Case management software

Case management software

by Tom McNichol

Case management software can tame the terabytes of data that otherwise overwhelm a modern law practice.

Case management software brings all of the information related to a legal matter together digitally so that it’s searchable and retrievable (and in the end, billable). These applications are designed to manage all of the data related to a case within a single program, eliminating the need to repeatedly enter the same data into multiple programs. Case management software gets everyone in the firm working on the same screen.

First, a word on semantics. Originally, case management software referred to any digital tool for managing the data produced for a legal matter, including documents, correspondence, contact information, and calendaring. Then a related category, called practice management software, sprang up to handle the “back office” work of a legal practice-accounting, time tracking, and billing. Over time the two categories have merged, and their names are often used interchangeably. Most applications in this market now provide both front-office and back-office functions.

The popularity of case management software stems from the fact that the practice of law circa 2012 generates a stupefying quantity of data. The data glut has forced all but a few maverick holdouts to switch from a paper filing system to a digital data network. But firms that have gone digital without case or practice management software usually wind up dividing tasks among several different programs. They’ll use, say, Microsoft Outlook for calendaring, Excel for tracking deadlines and organizing documents, and Intuit’s QuickBooks for accounting. The trouble is, often information from one program can’t easily be transferred into another, forcing firms to assign someone the unenviable task of keying duplicate information into multiple programs. That not only wastes time, but it also greatly increases the likelihood of an error.

Case management software eliminates duplication by bringing all data and business functions into a single program, where it can be organized and managed.

It starts, as many legal matters do, with a phone call. As soon as the office phone rings, you and your colleagues can use case management software to pull up an intake screen and begin entering information. Some programs let you customize intake forms for particular practice areas, since the data you’d gather for a slip-and-fall case, for example, is very different from the info needed for a divorce case. (Some divorce lawyers might disagree, but that’s another article.) You can also use the software to quickly run a conflict check, so you don’t waste time talking to a client you can’t represent.

Once the client’s info is entered into the system, all the related data that’s gathered from then on-the contact data for everyone involved in the case, including opposing counsel; and documents, letters, emails, court dates, to-do lists, and billing-can be attached to that unique matter. Provided that all data generated by the matter is faithfully entered into the system, the software should spare an attorney from ever having to tell a client on the phone, “Sorry, I can’t find your file, I’ll have to call you back.”

Case management software can function as a virtual organizer, helping you plan your day and hit deadlines. You can generate to-do lists tied to specific matters and link them to a calendar that highlights dates you have to make filings or court appearances or meet with a client. The calendaring function lets attorneys and their support staff view appointments and deadlines by day, week, month, or year and prompts them with electronic reminders about things to do and calls to make.

Most case management systems have an integrated document assembly function that helps you draft documents, often in conjunction with a word processing program like Microsoft Word, or that hoary legal standby, WordPerfect. A contact management module tracks and stores details about phone calls and written correspondence, and provides call-back reminders.

At the same time, the software keeps tabs on the time you spend on each matter to build a running tally of your billable hours. Most programs can be adjusted for hourly, contingent, transactional, or user-defined billing. Finally, the time tracking data can be fed into a billing function to generate client invoices and create billing reports for individual attorneys.

Practically all case or practice management software includes these features, but each program has a slightly different way of organizing the data. One major distinction is that some case management packages are sold as physical software that’s loaded onto a desktop or server, while others like Clio and Rocket Matter are cloud services accessed over the Internet. One advantage of using a cloud service is that you’re charged for it on a monthly basis rather than having to absorb a big cost up front. This enables small and solo firms to test the case management waters before making a costly commitment. With a cloud service, you’re also outsourcing the IT overhead to the vendor, who handles issues such as backups and network security.

From the initial phone call to the final bill, case management software is designed to act as a kind of superefficient legal secretary that faithfully manages your work without ever grumbling about the long hours.
Be forewarned, these applications aren’t a magic potion that will suddenly solve all your filing and billing problems. The software is only as good as your commitment to using it properly: Everyone in the firm has to buy in to the process of entering data into it every day. The only thing worse than not having a system for organizing work is having a half-implemented system.

But as long as you’re systematic about getting the most out of yours, case management software can be a lifesaver for a law firm that’s drowning in a sea of data. The program takes on a lot of administrative grunt work and lets lawyers get back to what they do best-actually practicing law. And if you still can’t find that client file, you can always blame it on the software.