The practice of law continues to evolve, perhaps faster these days than at almost any time in history. Clients’ needs and demands keep changing. They are sometimes looking to nonlawyers for some services that used to be the sole domain of lawyers. The structure of law firms continues to evolve. But the biggest effect on the practice of law in the past decade or so has been technology.
Almost all offices are computerized, with software programs for just about any task a lawyer or staff person may encounter. Case management and timekeeping programs, email, smartphones, laptops, mobile tablets and other technologies have made it easier to practice law in and out of the office, on the road, and in the courtroom. We have seen the advent of the “virtual” lawyer who practices on the internet rather than out of a brick and mortar office space.
While these innovations are all, by anyone’s measure, great tools for a law practice, lawyers must be aware of the dangers. If technology is not used properly, a malpractice claim can be just around the corner.
Do Not Procrastinate
Almost one in five claims against lawyers insured by Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co. (WILMIC) is a result of administrative error. These include procrastination, failing to calendar events properly, failing to take timely action on a scheduled event, clerical errors, failing to file documents on time, and even losing files.
Brian Anderson, senior claims attorney at WILMIC, says whether a lawyer has a good administrative system or a bad one, the first thing lawyers must do is make sure they are proactive. “We see malpractice claims time and again against attorneys who take a case but wait to investigate, pursue the case, or file an action or simply take on a case too late in the game and run into deadline issues.”
Lawyers miss file deadlines if they don’t act promptly. This can be caused by simple oversight, waiting for supporting records, naming or serving the wrong party without enough time to amend, or finding out it’s too late when special circumstances arise. Simply put, “good things do not come to attorneys who wait,” says Anderson.
Whichever scheduling and administrative system a lawyer has, it is only as good as the people who operate it. Anderson says he’s seen claims that can be traced directly to incorrect data. “Lawyers should take the time periodically to perform an independent review or an audit of their files to verify the accuracy of the underlying data entered into their system.” He says a lawyer also needs good staff people who understand why these deadlines are so important. “Staff turnover, illness, morale, and overall competency and consistency can often be more important than the computer system a lawyer is using.”
Managing the Paperwork
Even with technology in law offices, lawyers still have mountains of paperwork and files to keep organized. The entirely paperless office is not here yet for most lawyers. One of the goals in managing a practice is to maximize a lawyer’s effectiveness.
All documents should have a home. Anderson says that lawyers too often leave documents in piles on a desk or elsewhere. “We see claims for missed deadlines or missed statutes of limitation caused by misplaced paperwork. More diligent organization could have prevented a mistake.”
He says there are ways to avoid those errors. “It sounds obvious, but sometimes lawyers get busy, especially those with a small office or small or no staff, and papers and files get set aside and forgotten. Pleadings and all matters with deadlines must be calendared in a way that you do not miss a deadline. The calendar entries should be made in your computer system immediately upon receiving the document. If possible, the entry should be checked by a second person.”
Some of the more popular electronic case management and time management software programs are PracticeMaster, Clio, MyCase, and Zola Suite, according to Christopher Shattuck, manager of Practice411®, the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Law Office Management Assistance Program. He says State Bar members receive discounts on those services. Other software programs include PracticeMaster, Rocket Matter, Microsoft Exchange, Google Calendar, Abacus Law, ProLaw, Credenza Pro, Time Matters, PCLaw, and Amicus Attorney.
Deciding which software program to use often comes down to cost and how many people in the office plan to use the program. Shattuck says cloud-based practice management systems are very price competitive with each other for core services, and range in price from $40 to $60 per user, per month, when billed annually. “When assisting lawyers with selecting the most appropriate solution for their office, the decision typically comes down to the usability of the systems being considered. I encourage lawyers to utilize free trials to find out which systems will work best for them.”
Shattuck adds that, when considering a switch from paper-based law office systems to cloud-based systems, most lawyers are surprised by the exceptional features of the latter. “Most cloud-based [systems] include document management, document automation, workflow management, time and billing, client portals, and trust accounting. Stated differently, users in cloud-based systems can store their documents, create and merge document templates, create timelines and workflows for cases that follow similar timeline patterns, complete trust accounting and billing, and send bills and documents to clients in a secure client portal. As the final selling point, all of these services are housed in one system.”
When considering a switch from paper-based law office systems to cloud-based systems, most lawyers are surprised by the exceptional features of the latter.
Terry Dunst, of Bakke Norman in New Richmond, says his office uses Time Matters and Outlook. “Time Matters and Outlook are integrated such that we can view and edit our calendars either directly from Time Matters or from almost any internet-connected device such as a smartphone or tablet. Time Matters is also a complete law office management system including document management and contacts and most other aspects of a matter or case that a lawyer may be working on. It’s a relational database that organizes almost all aspects of a matter.”
As for the factors lawyers should consider, Dunst says, “It depends on the size of the firm, the mobility of the lawyer, and quite frankly the tech savvy of the lawyer. A solo may need much less than a small or medium-sized firm, a large firm something different again. Outlook alone can serve as a useful calendaring tool. But if you want other features such as document management, you might want to go with a law office management software like Time Matters or Clio. There are certainly many options from which to choose.”
Software compatibility and remote accessibility are two important factors for most lawyers. Dunst says remote access can be a double-edged sword. “Remote access can help with efficiency and productivity; one can work from almost anywhere in the world with the right connectivity system in place. On the other hand, being ‘online all the time’ can add stress to an already stressful work environment and cut into family time.”
As fast as technology is moving, law firms are likely to find faster and more efficient ways to use it – for calendaring, billing, case management, and communicating with clients, opposing counsel, the courts, or others. With those newfound methods come new dangers for lawyers.
Every time your firm upgrades to a better system, there are bugs that need to be worked out. With more young lawyers entering the profession each year, most of whom are technically savvy, and the increased use of technology by the court system, time management and the way lawyers practice will continue to evolve. Thus, malpractice risks also will evolve. Lawyers are wise to continue to audit their time management and practice systems to keep up with the changes. As Anderson cautions, “Make a file review and regular auditing of your calendaring system crucial components of your firm’s risk management efforts. Although file audits and reviews can be burdensome on the front end, ‘a stitch in time saves nine.’”
All the technology in the world doesn’t guarantee a perfect system.
Anderson adds that even with all the help lawyers are now getting from time-management-technology software, mistakes that may lead to claims still occur, including missed deadlines.
Dunst agrees that all the technology in the world doesn’t guarantee a perfect system. “There’s an old saying in the database world – garbage in equals garbage out. I suspect the main culprit is simply not using the time management system, or not using it effectively. If you don’t enter a date in the system, the system won’t be able to remind you of an upcoming date. For example, if one is on the phone with someone and arranges some date in the future, and then that person gets distracted by some other pressing issue, they might forget to add the new date on the calendar. Or one might add the date and think ‘I’ll fill in the details later’ and then forget to add sufficient information and the necessary reminders in the system. Learn how your time management system works, learn its features, and then use them.”
Shattuck says the future of cloud-based systems will focus on increased automation and customer-client relationship management features. “Now is the best time to consider switching from a paper-based to cloud-based systems. In addition to reaping the current benefits of cloud-based systems, your firm will be strategically positioned prior to future advancements.”
Cloud-based systems improve the efficiencies of law firms that use the systems to their fullest extent. As Shattuck says, “The residual effect is more time for billing and better organization of matters, all of which help decrease missed deadlines and improve client communications.”
He adds that if you are considering making the switch, contact the Practice411 program for a no-cost confidential consultation.