client” a contract can be generated. This will save you much time and ensure that all steps in a particular event are followed by all staff members.

Using time lines you can automatically schedule court dates, reminders, office procedures and reoccurring, mundane tasks. By setting these up the trigger event will automatically schedule all events for you. If you change one date, the related dates will change accordingly.

Contact Management

Organize information on all of your contacts - clients, witnesses, opposing counsel, insurance adjusters, judges - anyone you come in contact with during your day. (An added benefit of entering all of your contact information into your case management software is that you are building a base to check for conflicts).

Just click on a contact to view all the notes, cases, phone calls, tasks and appointments that relate to that particular contact. Information on a contact is only entered in once and can be used in a variety of ways, from automation to entering tasks and events. If the contact information changes, such as an address, you only have to change it once in the contact section and all other areas will automatically be updated. Everyone will have the same address and information available to them. The potential for documents prepared with the wrong information is greatly decreased because everyone in the office has the most current, up to date information available. You also save time by only changing the information in one place instead of the client file, contact card, word processor documents, Palm, etc.

Tickler System

Unless you have a photographic memory, it is very easy to miss events that need to be followed up. Setting up a tickler system with case management software is as easy as clicking your mouse. You can set up reminders to get out petitions, prepare documents, telephone clients or any other number of tasks. Most programs also have some type of reminder you can enable to let you know if you have not done any work on a case in a certain period of time, thereby eliminating the files that can fall through the cracks.

Time and Billing

Time entries can be produced from your telephone calls, appointments and tasks completed. This enables all time to be billed and documented on a file - time that otherwise might not have been billed. You save time and overhead expense by you and your staff not having to re-enter and check your time using time sheets - just generate the time entries from entries already entered.

Conflict Checking

By entering all of your contacts you can check names for potential conflicts. Be aware, though, that you get what you put in - the conflict checking is only as good as the information that is entered. Tip - when you archive a file, don’t archive the contact information.

What is the Difference Between Case Management Software, PIMs and Billing Software?

Case management software is different than using a Personal Information Manager (PIM) such as Outlook, Goldmine and Act! Using either case management software or a PIM will enable you to track your contacts, calendar and tasks, however, a PIM cannot track your information by file / case / matter. This is where case management software really shines! You enter a contact in your case management software just once and designate the appropriate categories (ie witness, client, attorney, etc.), then attach the contact to whatever cases s/he relate to. When you open the case, you would see all the related information pertaining to that case - contact information, tasks, phone calls, appointments, hearings, etc. The same relates to a billing program. Your billing program can enter time spent on a case but does not have the third layer of tying all information pertaining to a case together, letting you know what has been completed and what remains to be done.

Summary

Case management software allows you to have all the firm’s client information at your fingertips - no more searching for the file. Client service is enhanced by everyone having the information quickly available to them. With information only being entered in once, consistency and accuracy are increased; you can bill for time you previously weren’t billing for and your overhead costs can decrease. This translates to reduced costs, higher profit, less stress, more organization, happier clients and less liability exposure.

I Need Case Management Software - NOW WHAT?

You’ve decided that you can’t practice any more without case management software - so how do you choose from the dozens of packages available? When choosing case management software, remember that there is no universal "right answer." What works for one firm may not be the best solution for you. Before purchasing you need to do your homework and make some lists to decide what your firm does and does not need.

There are many products on the market today that claim to be case management software. Beware! Extreme caution and diligence is due for you to make the correct choice for your office. If you choose the wrong product you will pay for it not only with your hard-earned money but also with wasted time. Choose a product that meets your needs, has an established track record and outstanding customer support. In the last several years companies have come and gone; choose a reputable company who will be around in the future to take care of your needs.

What do you want to accomplish?

Determine exactly what you are looking for and what you hope to accomplish. Make a second list - what are you doing now to manage your cases and contacts? What are the procedures? Who does it? What do you like and what do you not like about your procedure now? Compare the two lists. Make sure that the software you choose will help you get from where you are now to where you want to be.

Staff

How does the staff in your office relate to computers? Are they afraid of computers or are they the first ones to learn new programs? If you or your staff is not comfortable with computers then you want to make sure that the program you purchase is easy and intuitive to use. If you have people who are willing to work with computers, you may want to purchase a program with more flexibility. How many people will use the program? Make sure that the software version you choose can handle as many users as you need and has the capability to grow with you as your firm grows. Is everyone committed and willing to use the new program? The purpose of case management software is to store all relevant case information in one accessible place for everyone. Everyone from the top to the bottom has to use the program in order for it to succeed. If one person is not entering in their information then the case management software won’t work.

Law Practice

What kind of law do you practice? If you practice in more than one area, what area do you do the most work in? Compare the software to your practice to ensure a good fit.

Software

What other software programs are used in your office? Do you have any software that you absolutely must keep, such as a certain billing program, or will you start from scratch for all of your needs? Do you need e-mail integration? Do you want the software to work with your telephone system? What links would you like to have? What hardware do you use (such as scanner, Palm, etc.) Make sure that the software you choose will link with your existing programs and hardware. When you are looking at what links the software has, see how the link works and if the link is “real time” (data is automatically exchanged between the two programs) or if manual intervention is required.

Hardware/Networks

You need to make sure that your hardware is compatible with the software you choose. What is the speed of your processor? How much memory does your computer have? How large is your hard drive? What operating system do you use? Check the requirements needed and compare with what you have. Do you need to upgrade any of your computer components? With the price of computers as low as they are today, it is less expensive to purchase a new computer than to spend time to fix problems that occur due to not enough hardware power to run your software.

