July 2010 • Volume 98 • Number 7 • Page 352
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Practice Of Law
Does Your Practice Need Practice Management Software?
It can help you save time, make money, and even avoid malpractice claims, according to legal technologists who spoke at last year's ISBA Solo and Small Firm Conference. Find out whether it's right for you.
Year after year, the roots of ethics charges remain the same. Check out the annual reports on the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission's website: for each of the years for which reports are posted, the two top bases for ethics complaints against lawyers are neglect of the client's matter and failure to communicate with the client. These bases consistently represent well over half of the approximately 6,000 complaints filed each year with the agency.
The roots of malpractice claims, too, remain generally the same over time. And, though ethics violations and malpractice are not the same, two of the top 10 "malpractice traps" reported in The Lawyer's Desk Guide To Preventing Legal Malpractice, published by the American Bar Association, are closely related to ARDC's top two bases for ethics charges: missing deadlines and poor client relations.
But according to presenters at last year's ISBA Solo and Small Firm Conference (see sidebar), there's a resource that can help lawyers minimize their potential for either claim. The bonus: the same resource can help the lawyers practice more effectively and, ideally, earn more money while spending less time on the tiresome administrative tasks that inevitably accompany the business of practicing law.
What's this tool? It's called practice management software, or, sometimes, case management software. This software helps lawyers integrate and manage all aspects of their practices.
Tasks that practice management soft ware can integrate and automate include scheduling, retainer agreements, time-keeping, billing, and keeping track of appointments, court dates, and all of the other information associated with client matters. Practice management software also helps with document assembly, meaning drafting and generating the correct documents for a matter.
Practice management software also makes checking a matter for conflicts fast and easy. It will help you find a document or information from a matter someone in your firm handled several years ago but no longer remembers.
There's also a parental component in the software: it will keep track of whether you've billed for an appointment or phone call and ask you whether you want to do so, it will remind you to prepare for a hearing, and it will notify you that you need to get to that meeting 15 minutes from now. Furthermore, it will synchronize information across your own portable and office-based devices as well as those of your firm members without your even having to think about it.
Practice management software is not a panacea (see the sidebar on page 355 and the LawPulse item on page 346). There's a cost and a learning curve. Some lawyers like some programs better than others, and no program is perfect for every lawyer. But every lawyer who hasn't done so should at least look at practice management software and its potential to help him or her practice more effectively.
When a client calls - an illustration
To understand how practice management software works, it helps to look at the impact it has on everyday tasks and events from every law office. Consider a simple phone call from a client, handled first without practice management software and then with it.
Without practice management software, you'll look at a message and find, say, that a current client has called with a question or information to impart about his or her matter. You'll then probably need to find the client's paper file to review it and refresh your memory about the matter's status.
But where is that file, anyway? Is it in the file drawer, where it ought to be, in alphabetical order by the client's last name? Or is it on the floor in a pile with a number of other files by one of the secretary's workstations? If not, does one of your partners have it?
Perhaps the file is in your office already. It doesn't seem to be on your desk, along with the 15 or so other files that are there, but it could be in one of those piles on your credenza, floor, and chair of files that have something or other that you've been meaning to get to before putting them away.
Even after a 45-minute search, you don't succeed in finding the file that day, so you decide to wait to call the client back.
The next day, as if by magic, the file materializes in one of the places you'd already looked. You review it, look up the client's number in the file, and call the client back, apologizing for not having returned the call the same day. Hopefully, you've remembered to glance at the clock in your office at the beginning and end of the call so you can record your time accurately.
During your conversation with your client, you make notes in the file. Your client has a couple of questions that you tell her you'll have to get back to her about, since your partner, who's in court, is working on those matters and has the information she wants on his computer.
Upon concluding the call, you'll ideally remember to check the clock again and fill out a billing slip for the call with a brief description of what occurred. (If you don't, you'll have to estimate the time you've spent once you do get around to billing the call.)
You'll check the file to be sure that another event is scheduled so that the matter doesn't get lost. If necessary, you'll adjust your calendar for an appointment's being rescheduled, and you'll inform other firm members who need to know of your conversation or any changes by an e-mail or a sticky note, perhaps placed on the outside of the file, which you'll then deliver to the right person's office chair. If the file needs other action, you'll route it appropriately; if not, you'll see that it's put away in its drawer.
Though you pride yourself on your efficiency (despite the occasional misplaced file), you may pause to note that apart from your time-consuming search for the file, the tasks associated with your phone call have consumed between five and 15 minutes - a bit exasperating, to be sure, but, all things considered, you think, not too bad, and certainly not more than you or any of your colleagues generally spend on such a file event.
