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The value of matter management


As legal professionals, we understand the importance of managing our matters. Several rules of professional conduct emphasize that point.

By: Jeffrey Schoenberger

As legal professionals, we understand the importance of managing our matters. Several rules of professional conduct emphasize that point.

·         Rule 4-1.1 (Competence) requires that we represent clients with reasonable “knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation.”

·         Rule 4-1.3 (Diligence) obligates us to act with “diligence and promptness” in our representations.

·         We find similar “quality of service” duties in 4-1.4 (Communication), 4-1.6 (Confidentiality of Information), and whenever issues of client funds or property arise.

Some technologies immediately and obviously improve our abilities to meet these obligations. Text messaging and email, and previously voicemail and faxes, let us communicate with clients without being instantly available. QuickBooks, Xero, and other computerized accounting systems, track client funds far better than ledger books. Modern computer file storage and transfer services make exchanging encrypted documents simple and secure.

One similar breakthrough technology that many smaller firms, especially solo attorneys, neglect is a matter management program. Often, firms lack these programs because they think matter management programs duplicate existing functions. A lawyer may reason, “I already have Outlook (or Google) for email, calendar, and contacts. I have Dropbox for documents. I use LawPay for credit cards and QuickBooks for billing and accounting. What does matter management add?”

It’s a reasonable question. What matter management brings is the notion of a central repository for all case information. Matter management software, also called practice management software, knows how legal professionals organize their work. In the example quoted above, if the lawyer wanted to know the history or current status of a matter, for example, Smith v. Jones, that lawyer has to check a minimum of four programs (Outlook, Dropbox, LawPay, and QuickBooks):

·  When did I last talk to the client? I have to check Outlook email, or calendar, or notes in a document in Dropbox if it’s an unexpected phone call.

·   Did we receive a signed engagement agreement, or did the client send us the discovery responses? I have to check email and Dropbox.

·    Did the client pay his bill? I have to check LawPay. I might also need to determine if I invoiced the client, so he has a bill to pay. That may be in LawPay or QuickBooks.

·    What is my firm’s financial health? That could be a combination of a client list (Outlook contacts or emails), accounts receivable (LawPay and QuickBooks), and accounts payable (QuickBooks).

For a true solo practitioner, the above setup may work. Your brain acts as the nerve center connecting these discrete tools under the umbrella of Smith v. Jones. But simply adding an assistant or paralegal scales the complexity. Suppose the assistant or paralegal lacks full access to your email and firm financials, which is understandable. In that case, they’re probably missing important information, even if it’s only documents you neglected to save from email to Dropbox. Adding more employees worsens this problem. And, for the true solos, providing competent, diligent representation includes planning for the possibility of your incapacitation. However, temporarily, someone may need to step in to protect your clients’ interests. A centralized, understandable information system helps immensely.

Practice management software gives you the 10,000-foot view of your matters, easily shares that data with other firm employees, and often “talks” to what you already use, so there’s little double-entry of information.

All practice management programs handle core features of matter details, contact information, and some form of document storage. Several integrate with email accounts; more with Microsoft 365 than Google. Many integrate with existing cloud-based document storage, like Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive. A few programs include their own accounting package, while many work with QuickBooks or Xero.

As a bar member, you have discounted access to several top matter management programs. I suggest using a web-based program if you’re starting fresh on the topic. View the Practice Management Feature Considerations and Practice Management (Cloud-Based) Comparison Chart to learn about vendors and features. Also, the Lawyerist website has product reviews from legal tech experts and everyday users. When you’re ready for demos, the Evaluation Scorecard helps you take notes and track which program does what well for your firm. Finally, when it’s time to move to a practice management system, keep these considerations in mind.