A case full of systems

As the partner in charge of IT you are given a mission to buy a case management system. Your markets constantly demand higher quality and greater efficiency. You need workflows that redefine your working practices, with key reminder dates providing slick production of intelligent documentation. Obviously, you need to report with flexibility, but in today’s economy you also need to provide online access to check the status of matters and provide new instructions. Case management systems can deliver all of this and more.

First you need to find out what systems are out there but you also need to consider whether the systems have been created “back to front”. You have a finance system and a document management system. These are effective core systems which cost the firm a lot of money and you do not want to replace them. A case management system should be written to integrate with and “talk” to major systems in this area, whether they be CMS, Elite, PC Docs, i-manage or Documentum – core systems should not be an afterthought.

You do not really want to hear that a supplier “can” make their system integrate. You want to hear that it has been done and where. You also want to know how the system integrates with all your other applications. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) packages such as Interaction are important and email systems such as Groupwise and Exchange are at the core of every lawyer’s work. You need to know that these integrations have already been achieved and should visit the sites.

You are a busy person. Why not construct a shopping list and send it to main contenders for comment? At the top of your list you want it to have your favoured database, such as MS-SQL.7, at its core. Demonstrations can be time consuming, so eliminate the non-runners early on by seeking written responses on key points.

The support of partners in the relevant practice area throughout the process will be vital – why not send them to an exhibition? Ask them to produce a short specification with a wish list in order of priority. They will need to be involved in some of the presentations, as will potential users of the system. If you go ahead with a particular system, the input and backing of a well respected user group is vital to a successful launch.

You also have to draw the line somewhere with your search – tomorrow’s technology will continue to be better but you have to make a commitment at some point. Today’s potential efficiencies are tomorrow’s losses. You lose money by not getting on with things.

Who to approach is a big question. Strength of balance sheet and popularity of systems is important, and sources of information such as the annual Grant Thornton Legal IT survey are useful. A good track record and company history is comforting. No one wants to be found at the end of a legal technology cul-de-sac trying to enforce an escrow agreement. If it all goes wrong you will, of course, have lost your partnership’s as well as importantly the confidence and time of your people, which is the real investment. Opportunity costs are expensive and for the same reasons offers of trials and money back guarantees are not necessarily the “dream ticket” they may first appear.

You may prefer to take the less well-trodden path to seek out a bespoke system which will deliver competitive advantage. But you end up paying to develop a system while running the risk that you may not deliver something special and distinctive to both your people and clients. Another key buying criterion is speed – is it 32-bit? Also, what is the quality and form of the support and has the system actually sued anyone? Has it got an open or closed architecture? If your practice is expanding you will want to find out the size of the biggest site and check the system can cope with your firm’s vision. Basics such as which versions of Word are supported and upgraded migration paths should not be forgotten and are more important when changing systems. You should check that the software and the integrations are reliable. Is there a user group? If so, procure an invitation.

Your partners may have a different shopping list to your IT team. Partners will like the fact that a system is web enabled but will not want to make things over-complicated for clients. They may also be led by what systems their clients have and will be attracted by the ability to supervise their high volume practice areas – “quality is key” they will keep reminding you. Partners want to be able to check all work that is due to be done on individual matters and by particular fee-earners. Some features will really appeal, such as pre-configured start-up packs for different practice areas and online databases of courts and local authorities, especially if they are maintained on an ongoing basis. In property markets you should also ask how developments such as NLIS (Natural Language and Information Systems) will be taken into account by the systems.

Very specialised systems will be as attractive as they can and excellent at what they do, but more adaptable case and matter management systems may mean training can be leveraged. And clients only have to become used to one system.

Your partners will want the flexibility to amend screens and run reports. They will look perplexed or hurt when you ask them how complicated their letters are but you have to check if they contain calculations, are simple, or have multiple options. If they turn out to be complicated then the system’s document assembly package needs to be good enough on its own or will need to seamlessly work with products such as Hotdocs, a sophisticated document assembly package allowing intelligent documents to be constructed from questions, bringing with it population of the core database. You may already have suites of intelligent documents, which in a perfect world you would not wish to recode and bring into the system.

Your partners will want to amend the document fields and workflows themselves. The ease at which this may be done and user ability restored will vary enormously. Can the system time record? It can, both by starting a clock and by task which prepares the practice for any developments with UTBMS (Uniform Task-Based Management System). You will want to know how often this is imported into your finance system and how the data pumps work, and you ask for a demonstration of reporting speed and flexibility. This is key to your partners’ practice areas and you will want it to be capable of using its own report engine as well as respected tools such as OLAP (Online Analytical Processing) and Crystal Reports Family. If it is in your database, you want to be able to report on it.

Cost is important but is not the overriding factor. That being said, certain debt collection systems are being sold for £150 per seat. What will the effect be of the arrival of legal application service providers such as Law.com? Ask about cost early on, together with minimum machine specifications, support and training, to ensure you have the complete picture to make an informed decision.

You will want to know that there is an online module and how and where will this be hosted. If you have seen the system installed or project managed well by someone at another site do not be afraid to demand – and be prepared to pay – for the same person. They could be key.

It is worthwhile discussing working processes. Can you scan or OCR incoming correspondence? What effect will this have on memory; are paperless offices and files feasible? Do you need someone doing basic data entry and opening matters at the early stages of a process? Who gets what level of user rights?

Be creative – how will you be able to check you have delivered efficiencies? Will you agree interactive instruction forms with clients? If so, will you utilise SSL (secure sockets layer) encryption? Should you be exchanging data with clients in Ascii (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) delimited? Should you set up “agile” systems that automatically react to clients’ needs? Why not set up a system for your key clients so they can keep their internal clients up-to-date using a Java client?

What now? You need to decide. A test network and user involvement is key. Perhaps it is also time to stand back and take stock. How quickly can your potential supplier install the system? Should you run with more than one type of system in your practice? When is the next version? What systems will be coming to the market in three years time? Will there be a US invasion? Above all, do users like it?

Last of all you should pause and start to think about a project plan.

Derek Southall is head of strategic development at Wragge & Co.