Now consider the same phone call to your office after practice management software installed. You'll receive the message, or the phone call itself, through the program, which has already associated it with the client matter in question. Searching for your client's file or checking with your partner about the matter is unnecessary, for the electronic file, containing all documents, notes, and records of actions taken by you or anyone else in your office, is up on your computer screen so that you can click on whichever portions you'd like to review to prepare to take or make the call.
And once you're connected with the client, the program is recording the time of your call for you. You'll be making any notes for the file within the program, which will also have a box open for you to summarize the call for billing. When you hang up, the program will ask you whether you'd like to bill the call. It requires only a click of your mouse, you'll probably do it instead of putting it off until later.
You won't need to check the file to be sure another event has been scheduled - the program will have automatically set a tickler date for the file. On that date, or on the day of the next event, you'll see the file on your calendar on your computer screen in the morning.
Though you may still prefer to send your colleague an e-mail about the conversation, you can make it short and sweet, since your notes concerning what happened will be available to him as he views the file on his computer screen. If you changed a date, the practice management program automatically changed it on the office calendar, saving you from having to do so as a separate task or from having to tell your colleagues or support staff to be sure to change it on their calendars. Putting the file away requires only a mouseclick on your own screen.
The timesaving power of automation
Consider the time automation can save you. First, you won't have to spend time searching for the file before you could be confident of calling the client back and having whatever information you needed for the conversation. And how many times during a day do you find yourself similarly searching your office for files or information?
As Rockford lawyer and conference presenter Don Mateer noted in his written materials, "The average attorney spends up to 40 minutes a day just looking for information in an office that is not automated." Multiply that 40 minutes by your billing rate and the number of working days in a year, he suggests, to find out how much it's costing you not to have a practice management program. Multiply that sum by the number of lawyers in your office to find out how much it's costing your firm.
Second, because you were working with a practice management program, you didn't have to tell the client you didn't know the answers to some of her questions because one of your partners had the information. Says Mateer, "With a case management program, from one screen for a particular file, you can access all your calendared events, all your deadlines, all your contacts, all your case details, all your notes, e-mails, documents, forms and billing information."
Mateer, who uses his office's program's notes section to make notes on all phone calls, finds that feature helpful because he can review his call notes while dialing his client and quickly get back up to speed on his thought processes and have the latest information on the matter at his fingertips. "If a client calls, I can immediately open up the appropriate file and have the information there while pleasantries are completed and then sound as if I know everything about this client's file without hesitation."
That goes not only for current clients, he notes, but also for people calling about past matters that he wouldn't immediately remember. Because his practice management program requires him to enter information on all calls, he says, all information in his files is up to date at all times. "I no longer have sticky notes flying all over the office because each parcel of information is placed within the file within the case management program and easily accessible at all times."
Third, you didn't have to spend the five or 15 (or more) minutes performing the other tasks associated with the phone call because the practice management software program took care of them for you.
You didn't have to write down or estimate the time you spent on the call, because the practice management program kept track of it automatically. You didn't have to fill out a billing slip and route it, because the program asked you whether to bill the call and all you had to do was click "yes," whereupon the program completed everything necessary for the bill.
"Being forced to enter information on all phone calls along with the time spent has increased my billable hours," Mateer says.
Because you were able to access the file immediately on your computer, you were able to take or return the call right away, confident that you'd be able to converse intelligently about whatever your client wanted to know.
Also, you've billed the call immediately instead of waiting until the end of the day, until Saturday morning, until the end of the month, or until six months hence to catch up on your timeslips, so your client will receive a timely and reasonable bill instead of nothing for months and then a shockingly large invoice. And you have records to show that the bill is accurate, since the computer recorded the time you spent and you made notes as the program prompted you of what you discussed during the call. That both reduces the risk of a fee dispute and puts you on firmer ground if there is one.
And if you're on the road but have a smartphone such as a BlackBerry or an iPhone, you have the same capabilities as if you were back at your office. Says Ohio lawyer and legal technologist (and S&SF Conference speaker) Barron Henley, "Good case or practice management software enables you to input data once and have it update all your software and mobile devices, firmwide. This eliminates a multitude of nonbillable administrative events and is a major efficiency gain. You enter the information once and you know it's right. And you don't have to send e-mails to everyone in your office telling them to update their own calendars or files."
Document assembly: better than word processing?
Henley offers another reason for using a practice management program: document assembly. Think you've already got this capability because you know how to use your word processing program to create template documents? Commendable though your word processing prowess is, document assembly is far more sophisticated than that, Henley says.
