Law firms often underestimate what it takes to implement
a computerized case management system (CMS). There is
a significant investment in dollars and time required.
If properly implemented, the payback and return on investment
can be enormous. However, not all firms are successful
in their CMS implementations. What do you do if, for some
reason or another, the system doesn’t seem to be
a match for your firm? It could be a variety of reasons,
but have you exhausted all your resources before you make
a decision to trash the system? The purpose of this article
is to help you explore some of the reasons why you and
your CMS may not play well together and to try to help
you determine the right path to follow.
of Case Management Systems
Case Management Systems (CMSs), like most any other
software application, come in a variety of flavors.
CMS developers don’t like me to say this, but
most tend to agree with me: under the hood, most CMSs
provide the same basic functionality. Here’s a
brief description of the main functions found within
most case management systems:
- Rolodex or Contact Database –
storage for basic contact information about clients,
opposing counsel, judges, and other interested parties.
You’ll only need enter this information once;
it’s shared elsewhere throughout the case management
system. Most CMSs also have a note pad associated
with each contact in the rolodex. If you need to enter
notes about a particular interested party, you’d
do it here.
- Calendar system – the calendar
can be either appointment, rules-based, or both. A
rules-based calendar allows you to define a set of
“rules,” based on a key date, such as
a trial. Typically, you’ll have four or five
events associated with the key date. Apply the rule
and the CMS will automatically populate the calendar
with the correct dates, including calculating for
holidays and weekends. If the trial is postponed,
simply move the key date and all other events are
automatically repopulated in the calendar. Almost
all CMSs integrate with Microsoft Outlook, and many
integrate with Novell GroupWise.
- Case Database – storage
for all information about the case or matter. Client
and other contact information was already entered
into the Rolodex; if you use an expert witness (who
is already in the Rolodex), you’ll simply link
that expert here – no more double entry of data.
You’d link opposing counsel, judges, and any
other interested parties associated with the case.
- Case Notes or Case Diary –
storage for “memos to the file,” telephone
notes, and any other free form information about the
case. Basically, anyone working on the case or matter
can track the case in the Case Notes.
- Document Assembly – the
biggest time saver of all; using the information already
entered into the Rolodex and the Case Database, you
can merge this information directly into your standard
Microsoft Word and/or Corel WordPerfect boilerplate
- Reports – either ad hoc
queries to quickly look up information or standard
that are run on a periodic basis. In addition, these
products should integrate into your exiting environment.
In other words, whether you use Microsoft Word or
Corel WordPerfect the information in the CMS should
merge into these boilerplate documents. If you use
Microsoft Outlook (or in some cases, Novell GroupWise),
the CMS Calendar and the Rolodex should synchronize
bidirectionally. Your existing document management
system (Hummingbird DOCS, iManage, or WORLDOX) should
also integrate with the CMS.
General Purpose Case Management Systems
There are more general purpose case management systems
in the market than substantive case management systems.
Most of these systems provide capabilities for the law
firm or law department to customize (or configure) the
system for their particular needs. In other words, these
systems allow the data input screens, document assembly,
calendar, and reports to be configured for the firm.
Oftentimes, law firms with multiple departments may
choose one case management system and customize it to
all (or most) of their different practice areas.
Substantive Case Management Systems
There are specific case management systems for substantive
areas of law, such as Intellectual Property, Immigration
Law, Real Estate Closing, Bankruptcy, and Foreclosure,
to name a few. These types of case management systems
are designed specifically for these practice areas and
would be difficult to configure for other practice areas.
In the same sense, these types of CMSs provide functionality
for the particular area of practice that may not be
able to be duplicated by a general purpose CMS.
In short, you may be able to customize a general purpose
CMS for a substantive practice area, but you probably
won’t be able to customize a substantive CMS for
another substantive practice area.
Questions You Need to Ask
First of all, recognize you and your firm know a lot
more about case management systems now than before this
implementation. It’s an evolving educational process
– the more you use the system, the more you learn
about its capabilities. Face it, no two law firms practice
law the same way, so how do you get an off-the-shelf
computerized case system to work just the way you want
to? “Finding middle ground” between how
the system works and how your firm practices law is
one key to success. Those firms who have never used
a case management system before often find themselves
in a bind because they know the system can help make
them more efficient, but it’s hard to change
the way they practice law. The larger the firm, the
higher the wall to climb. Why? Because there is an ingrained
culture in all law firms; it seems to be more prevalent
in larger firms. But, if you implement the system correctly,
over a period of time and not try to roll it out all
at once, you’ll have a higher success rate.
