New era for case management

Michael Belas looks at the latest case management systems for law firms and asks if they offer anything for fee earners. Michael Belas is a director of Avenue Legal Systems, which offers a case management "lite" system called Wisdom Case Assistant.

Since Dibb Lupton (as the firm was then called) showed the legal world in the late 1970s that it was possible to make money out of high volume, low margin legal services such as debt recovery work – provided the legal process was computerised – case management systems have become a feature of most law office automation projects.

But, coinciding with the march of Windows PCs on to the desktops of more and more fee earners, technology is now changing direction.

The conventional approach to case management software design has generally been to take a particular legal application, such as debt collection or conveyancing, analyse the various steps in the procedure – for example, if there is no reply from the other side after 14 days, send a letter before action. This workflow is then linked to a timetable and an archive of document precedents.

Using this method, it becomes possible for a firm to delegate much of the task to relatively junior (lower paid) staff. The computer system guides them through the legal process, reminding them when particular actions have to be taken and printing off the correct letters or documents to be issued at appropriate times.

At the same time the system provides the partner-in-charge with the ability to monitor progress and maintain ultimate management responsibility.

Some firms now take case automation one stage further and employ business process re-engineering (BPR) methods to redesign the whole way they handle legal work, minimising overheads while maximising the volume of business they can handle.

The BPR approach to case management also has a role to play where a firm is tendering for bulk work from a larger commercial client, such as a building society wanting to outsource its mortgage arrears work. Almost inevitably the client will have administrative procedures it requires the firm to follow.

But, while there is clearly always going to be a place for the conventional case management system and the fully automated BPR system, neither of these technologies really helps the fee earner. If junior staff can do the work with the help of a computer, then it is not the best use of the talents – or fee earning abilities – of assistant solicitors and partners to have them doing the same job.

A system that complements or assists the work of lawyers but does not, in the words of the managing partner of one Avenue user firm, "stifle their creative juices" is therefore what is really needed.

The solution now finding favour is what people are referring to as a case management "lite" system. This type of system enables fee earners to automate some of the routine chores associated with legal work, which otherwise would have to be delegated to secretaries – such as producing standard letters, logging reminders in diaries and document management. Fee earners are then free to direct the pace and direction of a matter.

The attraction of this type of approach is while it may mean solicitors have to spend a few minutes each day in front of a computer screen clicking their way through diary reminders and to-do lists, it still involves far less time than would be required dictating instructions to a secretary to carry out the same tasks. It is, in other words, a genuine productivity tool.

Equally importantly, systems like these also help reduce a firm's dependence on secretaries, so it is no longer necessary to maintain the overhead of the one-to-one fee earner to secretary ratio that still predominates in many firms. Depending upon the nature of the practice, it may be possible to reassign secretaries to some paralegal fee-earning activities or, alternatively, cut down on the total number employed by sharing secretarial resources between fee earners.

Some practices now operate a five-to-one ratio of fee earners to secretaries. If a case assistant-type system can increase productivity while reducing overheads, then it will make a major contribution towards improving the profitability of a practice.

When comparing products, there are a number of points to be borne in mind. First, it is essential that the case management system will run on the same central database as your accounts and practice management (PMS) system. Otherwise parallel sets of client and matter records will have to be maintained. This makes financial management, file review, marketing analysis and conflict of interest searches difficult and time-consuming.

Second, compared with secretarial and support staff, most fee earners tend to be occasional rather than regular computer users. Therefore, pay special attention to the system's interface – the screen layout the user sees. Opt for the product that has the cleanest and most logical design, so lawyers can get up to speed without having to go on extensive training courses that distract them from fee earning.