The document assembly function of practice management programs enables lawyers "to develop templates for anything from an enclose-please-find letter to a heinously complex asset purchase agreement with hundreds of optional paragraphs and thousands of variables (changeable text)," Henley says. Using the HotDocs program as an example, he explains that [l]ike most document assembly programs, HotDocs allows users to replace changeable text with variables (i.e., Testator Name>>, <<Testator Street Address>>) and make the inclusion of text (words, sentences, paragraphs, etc.) conditional. With each new variable, you also create a corresponding question (prompt) which will be presented to the user during the assembly process. Generating a new document is a simple matter of answering the questions generated by the template. Think of it as an on-screen interview process.
Once you've answered the questions, the completed document appears on your screen. If you wish, you may edit it further, send it around for review, or save and print it out. "Even if you're a word processing wizard, it is unlikely that any other tool can save you as much time each day as HotDocs [or another similar program]."
Henley praises not only the speed but also the accuracy of a document assembly system. "The old cut-and-paste/ search-and/replace document generation method employed by many lawyers is slow and creates an enormous margin for error."
That method, he says, "is unstructured, relies on the user's memory, assumes Word or WordPerfect will 'catch' all of the items in need of replacement and requires many steps." Those assumptions are all faulty, he says: "Memories fail, word processors don't catch everything and more steps create more mistakes and slower drafting."
In contrast, he says, a document assembly system requires you to enter only case-specific facts and what changes, such as party names. Much of that data, in turn, you'll pull directly out of your practice management program's database, which reduces the potential of error even more.
Henley says the program understands how to include the appropriate paragraphs and exclude the irrelevant ones, substantially reducing your drafting time, and the program likewise does the tedious work of making sure verbs are conjugated correctly, personal pronouns are corrected, dates and numbers are correctly inserted and calculated, and lists are properly numbered and punctuated.
"For many people witnessing this method of document generation for the first time, it is nothing short of an epiphany," Henley says. "If a lawyer is feeling crushed by drafting projects, a good docu ment assembly system represents the opportunity to catch up, maybe for the first time ever."
Consider now how the document assembly function within a practice management program has minimized the risk of a malpractice or ethics violation claim. Did you have a deadline for preparing that heinously complex contract? The document assembly function has enabled you to do so far more quickly than you could have even as a word processing wizard.
Having completed the document, you can communicate with your client by sending it as an attachment to an e-mail so that your client can review and approve it. The program has multiplied the profitability of your work, Henley says, since you can charge the same fees for the same product. "A lighter work load and better revenue are tremendous antidotes for stress," he says, further cutting down on a potential malpractice trap.
Even if the documents you need to assemble are relatively simple, such as retainer agreements or fax cover sheets, a practice management program can minimize your risk of an ethics or malpractice complaint and increase your profitability, Henley says.
Many lawyers still do not routinely prepare engagement agreements for their clients, Henley says. "It doesn't get done because it's annoying. You need to do it before the client leaves the office after the first meeting. If it's a one-click, it's easy - but if it's anything more than that, it's not so easy."
With document assembly, he says, the engagement agreement spelling out the lawyer's responsibilities to the client and the client's responsibilities to the lawyer becomes a one-click, and the lawyer has established good client communication from the outset.
Turning to even simpler documents, such as a fax cover sheet, Henley explains how the document assembly function makes the creation of even these documents far easier and faster. It's not overkill to use a practice management program for documents that aren't complex, he says. "If you can save three minutes every time someone in your firm creates a fax cover sheet, you will have saved a considerable amount of time each week."
Is it right for you?
Clearly, practice management software is a powerful organizing tool. It can save you time, help you stay in touch with (and bill) clients, and keep you on deadline and on task.
Is it right for you? Only you can answer that question. But unless you're unalterably technology-averse, you owe it to yourself to take a look.
It comes at a cost. Generally speaking, practice management software packages start at about $500. Some are better suited than others to your needs, depending on your practice setting, the size of your firm, and the like. The ABA's Legal Technology Resource Center has a helpful chart comparing leading practice management software programs (Amicus Attorney, Time Matters, etc.) at http://www.abanet.org/tech/ltrc/charts/casemanagementcomparison.html.
Training is a must. As with any complex software, there's a learning curve with practice management programs. Says Chicago legal technologist Robert G. Moss, "You must budget for setup and training. Plan to spend one and a half to two times the price of the software for this. If you don't, you will say that you got it and it did you no good."
Barron Henley urges lawyers considering the purchase to eschew demonstration CDs and ask sales representatives to come to their firms and demonstrate the software to all employees who will be working with it. "Don't just drop it on your firm. They won't like it. They'll be grumpy and they won't use it. Feedback from your colleagues and support staff on the product will help you make a better decision."
Garbage in, garbage out. "The software alone won't help you avoid ARDC claims," Moss says. "The way you practice will help you avoid ARDC claims." Used wisely and well, practice management software will make it easier for you to set up and maintain good practice systems and thereby remain free from claims of malpractice or ethics violations. But there's no getting around it - it ultimately comes down to you and your management skills and habits.