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Workflows & Craftsmanship in Legal Practice Management Software

Written by Jeff Stouse on 18 April 2012.

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Sjodberg workbench 1450We all acknowledge the need and appreciation for fine craftsmanship.  Why? The need for finely crafted products that continue to provide the result for which they were built will never cease. In the world of managing matters in a legal office, the desire for craftsmanship is often affected by the burning need to "Get Things Done!"  While this requirement for speed and efficiency is ever present, the savvy law firm finds the carefully crafted tool (Practice Management program) that delivers the functionality that the always-in-a-hurry attorney needs. Craftsmanship is often associated with a requirement of too much time; but the well-crafted practice management program delivers essential functionality and sometimes complex results with little effort.

When most firms search for a practice management tool, the goal is to select a program that will accomplish the everyday tasks in an efficient and easy-to-understand manner. While this goal may seem obvious, it is often not accurate. What most firms really want is a program, when customized to the method in which that law firm practices, does the work required, and often most of that work is done behind the scenes. Preventing a firm from missing court dates or Statues of Limitations, or ensuring that regular contact is maintained with clients whose matters are commonly years in the completion are often tasks that a firm expects, but doesn’t want to think about. What firms want is a program that has thought for them.

Selecting a well-crafted tool is the key to achieving that goal. When craftsmen want to build products that last, they start with a product that provides them the same approach – by choosing a product whose maker has thought through so many of the needs and wants its users will desire, the end goal is easier and faster to accomplish. So how does a law firm searching for the right practice management tool know when they have found the craftsmanship they need? By knowing exactly what the firm needs to accomplish.

Firms that know how to accomplish the day-to-day processes that keep track of calendars, follow-up on production requests, contact inquisitive clients on a regular basis, and inform everyone in the firm of their roles and responsibilities are the firms that can identify whether a practice management program has been crafted in such a way that they can accomplish their goals. These firms know what the plan requires. They know what functionality has to be present when they examine the daily flow of work.

It is easy for a firm to select a product that doesn’t have all the functionality needed when they haven’t identified exactly how to accomplish the daily workflows. So the first step in identifying the proper, well-crafted practice management tool is to be sure that the firm has identified and meticulously spelled out the steps that each workflow requires. Doing this is essential to being able to identify which of the many practice management programs will be the best tool for the job. While this explicit definition of each workflow may seem like overkill, the better the job of workflow definition, the more effective the practice management selection process will be.

A master craftsman, after designing the finished product, never tries to cut a board with a screwdriver. Nor does a craftsman try to teach their apprentices how to create a finished product without first explaining to them, in detail, how it will be built and what tools (exactly) will be used. Unfortunately, however, a law firm without a well-defined set of work flow processes can end up doing the equivalent (trying to cut a board with a screwdriver) by selecting a practice management program that does not offer the functionality their workflows require.

Exactly what functionality do these day-to-day workflow processes require? The answer is simple: a practice management tool that has been crafted to accomplish the most work with the least amount of human interaction (after it is initially designed) is often the best. What this means is that a practice management program than can automate entire workflows, or segments of workflows without having a member of the firm “remembering” to: click this button, send this email, or create this document (that is a standard template only needing to merge in the client’s information) is the practice management program that will deliver better efficiency, fewer issues, and less pain.

When most firms decide to purchase practice management software for the first time, or decide to go shopping for new software, it is most often because of the “pain” that the current system (if there is one) keeps creating. Processes are constantly being halted; without the necessary follow-through. Clients complain of not being contacted in the desired time frame. Production requests are lost. Deadlines are not met. Documents are not generated in a timely manner. These are the definition of “pain” caused in the daily workflows of a firm without the proper practice management software.

So why do they continue to happen? Often it is because the practice management tool cannot offer the full range of functionality that is required. This forces users to finish the task—a requirement which sometimes results in a tedious (“I forgot to follow-up on that request for production”) situation.

