Choosing Case Management Software: Top Shopping Tips
by
Andrew Z. Adkins, III
Legal Technology Institute
at the University of Florida College of Law


Note: This article first appeared in Law Practice Management, March 2003

I've written articles and books on computerized case management systems and I continue to make presentations on the various aspects of case management system software. That's what I do - I'm a legal technology consultant and I think that every consultant that's worth a hill of beans should continuously publish articles and books and speak about their passion. After all, that's what part of their job is - to convey information to the very professional industry we serve.

I love this industry. It's continuously challenging. Every new consulting gig is like a new job, with new contacts and new friends. It doesn't matter if it's a law firm or a law department, a court or a law school, or a vendor looking to move into the legal industry. I love what I do and maybe that's what keeps me high on life. I love the fact that I can provide some solid advice to a law firm and a few months later get that phone call that says "thank you." Yes, I do get the other kinds of phone calls – but you tend to wade through them, get the focus back in where it belongs, and move on. Being a consultant to the legal industry is extremely rewarding – that keeps me here, just as it does many of my good consulting friends.

Most of my consulting centers around helping law firms understand where they are in their technology compared to other peer firms, making recommendations to not only improve their technology but also the use of their existing technology, and consulting specific to case management. I've noticed a trend the past couple of years that more firms are requesting assistance in computerized case management systems. That probably accounts for about half of my consulting engagements.

And, when I talk with my friends in the industry (consultants, lawyers, administrators, and software developers), they also comment their CMS consulting has picked up. So, I know I'm not alone. But what I have also noticed is that the trend is a slow ramp up. Recent legal profession surveys indicate that only about 1/3 of the legal profession is using some form of computerized case management system software (and we're not talking about Microsoft OutLook). Why the slow ramp up for an application that provides so much in return, I don't know.

Most of us agree that case management systems are in their third generation. Today, case management systems not only operate as stand-alone systems but they also integrate with both Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect as well as Microsoft OutLook and Novell GroupWise. On top of that, CMS systems also integrate with third-party document management systems, such as iManage, DOCS, and WORLDOX. Many also integrate with other financial management systems and they are becoming an essential software cornerstone for law firms looking to move into the knowledge management arena.

With so much that's out there, how does one go about finding CMS systems? There are more than 75 CMS systems on the market - about half are general purpose; the other half are unique to a particular practice area. There is no "Holy Grail" in computerized case management systems. You have to do your homework. There are a lot of good resources out there, including my Institute's own CMS site (www.law.ufl.edu/lti/CaseManagement).

I've put together a list of tips that may help you in your quest for case management. These are tips that I frequently share at conferences, presentations, and with my clients. I know most of the CMS developers in this industry. My job as a consultant and analyst is not to sell a particular CMS system over the other, but to help educate the legal profession on what case management can do for a law firm as well as what it can't do. My mission at the Legal Technology Institute is to push the legal profession in the adaptation of technology.


Adkins' Top 10 Tips on How to buy CMS Software

1. You are in charge – let the sales person know what type of practice and what type of firm. Give them enough details so they can customize the presentation for you. There are a lot of bells and whistles in all these systems, so concentrate on what's important to you. Your time is limited during the demo - make the most of it. If you are attending a trade show conference, plan on spending at least 20 - 30 minutes with the exhibitor.

2. One size does not fit all – some CMS sales reps will let you think that their system is the end-all do-all case management system. The old adage, "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't" is a good rule of thumb. Most CMS developers will tell you if their system is not a good fit, though it may be in a round-a-bout way. The last thing a good CMS developer wants to have is a bad fit and an unhappy customer. On the other hand, many of the higher end CMS systems can be customized for different practice groups; you can purchase one CMS system and customize it for each department, thereby using a single CMS system throughout the firm. Ask the sales rep the percentage of their company's total installations in small firms, mid-size firms, and large firms. That should be a good indication of the market segment where their product is used.

3. Ask the sales rep to demonstrate the five CMS "processes":

a. Create a new matter- how do you create a new matter or a new client? If the CMS system integrates with time & billing, how is that matter information shared?

b. Create a calendar entry - how do you create a calendar entry and tie it to the matter? Ask how it integrates with Microsoft OutLook and/or Novell GroupWise. Is the calendaring a two-way street - can you create an entry in OutLook or GroupWise and have it appear in the CMS calendar?

c. Generate a document - how do you automatically generate a document or a series of documents? Does the CMS integrate with both MS Word and Corel WP? Does the document generation process make an entry in the case diary? How does the document generation process work with document management systems (iManage, DOCS, WORLDOX)?

d. Case Diary or Case Notes - how does the case diary work? Are there any limitations? How do I know if my secretary enters information into the matter? Is there an automatic notification? What is automatically entered in the diary from the CMS?

e. Reports - how can I tell how far along this matter is? Is there a way to report the status of a case? Can you show a list of experts a firm has used for electronic data discovery (or something for which your firm uses experts)?

