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As everyone knows, today’s highest tech is tomorrow’s quaint anachronism. While quaint might be fine in the antiques business, it can be fatal in the mobile, modern law practice. Law firms, small and large, need to systematically evaluate how they manage information and work flow in light of ever-changing technology. Firms that “make do” without or continue to rely on case management systems that are disjointed, antiquated, underpowered, and tethered to a physical location face the prospect of being left behind as the world moves to a paperless, wireless environment. A fully integrated mobile case management system should support calendaring, task management, e-mail, contacts management, document assembly, document management, case information, financial information, forms generation, and time and billing from both remote and office locations. To effectively manage the firm and not just the case, consider a system that has financial management integrated with case management. Other components of an effective case management system include: • One-time data entry with immediate availability across the entire system. • Ease of use. • Training after installation and ongoing training support. • Technical support before and after installation. • Interface for e-mail, contacts, and calendar that works with existing e-mail system. • Advice on hardware and communication needs. • Regular upgrades without downtime, new software, or new equipment. • Reliability. • Flexibility. • Portability (use in remote locations). • Customization. While price is always an issue, the overwhelming considerations should be functionality, efficiency, and effectiveness. The law firm with effective case management will see information flow effortlessly throughout the firm. One-time entry of information combined with remote and local access to documents mean less wasted time and greater job satisfaction. Attorneys can devote more time and energy to their clients and less time to finding documents or finding staff to find documents or having documents delivered to them. Firms first started to use case management software in the mid-1980s. The fundamental attraction, then as now, remains the same. Law firms thought that going to case management software would result in higher profitability due in part to a reduction of previously wasted nonbillable time looking for case information. With less money spent on clerical staff, partner profits would increase. Firms also hoped to increase client satisfaction by improving their ability to respond to client inquiries. Other attractions included having one integrated system to handle all case-related facts, data, events, and information. The result? Reduced aggravation and an increase in the perceived quality of life for lawyers and staff. Early offerings were often adaptations of software designed for some other purpose, new programs rushed to release, stand-alone pieces that still required multiple entry of data and did not “talk” to other components, or all of the above. The companies that endured and continue to thrive in the case management arena are those able to efficiently support the real, day-to-day work flow of law firms. They developed software that integrated information into the work flow, and were able to create and update cost-effective systems of case management that evolved with the law firm. Integrating life-cycle management of information is one of the latest challenges for case management software, including the need to produce and manage electronic data during discovery, comply with government regulations, and safeguard and recover information in electronic data vaults. A law firm that wants to use its technology dollars to maximize productivity while minimizing costs will start with a systematic, realistic analysis of its current work-flow practices and needs, followed by a discussion among all stakeholders on where the firm is heading. But it is essential to not get caught up in the latest hype and invest in, for example, wearable computers because they are so cool. Once the “must haves” are separated from the “would be nice” features, the firm can readily see whether or not its current case management system is adequate and decide whether it needs to implement an all-new case system or upgrade or change its current software and work-flow process. In either event, it is critical that the people — attorneys and staff — who actually use the technology are directly and meaningfully involved every step of the way. Obviously, where a firm has its own IT staff, they should also be included in the process, but the main focus must be on what the firm needs. An in-house IT staff might not be the best source for unbiased analysis and advice. They might be too invested in the status quo, or so busy dealing with day-to-day administration that they have not had the time to keep up with the latest technology, or simply too enamored with technology for its own sake. Consider an outside consultant, or the firm could talk to various vendors of case management systems. Vendors are obviously self-interested, but they can also be an inexpensive way to determine the current and future state of case management technology while at the same time allowing the firm to “vet” potential providers if it decides to implement or upgrade its current case management system. The first requirement for any modern case management system is that it be integrated at the most basic level so that all parts flow from a common source. Case management that is based on separate pieces of software that work together or operate under a more or less common interface may look integrated, but in reality, such fragmented systems are vulnerable. All it takes is for one vendor to upgrade without coordinating with the others, or to drop the program from its product line, and the firm could be facing a crippled system and a support nightmare. The reality is that a law firm might need applications not available from a single vendor. In those situations, the firm should make sure that the primary case management provider has a history of successfully integrating with other software systems. The best case management system for the modern, mobile law firm frees the firm from its physical location and supports the transparent flow of information and work product from any location, at any time. The technology that supports this anywhere, anytime case management starts with the servers and network. Large firms with many users in multiple locations accessing information and updating its case management system will need the power of an industry-standard RDBMS, or Relational Database Management System. Options include the MS SQL 2000 server or Oracle. Smaller firms can have the same features and functionality using database servers such as Microsoft Developer Edition (MSDE) technology or MYSQL. An innovative foundation is required for seamless integration linking information, people, systems, and devices. This foundation is based on a flexible information infrastructure that connects back-end data, including legacy information, with front-end systems to create a seamless whole, thereby enabling new levels of software integration. XML Web services support this integration via discrete, building-block applications that connect to each other — as well as to other, larger applications — via the Internet or wireless devices. Providers include Microsoft with its .NET technologies as well as vendors of such Java-based solutions as Sun Microsystems, IBM, and others. In addition, there are wireless applications that allow the mobile legal professional to work without a net. A case management system integrated with a Tablet PC using Microsoft’s .NET technology provides direct handwriting recognition. Working with a pen rather than a keyboard, attorneys and staff can fill out matter intake forms, add handwritten notes and drawings, and conduct interviews from any location. Once the user returns to the office, this information is automatically synchronized back into the case management system. For added versatility a handheld device like a Palm can be used to access case management information. In addition, wireless devices that are continuously connected are becoming more widely accepted, giving users up-to-the-minute access to their calendars, contact lists, and tasks. Law firms are also moving to a paperless office, with an increasing emphasis on remote, digital data storage for both daily operations and archival backup. In the case management arena, law firms should take advantage of systems that support the latest innovations in document imaging and sharing. There are systems available that allow users to scan and quickly profile documents for multiple matters, collaborate on scanned documents, and export multiple individual scanned pages into a single multi-page .TIF document. A sophisticated imaging system replaces older technology that required multiple steps, did not allow collaboration, and generally did not support the need of all law firms to streamline work flow and increase productivity. As e-filing moves closer to a practical reality, an entire case could be handled start to finish without generating a single piece of paper. The paperless office not only saves money, it ensures that documents are available 365/24/7 from anywhere, facilitates compliance with discovery requests, and protects vital firm information from damage or destruction. In this day and age, law firms have to consider what would happen if their physical location was unavailable or destroyed by a natural or man-made disaster. Tape backup as the primary archival technology is giving way to outsourced automatic backing up of data remotely over the Internet throughout the day, with the data stored on huge servers off-site. In the event of a catastrophe, the firm’s data can be quickly restored to a new server at a new location. A virtual office that archives the firm’s information and supports all its applications, including case management, not only gives the firm the ultimate in mobility, but also assures business continuity by allowing a firm to operate from remote locations. While evaluating the technology that unplugs case management from the physical office, firms need to also look at the systems that protect the security and integrity of the underlying information. The days are long past when law firms could adopt technology at their own leisurely pace. A competitive modern law practice will regularly and systematically question the effectiveness of its current case management system and will aggressively move to whatever system offers them the greatest efficiency, capabilities, and mobility. The firm that sits still risks being left behind. M. “Whit” McIsaac is president and CEO of Client Profiles™, a provider of innovative case and financial management solutions for the legal profession. In his 20-plus years in the field, McIsaac has helped more than 2,000 law firms implement case management and time and billing solutions. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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