Let's take a look at what appears to be a simple task: the need to schedule a deposition. Once the date is agreed upon, this task includes the following components:

  • notifying the client of the upcoming deposition
  • making sure an event is created on the firm calendar
  • notifying everyone involved in the firm of what is required from them
  • confirming with opposing counsel
  • reserving a location, recorder, and the appropriate snacks and other final touches
  • following that process with additional reminders for all involved, when appropriate, either by mail and/or email, this "simple" task can often end up a frustrating experience for both the client and the firm - especially when it has to be rescheduled.

How does the well-crafted practice management tool eliminate the “pain” in the above process? By reducing, if not eliminating the need for a member of the firm to “remember” to do a part of the process once the process (workflow) is started. So, if the date for the deposition is decided, then a well-crafted workflow in a properly selected practice management program should automatically: create a deposition event that identifies the client, matter and necessary staff; notify those same staff of same; send an email to opposing counsel confirming the deposition, and create the necessary to dos to reserve the conference room, schedule the recorder and order the necessary snacks.

Remember, when a practice management program cannot perform those tasks automatically, it forces firm members to schedule themselves to be involved. That is usually where the pain occurs. Over-worked, time-deprived, and stressed-out, any member of the firm that fails to complete a part of the task that is not automated ends up causing some form of pain.

Here's another real-world workflow: A user is taking information from a new client - the information must be placed in various fields on the practice management form. The matter type for this form (let's assume it is a criminal matter) can contain various important details, depending on specifics within the matter. Is this a misdemeanor? Is this a felony? If it is a felony, what felony-specific information does this firm need to collect (as opposed to information that would be only relative to a misdemeanor?) If it is a misdemeanor, what details should be taken from the client? If the staff member who does not know what the process should be, i.e.; what details need to be collected, then the “comprehensive” form, with all of the possible fields that could ever be needed, felony or misdemeanor, would be in order. But it would be a waste of time and resources because it would not be the right tool.

How can a workflow's functionality in a practice management program make data gathering better? Wouldn't it be easier if, when the data was being collected, the workflow only displayed the fields that were pertinent to that particular type of matter? Think about every practice management program that exists. Almost all of them can display the data fields that would be necessary in a (generic) criminal matter. What that means is that the user may have to "hunt for" the necessary fields to fill in when capturing data from the prospective client. The fields would be on the form, but the user would have to know where to scroll or tab to, in order to collect all of the pertinent information.

Also, having a workflow process that, depending on how a field is completed, will display the next required field limits the ability for a user to enter the right data in the wrong field, or skip a field (losing it amongst the ones that don't apply to this particular matter), or not finding a desired (but not required) field. Very few practice management programs offer this level of functionality. Those that do are often those that respond to user/client requests for new and meaningful features. The ability of the practice management program to be defined so that when one field (the bail decision which could be completed as either “granted” or “denied”) is completed, the program will automatically display a different field (If the result is “granted” then the field to be displayed would be “Bail amount:”, otherwise, display the next field in the list of questions.)

For example, HoudiniESQ and Practice Master are two legal practice management programs that can automatically generate documents with no user interaction. This functionality eliminates one of the “drop spots” that can cause delays and lack of communication between the client and the firm. HoudiniESQ can go the extra step and display only those fields that are necessary based on the previous field's value, as in the example in the preceding paragraph.

Both of these products’ management teams recognize the value of listening to the requests of the firms that use their products. Whether you are looking for your first practice management program or switching from an existing practice management product whose feature set is not providing necessary functionality, be sure to spend the time to test your well-thought out processes.

Another benefit to identifying your practice management workflows is being able to provide new employee training that is consistent, regardless of who is the trainer. If everyone assigned to train new users is trained to follow the practice management workflow, then there is a much greater chance of everyone producing the same work output.

For more information about HoudiniESQ, please visit http://www.houdiniesq.com- they offer a free, fully functional program as a trial; or, if you are a solo attorney, you can use their product for free (no catch!) for as long as you want. HoudiniESQ is a product of LogicBit, and Frank Rivera is the CEO of that company.

For more information regarding Practice Master, please visit www.practicemaster.com. Software Technology, Inc. is the company that created Practice Master, and Brad Berlin is the CEO of that company.

(If you are a serious woodworker, and do not have a Sjoberg workbench (model 1450 pictured at the beginning of this article), then you aren’t enjoying the benefits discussed above…)