Now, before you decide the case management system is
not working for your firm, let’s ponder a few
questions. Keep in mind, I’ve been working with
hundreds of law firms over my fifteen years of consulting
and have pretty much seen it all. What works in one
firm may not work in another; that’s why it’s
important to ask these questions of your firm, not someone
else’s. I’ve categorized these questions
into three areas: Ownership, Implementation, and Training.
Who within the firm is in charge of the project?
Do you have an internal project manager or did
you leave the project management entirely up to the
developer? If you’re using an internal project
manager, is it someone who has the knowledge of implementation,
the respect of the firm, and the time to do it right?
I’ve seen law firms who appoint the technology
partner to this task. While that might seem like the
right choice, does this partner have the time to devote
to the project, in addition to other assigned duties?
Keep in mind that the beginning of the project requires
the most time in order to get the project going in the
right direction, making sure the developer follows the
project plan, and ensuring the firm’s resources
are devoted to the project. If you don’t have
an internal project manager and leave everything up
to the developer, you are only asking for trouble down
the line. While the developer and/or the consultant
get the system installed and working, they are not going
to be living with the system night and day, week in
and week out. There is no ownership on the part of the
developer. They won’t be able to spend time with
attorneys and staff understanding their personalities
and work habits and encourage them to embrace this new
Does the firm have a CMS Administrator? Having
an internal person devoted to administering the case
management system is vital in all CMS implementations.
This person will not only help with training (or is
the trainer), but will also help with the customization
of the system, building the document assembly portion,
designing the reports, and, most important, the “go
to” person for any CMS-related issues. Again,
the beginning of the project requires the most time.
After the system is rolled out and all users trained,
there will still be some activities requiring a person
knowledgeable with the inner workings of the CMS, but
it may not require a full-time person.
Was the CMS implemented properly? Was the
project rolled out in phases? Implementing a CMS is
not an overnight project. It takes time and patience,
since it significantly changes the way attorneys and
staff handle data and information. Most CMS developers
utilize a project management checklist. This helps to
determine what happens when, who is responsible for
what, and milestone checks along the way.
Depending upon the size of the firm, the number of
staff as well as the number of offices, most developers
will roll out the CMS to a pilot test group first. The
main purpose of the pilot test is to roll out the system
to a small group, implement the system into the firm,
and determine how the system will work within the firm.
For example, the pilot group may begin by entering Rolodex
and Contact data first. During this initial phase of
the pilot test, the group may determine some of the
data fields may need to be changed in order to accommodate
a more efficient method of creating new cases. The pilot
group is typically made up of a variety of users throughout
The pilot group not only works with the software, but
the software works with the pilot group. During this
time, the project will help uncover any nuances in the
use of the software within the firm.
Communication with the firm’s members?
It’s rare when a law firm rolls out a new software
application and everyone within the firm doesn’t
hear about it. The question that everyone in the firm
will ask is, “How will this software effect me?”
There’s nothing wrong with that question. In fact,
I encourage everyone to ask the question because the
firm needs to be able to provide the answer. Will the
software make the firm more efficient or save the firm
money? It better, or heads will roll.
You need to communicate to everyone in the firm why
the firm is implementing case
management. It may be more work up front for some people,
but the end result is that the firm begins to standardize
on areas of case management which may mean
efficiencies in other areas of the firm. I’ve
heard legal assistants talk in low tones, “I certainly
hope this system is making upper level management more
efficient, because it’s surely more work for me.”
That may be true for a particular function, such as
rolodex entry. But, in some firms, while that legal
assistant doesn’t see it, someone else has been
typing up twenty sets of rolodex cards for each attorney
in the firm to have a complete paper rolodex system.
Like I said, efficiencies in other areas.
Communicate these messages to your firm – help
them to understand the reasoning behind these choices.
Equally important is to communicate to your staff when
they may feel the impact. Larger firms will roll out
these systems in phases, typically based on geographic
location or practice area. Let your attorneys and staff
know when it will be implemented in their area. Try
to adjust workloads during the implementation and give
your attorneys and staff time to learn the new system.
