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This article is adapted from the October 15, 1999 issue of the Maryland Bar Associationís Bar Bulletin, and is reprinted with permission.

Improving Your Practice with Case Management

By Robert S. McNeill

Drowning in paper? Not enough hours in the day? Canít find a file when you just need a phone number?

Would you like to deliver higher quality legal services at less cost, and make your clients happier? Would you like to be more efficient? More profitable? Lower your cholesterol? Well, maybe not that last one.

Every law office has a management system, for better or worse. Sometimes itís planned (everything runs like clockwork); sometimes itís by default (everything is piled in the corner of the office). You can use the computer hardware you probably already have to help you run your law practice better using these or other law practice management programs, and manage your:

    • Clients and other people with whom you deal.
    • Cases and other legal matters.
    • Calendar appointments and to-do list.
    • File notes.
    • Documents.
    • Phone messages.
    • E-mail.
    • Legal research.

Any law practice management program should accomplish several objectives:

You or your staff should enter information only once, and then use it over and over again. For example, once a clientís name is entered into the system you should be able to complete a conflict of interest search, print a file label, generate a retainer letter, enter billing information, and post appointments and to-do entries on the calendar. You should never have to type the clientís name and address again.

Once the information is in the system, it should be at everyoneís fingertips. All staff should have computers on their desks and have a minimal ability to use them. Finding a phone number should be simple. Changing information like a name, address, or phone number in one location should change it everywhere else it appears. How many times have you dialed an old phone number because the new number did not get copied to all of the places where the phone number appeared?

The system should be portable, so that you can take it with you to the courthouse, a clientís office, a satellite office, your home, on a laptop computer, a Palm“ device, or a wide area network. It should exchange information between these various devices so that changes made at the courthouse on the Palm device, for example, are transferred to the system at the office so appointments can be made without conflicts.

Your staff should be able to create frequently used documents, like retainer agreements, complaints, interrogatories, loan agreements, wills, etc., using the information already in the system and by responding to short, simple prompts that a staff person can easily answer. This results in higher quality documents.

Additionally, you should be able to focus on a case and see everything that is going on at a glance: all appointments and to-doís everyone connected to the case, such as the opposing party and attorney, any other cases, file notes, documents, internal and Internet e-mail messages, billing records, and Web research results. This information should be available at your desk with a few mouse clicks.

In order to manage your practice better, you should be able to focus on an attorney or staff member by checking on his or her to-do list. You should be able to rearrange the items on the list at any time, add new items, change existing one to reflect recent developments. You should be able to track the status of tasks you have delegated to others.

Moreover, you should be able to focus on a particular type of to-do, e.g., statute of limitations deadlines, and see all such deadlines dated within a certain time frame. You should be able to further filter this by also focusing on a certain attorney. This process allows any attorney to see a list of all his or her statute of limitations deadlines that are due in the next six to 12 months.

You should be able to see the calendar for a particular person, or group of persons for different date ranges, not just one day at a time. It should be easy to check othersí calendars, to schedule meetings with other attorneys or staff, and to reserve conference rooms.

Additionally, you should be able to enter the standard appointments, to-doís, and documents that you will need for a routine case, e.g., a collections case or a bankruptcy petition, by making only one entry. If the date entries can be calculated from a single starting date, then a pattern can be set and the dates of the appointment, to-do entries, and documents can be entered automatically. If the starting date changes, e.g., the court reschedules the trial date, then the system should revise all of the records and correct the dates that were initially calculated.

The system should be able to list just your clients, or just your expert witnesses or other category of contacts at the touch of a button. To this list of people, you should be able to send letters created by a merge function so that you can, e.g., send your estate planning clients notice of a change in the tax law.

Make sure that the system is customizable to your particular needs. In an estate planning case, you may need to track the date the clientís will was executed so that you can send a follow-up letter in case there is a change in the law. In a collections case, you may need to track the amount of the debt. The system should show only the appropriate information for that case.

It should be easy to "slice and dice" the information in the system. If someone unexpectedly goes on sick leave, you should be able to take all of that personís to-doís for the next two weeks that havenít been completed and transfer them to another individual. Then, if the person returns from sick leave early, you should be able to transfer the undone items back to the original staff person.

The userís ID and password should be required to access the system, and multiple levels of security should limit the ability to change certain information. Or, if information like a trial date is changed, a message should be sent automatically to the person whose calendar was changed.

Using a practice management program can utilize the power of the computer to make it easier to retrieve information about your cases, make performing routine tasks simpler and faster, reduce your reliance on paper files, and organize your practice better. This will make you and your staff more efficient, more productive, and more profitable. You will be able to provide higher quality legal services to your clients at less cost.

The cost of these programs, about $150 to $500 per user, is modest, compared to the gains in productivity you will experience.

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