4. History - how long has the company been around? Generally speaking, the more installations a company has, the longer they've been around. But, there may be some companies that are spin offs or mergers; check the history. You don't necessarily want to be the first kid on the block to purchase and install the CMS software. As a consultant working with a law firm, if a company has at least 20 successful installations over the past year, then it's something I take into consideration. I don't speak for all consultants, but I may be a little more conservative than others.

5. Customization – who does it? All (repeat all) CMS systems are customizable to some extent. Most CMS systems provide for customization for Data Input screens, Document Generation system, Calendar/Tickler system, and Reports. How much is customizable and how difficult is the key. While this generation of CMS software is highly customizable, that usually spells "more complex." But, with proper training and support, most firms can take on this task and over a period of time, have a highly customized system that works for their firm, and not vice versa. It does takes commitment from the top.

6. Implementation – Once you purchase the system, what is the usual time it takes to completely roll out the system. Implementation is typically covered in several phases:

  • Installation on the server

  • Implementation into the existing environment (MS OutLook or Novell GroupWise integration, document management integration; time & billing integration

  • Customization at the desktop level (the Bankruptcy Practice Group will have a different input screen than the Litigation Practice Group)

  • Conversion of existing or legacy data

  • Training (end users as well as IT staff)

  • Support

It is not unusual for a mid-size firm to expect a two to three month implementation. If so, does this timing work for your firm? Larger firms with more practice groups, more lawyers, and more offices will obviously take longer to roll-out the product.

7. Experience in your practice – how many similar installations to your type of firm or law department? If you are a boutique firm and need a highly customized CMS application, are you going to be the first for the CMS developer? Even if you use a highly popular CMS system that does not necessarily mean it will work in your firm. (Review #2 again).

8. Cost – The constant (and continuous) cost of technology is always a factor in the legal profession. As a general rule of thumb, the software cost is only about 50% of the total installed cost. Somebody has to install the software, customize or configure it for your firm, integrate it into your existing technology environment, train you and your staff on how to use it, train someone in your office on how to maintain it, and provide follow-up technical support and maintenance. There are two important points to remember in the cost. One is that everything is negotiable. The initial proposed price (we're talking about the total installed price) is not necessarily what you'll end up paying for. Run the numbers out for three years which includes the support, maintenance, and training. While maintenance and support costs may look good for the first year, it may go up dramatically the next two years. Second, remember that you don't want to negotiate a great price only to bankrupt the CMS developer. They need to remain in business. There's always room to negotiate and remember, negotiation is always a two-way street. Your firm may save some dollars if it takes a bigger role in the implementation process.

9. Support – I'm not sure you can purchase CMS software without support and maintenance anymore. Used to be you could, but with the newer generation CMS applications that are highly customizable, there are probably few, if any, developers that will provide you with system without support costs. Some CMS developers use the 3-tier system (e.g., platinum, gold, silver) that you can purchase so much support on a monthly or quarterly basis. Other developers charge a flat 18% - 20% (of the software cost) and you get as much telephone support as you need and updates on a regular basis. It is common for software developers to release two to three minor updates a year with a major upgrade every one to 1½ years.

10. Training – Always the first thing cut from a technology budget. In all the years I've been a consultant, I've never understood why such highly educated people (lawyers) just don't get it. Some firms install the CMS system and have the impression that just because they have college degrees they can educate themselves on the system. I've heard this time and time again - "We bought the CMS software but it didn't work for our firm; No, we chose to do our own training." Is this an oxymoron or what? Take the time to not only pay for training, but to mandate training by attorneys as well as staff. I don't care if your partners can't find the time to send their staff to training – the CMS system implementation will be a sure failure if the firm's management and decision makers don't mandate training. Lead by example, have the firm's managing partner, executive director, and technology committee members take the training along with the rest of the firm. As a general rule of thumb, training should be about 10% - 15% of the total installed price. Training is the number one reason CMS system installations are a success. Lack of training is the number one reason CMS system installations are a failure.


Andrew Z. Adkins III is a nationally recognized expert in law office technology.  He is the director of the Legal Technology Institute at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He is a founding member of The Legal Consulting Group, an association of independent computer consulting firms working with the legal profession.  He is also the author of "Computerized Case Management Systems: Choosing and Implementing the Right Software for You," published by the ABA Law Practice Management Section.