Earlier this week on the JD Hacker blog, Will Geer posted "Do You Really Need Practice Management Software?" His answer was no, but I'm not so sure - I think his post missed some of the big reasons to have practice management software.
Geer opines that most lawyers purchase practice management software for document management, but that this is a 'ridiculous' reason for making this purchase. He sets out a system for storing documents in your operating system, which is the default method for most solos and small law firms (and even some mid-sized firms). He goes on to describe this system, complete with folders for each client and subfolders for individual document types, as well as his naming system for those folders.
While this system sounds logical and can work for a while, as a practical matter, it has a number of pitfalls which I have, unfortunately, witnessed first-hand both in the law firms I worked in as an associate and as a partner, but also in the law firms I work with as a consultant.
First, creating a file folder for each client makes sense, it doesn't help if you have a number of different matters for the same client. Geer suggests that this is easily solved by naming the folders with the full name of the engagement, but this can also get confusing, and as your client base and the number of engagements with your office grows, you'll find that duplicates and other complications often arise. What happens if you have a practice in which you have a large number of cases with a particular client (for example, if you do insurance coverage work or all of the litigation for a particular company)? Long folder names can get cumbersome quickly.
Geer next suggests creating subfolders within each client's file for managing documents, and suggests folder names such as "pleadings, discovery, client communication, correspondence, documents and trial." But these categories are open for broad interpretation. Does a letter to a client go in correspondence or client communication? If you're in New York, does the bill of particulars get filed under pleadings or discovery? Does a witness statement get filed in documents or trial? If it is exchanged by another party during discovery, does it get filed under discovery? If a piece of correspondence addresses discovery issues, is it filed under correspondence or discovery?
While some of these issues can be resolved by creating rules within your office for electronic filing of documents, even those rules can get out of hand, and no set of rules will be able to account for every single document created or received in your practice.
Practice management software eliminates many of these headaches because the documents can be categorized as above (and multiple categories can be assigned to a single document), but search and retrieval of documents is much easier.
With regard to naming of documents, I am often baffled by lawyers who insist on saving documents and naming them using the date. Your operating system allows you to sort documents by date regardless of how they are named, so naming them using the date is not only redundant, but is another area open for error because many will forget to use the necessary zeros, causing documents to be out of order anyway. And all of those numbers before the name of the document makes scanning through a document list for a particular document type or name difficult.
Filing documents by file type also isn't necessarily productive or helpful - should it matter whether a document is a pdf or a word file in most instances? When you are searching for a particular document, is its format most important? Consider naming documents using criteria that you would use most often to search for them, or names that give you some idea of the substance of the document itself, to make the document easier to identify during your search.
If you are filing documents in client subfolders, it is also not necessary to include the name of the client in the file name - the document is already stored in that client's folder. The longer the file name, the more confusing it is and the less likely it is that you'll be able to see the entire name on your screen in some formats. Easy and simple but descriptive should be the order of the day. You should name documents in a way that allows you to tell at a glance what the document contains so that you dont' have to open multiple documents to find what you are looking for. While it is true that each operating system has its own search function, many of these search functions are not as robust as those that are made a part of practice management software packages.
Another big advantage of practice management software is its ability to link clients with matters and documents with clients or matters. You can easily see what work has been done for a particular client across multiple files, and any document created on a particular file is also linked to that client and contact - along with to-dos or tasks for that client and upcoming dates or calendar entries. This is a big advantage when communicating with clients, because you have all of the information at your fingertips, without having to search several different applications (Word processing, email, calendar, etc.) and individual client matters for information - you can get it all through the client interface.
Practice managemetn software also is a huge time saver when a client's information changes. Instead of having to go into each file separately to note an address change, a contact name change, telephone number change, etc., the change can be made once in the client's information screen and it will automatically be applied to each of that client's matters. Over and over I have seen law firms struggle with address, telephone number or contact person name changes where files and information are stored in individual file folders because lawyers and staff either are not informed of the change or they forget to make the change in each individual file.
Conflicts are another area of concern that can be addressed with practice management software. While it may be easy to determine whether you've ever represented a particular party before, it may not be as easy to determine whether you represented another party (such as a codefendant) with adverse interests without a robust database of information.
Practice management programs integrated with time and billing programs can help you not only create and assemble documents using information stored in the system (rather than constantly re-typing the same information over and over), but can help you track and bill your time for those activities as they're being performed (if you must bill hourly).
Is practice management software an absolute must? Probably not, but the advantages in productivity and efficiency and the time and effort it saves is well worth it - especially if you're not a true solo and you need to share information with staff and other attorneys.