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From programs dealing with discovery, such as Easy Bates, to trial presentation software, such as Sanction, there are a number of resources available to help build your case and expand your organization. As the case progresses, it is our job as paralegals to assist the attorneys in “building” the case which will be presented at trial. Assume that every case will go to trial and you will be prepared and fully organized. This can be done by a number of methods, including the hard file, scanning documents into an electronic file, or utilizing legal software such as Time Matters, Summation, Concordance or Case Map.
It is important that you know what is in your file and its purpose. Often firms use bates stamping in the early stages and throughout litigation as an effective way of determining that you are, in fact, referring to the same article as opposing counsel, a witness, or your client. This technology can be used alone or in conjunction with case management software. Although you are not expected to know every fact of a case, you should know how to locate it, quickly and efficiently, for your attorney. Case management software will assist you in meeting that goal. Whether you choose a specialized database such as Time Matters, Summation, or Case Map, or decide to develop your own legal database, there are several things that you need to consider. The first thing you need to decide is what kind of information you want to put into your database. This is often predetermined by the types of cases you handle, the type of firm you work for, and the personalities of the attorneys who employ you. Larger firms may use more sophisticated, expensive database systems, while sole practitioners tend to use their own database, or a more economical solution, such as Microsoft Outlook or Microsoft Access, which can be customized to fit their needs at lower costs. There are pros and cons to both systems. For instance, Microsoft Access may be more economical; however, you may get better networking and calendar synchronization from a specialized database. If you work for a defense firm, you may desire different types of information in your database than if you work for a plaintiff’s firm. Additionally, if you do real estate law, bankruptcy law, or probate law, you will need entirely different information in your database. Some information will be standard regardless of the type of cases you handle. Basic client information, such as name, address, phone, facsimile, e-mail, web addresses, spouse and children, date of birth, and social security numbers are basic information that generally will be useful no matter what type of law you practice.
You will build your database based upon the type of case you are working on and the issues of that case. Ask yourself, what do I need to prove? The elements of the issues will tell you what types of things you wish to include in your database. Remember to include the five W’s of investigation: Who, What, When, Where and Why. These basic facts will help you build a case skeleton which will give you a basis on which to add to your database. As you continue to build your database, you will find additional items crucial to keeping on top of your caseload. As you continue to work your cases, you will ultimately find more and more items of interest to include in your database. You may then add to your system until you find the database that serves your needs. It is best to build your database based upon the information that you obtain at your first meeting, and expand upon that information.
Consider what you want to accomplish with your database. There are several purposes for having a legal database. Obviously, the most important reason is to manage your cases and documents more efficiently, so you can spend less time on administrative tasks and more time with your clients. Secondly, a database affords the entire firm the opportunity to view the same information on any given case at the same time. You will also use your database to more efficiently track your time on a case, synchronize calendars, and generate reports to further accelerate workflow. Lastly, databases offer more eyes on the same case, thereby decreasing the potential of a mistake or overlooking the essential actions needed on a case or project.
Databases also provide for cost savings and preservation of human resources for tasks that were once performed manually. For instance, an attorney can now go directly to the database to obtain information he or she may once have asked a staff person to pull the file and find, thereby saving the firm time and money. It is for this reason that you will want to choose a system that has a keyword search and indexing. Many databases also offer options in which you can create documents by mail merge or the simple merging of forms and address links. You can find various options for bankruptcy, real estate closing, and probate software at www.lawfirmsoftware.com. You can find additional software resources at: www.alphalegal.com/softrev.htm.
It is crucial to do research before you purchase a database program. Many of these programs have trial downloads so you can review the program prior to purchase. You may also want to do your own local research by checking with other firms in your area or practice or in your geographical locale which use the program you are reviewing. It is helpful to have a local “go to” person once you implement a new database. When you purchase, you will want to ask about training and software support. Some programs only offer a limited number of service calls or a limited service period without a service contract. It is for this reason that having a local “go to” person is invaluable. Ask the provider if the software is compatible with the other programs you use, such as Microsoft Office or WordPerfect. You will also want to know if the software will synchronize with your mobile options in the firm. Do you or the attorneys use a Blackberry, Treo, Q, Palm Pilot, or other mobile device and how does that work with your calendaring system?
Read the small print and know the details regarding your software contract. Many systems appear affordable at first glance; however have “options” that increase the cost significantly; i.e., additional user license fees, spelling dictionaries, integration modules, document assembly fees, network modules, etc. Know exactly what you are getting and the exact price you will pay for it. Should your firm decide that they cannot afford or will not consider a specialized database system, you should still use what you have available to you, including your word processing system, spreadsheets, and your e-mail programs. Microsoft Office provides a good group of programs in which you can organize your case documents by detailed data files, spreadsheets, and charts.
There are many options for case management databases; however, it is not possible to say which program is the best. Each firm has to weigh the variables and decide which is best for the entire firm, including how useful the software will be, the operating system (Windows or Macintosh), availability of local support, and their willingness to invest the time and money into training, new software, and equipment necessary to build a successful database program.
Automated document management systems offer a lot of benefits to a law firm. The most obvious is the time savings of not having to search for paper documents, or even for the actual paper file if your document management system is being used effectively with scanning and electronic organization. There is the opportunity for cost savings, as well. If it takes a $20.00 per hour employee five minutes to locate and act on a file, refile it, and return to his or her desk, that will cost the firm $1.67 per file. At just four files per day, that’s over 86 hours per year spent filing, which equates to approximately $1,700.00 in wages. A system that lets employees find and work with these documents without ever leaving their desk can instantly slash those costs and increase the productivity of the firm at the same time.
A document management system can also eliminate the time it would take to recreate a lost document. A lost document costs productivity, time, and money. Imagine the cost to your firm for losing a medical exhibit. Not only do you have monetary costs, but the embarrassment of having to call the physician’s office or opposing counsel for an additional copy of the document.
Automated document management systems also provide additional process consistency. Different people have different ideas about what makes for a successful process in a firm. If your firm’s document handling process is well defined, a document management system will make sure the process is followed, as well as provide an access trail to show who has worked on the document and when.
Document management systems also provide a back-up to the paper file, which can include off-site data backup to ensure that natural disasters, such as a fire, flood, or theft won’t cripple the firm.
Whatever document management system you choose, you should begin your document management at the beginning of the case and consistently add information to both your database and your paper file. As additional information comes in, scan it and add it to the file. If your electronic file becomes document intensive, add additional folders to your data processing organization. You may choose to begin with correspondence, pleadings and medical as basic files in a personal injury case. As the case progresses, you may choose to increase folders to include investigation, photographs, wage loss, experts, and exhibits. You may also wish to incorporate a document imaging system to help you convert paper records into electronic files, while incorporating your document management software to organize your deadlines and calendar. Document imaging requires software and hardware for scanning and indexing of paper documents. Use your document management software to capture your e-mail and web content. You may choose to back up your document management software with your word processing and spreadsheet software for added security. Remember, proper preparation and case management strategies facilitate successful trials and increase your value and experience as a paralegal.
About the Author
Christi Koch received her Paralegal degree in 1991. She is a trial paralegal, specializing in personal injury litigation. She also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Management and is a National Dean’s List Scholar. Christi is an Advanced Certified Paralegal in Trial Practice and joined the firm of Inserra & Kelley in 2002. She is a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants, the Nebraska Association of Legal Assistants, and a paralegal affiliate of the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America). She is originally from Orchard, Nebraska, and has been working in the legal field for over 19 years.