Do you have a network? What type and speed of network cards and cabling are you using? Do you have any problems with your network now? Do you use a hub or a switch? If you have problems with your network now, you will not be able to run case management software due to the large amount of data back and forth between computers. If you have a bad network, a database (which is what a case management program consists of) will be the first application to become corrupted. Tip - if something should happen to your program, the first place to check is your network equipment.

The type of network equipment you are using is one of the most important aspects of sharing data between computers. When purchasing network cards, cables, hubs or switches always buy name brands. How much will it cost you when your data becomes corrupted and unusable because you saved a few pennies and bought cheap, no-name network cards and cables?

Billing

Billing is another important part of your practice. How do you plan to bill? If you will use a billing software, make sure that the case management software has an appropriate link. If you would rather create your own billing sheets, make sure the software can prepare these. A good case management software and billing package that integrate well together is worth its weight in gold.

Reports

What kind of information do you want to know about your cases? Do you want a lot of reports with various information or a few reports? Do you want the reports ready made or do you want to customize the reports to the way you want?

Cost

When calculating your budget, ensure that you have calculated the cost of the software for each user and for the appropriate program version. While cost of the software is an important factor, it should not be the driving factor. After all, the purchase of this software should pay for itself within approximately three months. If you think that choosing and implementing the correct software is expensive, try choosing the wrong software that eventually becomes shelfware.

The Main Players

Choosing a case management program for your firm is very similar to the “Word vs. WordPerfect” debate - everyone has their favorite, and what works for one firm may not work for another. The three major players who have been around for a long time and worth a good look are: 1) Time Matters by DataTXT Corp.; 2) Amicus Attorney by Gavel and Gown Software; and 3) Case Master by Software Technology Inc. (who also produced TABS III). For a more comprehensive list of what is available, there is an extensive comparison chart and article “Shopping for Small Firm Case Managers” in the December/January ‘01 issue of “Law Office Computing” written by Sheryn Bruehl, an attorney from Norman, Oklahoma.

Choose Two or Three Finalists

After you have all of your lists complete and have checked out what software is available and what it can do for you, it is time to limit the field to two or three finalists. Get demos to see how each program looks and feels. Is it compatible with your office and the way you work? What is the return policy? How is customer support? What do other users say about this program? Is the software easy to use? Does it give you the information that you are looking for and integrate easily into your practice? Will you (and everyone else in your office) want to use it all day, every day? If not, don’t waste your money purchasing it - look at something else. Most case management programs have different versions with different options; make sure to see what each version can do, what it can link to, type of hardware and software required and the number of users recommended for using it. Once you decide which program to purchase, you will need to have the software implemented into your office and learn, learn, learn how to use the program.

There is no fast and easy way to case management nirvana; buying a case management program will not automatically convert your office into a well-organized, money-making machine. The time and commitment to learn the program must come from every member of the staff, from the bottom to the senior attorney. Without this commitment, purchasing the software is a waste of your money and time. Remember, if you and your staff won’t spend the time or commitment to learn how to use the software or use it consistently, from top to bottom, don’t purchase it! However, if everyone will invest time up front and do your homework to choose the right program for you, learn the program and then use the program, you will find that your practice is much simplified and more organized; you will have more time to take care of your clients, produce a better work product and increase profits. You will be in control of your practice and able to practice law again!

RESOURCES

1. Sheryl Cramer - http://www.cramer.cc

2. MicroLaw, Inc. - http://www.microlaw.com

3. American Bar Association listservs:

a. Lawtech: Discussion of legal related technology used in law practices and courts. Many helpful posts - you can ask a question and get several good responses in a short amount of time. http://www.abanet.org/scripts/listcommands.asp?parm=subscribe/lawtech

b. Solosez: For lawyers who are practicing alone or in a small firm setting (very high traffic, but great nuggets of information if you can dig them out). http://www.abanet.org/scripts/listcommands.asp?parm=subscribe/solosez

4. TechnoLawyer: Weekly articles, discussions and debates on various topics of legal technology interest. - http://www.technolawyer.com

5. Keep up to date with the latest legal news at http://www.llrx.com.

6. Time Matters: Time Matter software - http://www.timematters.com

7. Gavel & Gown: Amicus Attorney software - http://www.amicusattorney.com

8. Software Technology, Inc.: Case Master & TABS III software - http://www.stilegal.com

 

WORKSHEET

Complete this and compare to the requirements of your two or three finalists to decide which case management software is for you.

How many users?
 

What software do you use now (for each machine, if applicable):

1. Case Management
2. Billing/Accounting
3. Word Processor
4. Operating System
5. Calendar
6. Interoffice Communications
7. E-mail
8. Document Management (Worldox, File Pic, etc.)
9. Other Misc.

What type of hardware do you have (document for each machine, see last page):

Server

1. Dedicated server or using one of the desktops?
2. Processor speed
3. Amount of Memory
4. Operating System
5. Video Card - graphics & video resolution
6. Hard Drive Space Remaining

Workstation

1. Processor speed
2. Amount of Memory
3. Operating System
4. Video Card - graphics & video resolution
5. Hard Drive Space Remaining
6. Monitor size

Desktop Machine

1. Processor speed
2. Amount of Memory
3. Operating System
4. Video Card - - graphics & video resolution
5. Hard Drive Space Remaining
6. Monitor size

Laptop

1. Processor speed
2. Amount of Memory
3. Operating System
4. Video Card - graphics & video resolution
5. Hard Drive Space Remaining
6. Monitor size

Printer

1. Stand alone or networked
2. Brand / Model
3. Memory

Network

1. Peer-to-peer
2. Client-Server
3. Hub / switch
4. Type of cabling
5. Type of network cards
6. Other

Does your office use (or plan to use) any type of handheld device?



If yes, how many and what brand and model?



What is your budget for upgrading your office?