We need to talk about case management

Let us start on the same page as there is sometimes confusion whenever the term ‘case management’ is mentioned. It can mean very different things depending on your background and perspective.

Sometimes, a lawyer’s first thought when case management is mentioned is a strict workflow process that controls your every move during a legal matter. This tends to be the approach applied by law firms who handle high volume work with less experienced staff.

Conversely, to an IT team, case management may mean a free-form development toolkit to create whatever processes suit. The reality is usually somewhere in between. There are options available at both ends of this scale, from free-form to complete out-of-the-box workflows, forms and documents.

Case management can be applied to a legal matter as a more relaxed framework to capture key data and guide the end-user through common milestones. It will be designed by work type and will include critical date reminders, alerts and escalations. The term ‘matter management’ is commonly used to describe a work-flowed file opening procedure to capture key client and matter data, conduct an anti money laundering (AML) process, drive key dates and pull in standard documentation (with hopefully as little re-keying of data as possible).

Alternatively, checks such as client ID and AML can be carried out as part of a file opening/inception procedure before any meaningful lawyering is started. Data can flow in either direction from PMS to CMS, or CMS to PMS, or commonly in one integrated solution.

SME firms don’t generally buy stand-alone matter management solutions, it is either the built-in workflow element of your practice management system or how a case management system is applied that makes the difference between loose or tightly restricted actions.

Why do law firms invest in case management?

The unifying business driver of any case management purchase is to reduce risk and improve efficiency (therefore driving down the cost of delivery and improving profitability).

A key benefit to an efficiently implemented solution is having just one version of the truth encompassing all data, documents and client reporting for you, your team and supervisor.

The transparency afforded by a well-designed and properly-used case management system is essential for firm-level risk management. Sadly, well-designed systems can be badly used due to problems with the project, training or even just cultural problems that affect the user-adoption. Transparency and supervision aspects of a good system have become even more important to support the sector’s increase in working from home.

It is also the supporting pillar to delivering a more responsive customer service, offering the ability to quickly retrieve pertinent case history and next actions and to really work as a team.

Let much teeth gnashing and eye rolling ensue

The question, ‘how is your case management system working for you’? often prompts much teeth gnashing or at the very least some eye rolling from Partners and end users alike.

So, why does this happen?

There are a variety of common issues we see with the choices, implementation and ongoing maintenance of case management systems. The biggest issue is that firms have been sold a dream. A technology silver bullet that never really existed.

The toolkit case management systems require an investment of time and resource for sufficient tailoring to your processes and documents even if you start with a work-type specific framework. No system is ever going to be a 100% fit and it will require careful training and ongoing maintenance to ensure it is relevant to the legal and internal processes.

Dreams of building your own case management system?

If you opt to build your own workflows, you may find your lovely shiny new system on the scrapheap a short time later, unfortunately along with your staff’s enthusiasm for new IT. Building your own system, although of course bespoke to your firm, is a huge undertaking that requires not only expensive technical developer skills and time but also a senior lawyer’s involvement over the long term. And continued involvement as the law changes resulting in new processes, forms and documents.

If successful building a bespoke system, it would have been a central tenet to your IT strategy, well-funded over the long-term, and your firm is likely to have been highly focussed on one area of law and probably operate in a high-volume arena. Or you perhaps you are one of the newer ‘platform’ law firms which are actually hybrid tech/law firms where the whole delivery platform to manage the virtual team itself has become your IP. For most SME law firms however, this idea is a non-starter and should be approached with extreme caution.

What are the options for the typical SME law firm?

There are many different suppliers in the market, some with stand-alone systems that have a good pedigree in one or more areas of law. An all-in-one PMS/CMS system is a sensible option for an SME firm conducting a range of legal services. Many of the all-in-one systems now have a much-improved workflow offering covering the common high street matter types that benefit from legal workflows (Conveyancing, Wills, Probate, LPA’s, PI and some Family law).

Look for a good range of fully integrated documents and forms that are maintained for you and as much data integration from the matter inception stage to later case data as possible. You’ll need to strike a balance between flexibility and supervision, depending on your team’s experience. Above all the system should be there to help not hinder. Otherwise, the team will find a way to work around it, rendering the whole investment void.

Mind the gap!

A system might work well in the beginning (for some teams!) but the initial excitement quickly wears off and people naturally start picking and choosing the bits that what work for them, ignoring other parts of the system – potentially bypassing the risk management and efficiency benefits that were the driver for the board to invest.

It is a rare firm that is making the most of their investment in existing IT. Once the day job takes over it is also difficult to keep up with new features and functions that are released automatically in the case of the software-as-a-service (SaaS) systems or as regular technical upgrades covered under an annual maintenance fee.

What happens then is a gradual widening of the gap between IT and practical application. The gap is often mirrored in employees’ waning engagement with the technology itself. Work-arounds and complaints about the IT systems are symptoms, not the root causes.

If staff dis-engagement and inefficiency are the symptoms, what’s the cure?

If staff dis-engagement and inefficiency are the symptoms, what’s the cure?

Most law firms have experienced a combination of all of the above issues with their technology. Some firms have learnt that early engagement with end users is essential to implementing solutions that work for them, and to winning hearts and minds to help get over the inevitable learning curve with any new IT.

With most resources in a law firm 100% engaged in delivering the day-to-day legal work, there is just no capacity for really good change management either. Put together with the widening gap between system and real-life requirements, a deluge of new functions from software suppliers and the lure of shiny new technology offerings promising to fix everyone’s problems and make tea at the same time, it is very easy to see how SME law firms can make costly investments into technology that rarely deliver. It is disappointing to visit a firm that has invested in IT but where end users are now are jaded and sceptical that PMS or CMS can ever make a useful impact on their working life.

Making ‘IT’ work for your firm

It doesn’t have to be this way! I help law firms unpick what they really need to make an impact on efficiency and case management, looking to existing systems first to realise a return that has not delivered to date or finding new technology to do the job. Most importantly I don’t stop there. The expert work is yet to come and it is these essential steps that determine success or failure. Read more here on ‘how I work’. My core message is that making technology work for any organisation is a specialist skill and not just a technical skill. It is a bespoke combination of needs or process analysis, change and project management, communications and IT skills.

To put all of this together in a way that is custom made to the exact needs of a law firm is a complex. Bringing in expert external assistance on a project basis makes sense for busy organisations. As a Freelance IT / Technology Director, I will work to understand your business and exactly what you need from your case management system.

How can I help?

Many firms either have an issue with their existing case management, or need to decide on whether they should be selecting a new case management system. The key to any project is to ensure you are heading in the right direction and making the right choices (stay and optimise existing, or replace and select new).  

If you are facing challenges in this area, I would be happy to arrange an initial (no obligation) call. I am always looking to understand challenges faced by law firms in relation to IT and Technology. We can review what you are looking to achieve and I would be happy to provide some headline information on how best to approach this and share information about how I might be able to help. 

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