Do you have enough horsepower behind the software?
Case management systems require a lot of horsepower
and, depending a lot of other factors, you may not have
the performance you used to have before installing the
CMS. You need to evaluate the total system
requirements of your firm, not just case management.
The more applications your firm uses and the more people
using them, the more horsepower you need. Often, integrators
will “balance” servers, meaning they’ll
determine the optimum server configurations for the
number of software applications you may have. For example,
Microsoft Exchange Server may reside on a server of
its own while the case management system may reside
on another server. This helps to increase performance
throughout the firm.
Are all programs totally integrated and working
together? You don’t just buy a case
management system and use it by itself; it integrates
with other applications, such as word processing, document
management, calendaring, and email (Microsoft Outlook,
Novell GroupWise). Each of the systems that integrate
with the CMS will also cause a change in the way people
work. Make sure they understand the impact and what
Did you try to implement too many applications
at the same time? I’ve worked with firms
that have insisted on making too many changes at one
time. For example, migrating from
WordPerfect to Word, migrating from GroupWise to Outlook,
and implementing a new case management system –
all at the same time. Besides losing several valuable
employees, the firm lost considerable time and money
with this implementation. They thought they’d
save time and money; what they failed to realize is
that the firm still had to work and bill time during
Phase your implementation over a logical and reasonable
time frame. If you’re going to convert from WordPerfect
to Word, do the conversion first. Dedicate the right
amount of resources to the project, use conversion software
if needed, and provide training and hand holding as
necessary. Do this correctly, and the CMS implementation
will be a lot easier with less resistance.
Training is the number one reason for successful case
management system implementations.
Lack of training is the number one reason for failed
case management system implementations. Did you
receive enough of the right training? In my fifteen
years of consulting experience, I’ve heard more
times than not of the difficulty of getting attorneys
to attend training. Equally dismal I’ve also heard
attorneys not letting their legal assistants
attend training because there was client work to complete.
Training must be part of the roll out. It must
be a top-down commitment, otherwise, everyone will look
for an excuse not to attend training.
Were you trained in the complete environment (case
management, word processing, document management, email)
or were you only trained in the case management system
environment? Most CMS developers will train you
only on their software. CMS integrators (consulting
and integration companies that implement the software
for the developer) will often provide training in the
complete environment. For example, if your firm is using
Microsoft Word, Microsoft Outlook, and iManage, the
CMS integrator will most likely provide training in
the total CMS environment, meaning you’ll
learn how to use the case management system with Microsoft
Word, Microsoft Outlook, and iManage. This is worth
the extra training and consulting, since it puts the
end users (your firm’s attorneys and staff) in
the complete environment.
So You Determined You’ve Made the Wrong Choice,
Admit it, but be positive. You’re not
the only firm who’s faced this dilemma. Besides,
you’re much more educated about what not to do
than before. Also, you’ll know what issues the
firm will face with the next implementation.
Do your homework. First and foremost, make
sure you’re purchasing the right case management
system. As indicated above, there are two basic types
of CMS: specialized and generalized. Research the Internet,
read the legal technology magazines, contact your state
bar association, or attend a legal technology conference.
Find out what’s out there and make the initial
inquiries. You should probably issue a Request for Information
(RFI) or Request for Proposal (RFP), get pricing and
configuration, and talk with the developers. It’s
a learning experience, but remember, you’ve been
through this once and your more CMS savvy than before.
Figure out what went wrong the first time and avoid
these costly mistakes the second time. You should
have a pretty good idea now of what not to do. Make
sure you convey to the CMS developer or integrator your
thoughts and feelings. Take a more active roll in the
planning and project management.
Make sure you communicate to the firm the plan
and stick with it. A good plan will certainly help
with processes and procedures, but what is more important,
it provides a checklist for what needs to get done and
when. Remember, the firm has responsibilities in the
implementation, just as the developer does. Make sure
you stick with the plan.
Andrew Z. Adkins III is the director
of the Legal Technology Institute at the University
of Florida Levin College of Law and author of Computerized
Case Management Systems: Choosing and Implementing
the Right Software for You, published by the
ABA Law Practice Management Section. He also maintains
a comprehensive case management system website with
listings of CMS developers, links to select CMS articles,
and detailed worksheets form CMS implementations.
He can be reached at 352-392-2278, email@example.com,