To prevent malpractice, effective, reliable case management systems must be employed.

By Mark A. Chinn, Family Lawyer

For years I lived in fear. Many nights I would wake up in the middle of the night, worried that something terrible was about to happen the next day, some important deadline that I had forgotten.

On a few occasions, I actually threw my blue jeans on and drove to the office at 3:00 in the morning. Of course, when I got there, I quickly realized there was no emergency. To prevent malpractice and waking up in the middle of the night, effective, reliable case management systems must be employed.

The Calendar

Many firms use a large calendar on which they manually record key trial dates and deadlines. Such a calendar is obsolete in the age of case management software, and should not be relied upon as a method of case management. However, even if case management software is used, a large calendar can be useful as a visual aid to view key dates in the future.

Docket Sheet

A “docket sheet” is a list of each case with a summary of key information. A docket sheet lists the case, the lawyer responsible, and a brief summary of the status of the case and any key dates in the future. The docket sheet assists each lawyer and staff member in keeping track of the status of cases. The docket sheet also serves as a reference for discussion during docket meetings.

Docket Meetings

Most lawyers and firms are so busy tending to their business that they fail to stop and assess what they are working on and what needs to be done. Often, lawyers fall into the trap of working on what they want to work on, instead of what needs to be worked on, and cases get neglected. Regular docket meetings aid in making sure that cases do not fall through the cracks. The docket meeting is also a time when the entire staff can take a few minutes to think about the posture of a case and brainstorm about what steps should be taken.

Our firm has a one-hour docket meeting every Monday morning from 10:30 to 11:30. The entire staff participates, from receptionist, to bookkeeper, to attomeys. Usually, we stop and talk for at least a few seconds about each case. We try not to leave discussion of a case without creating a date for when something is going to happen or some action is going to be taken. Making sure that there is a date for action or for review, keeps the firm’s performance proactive instead of reactive. These dates are recorded by staff in the case management system.

Docket meetings are a time to talk about many things other than the management of the case. The bookkeeper is present to talk about the status of the account: Is there a retainer in trust? Is the account past due? Is the client cooperating in payment? If not, the firm must take steps to protect its financial integrity. This type of discussion keeps the firm from working and working and building up a huge (and probably uncollectible) past due account, without noticing it.

Firm problems can be discussed in docket meetings. Perhaps there is a problem with equipment that should be discussed. Perhaps there is a quirk in the filing system.

Docket meetings can be used for morale purposes. Inspirational writings can be read and discussed. Awards can be given. Docket meetings can be fun, too. As a matter of fact, docket meetings which are not fun, may be counterproductive.

The time for the docket meeting must be protected on everyone’s calendar. The purpose of the meeting can be defeated if everyone is not there. Our firm conducts the meetings on Monday mornings before we get going in the week. We seem to be able to prevent the scheduling of hearings, depositions, and appointments at that time.

Everyone must participate. A few years ago, I had an associate that would bring file materials to the meeting and read them during the meeting. Everyone in the meeting was cognizant of the fact that this person regarded the docket meeting as a waste of his time.

In addition to regular docket meetings, conduct meetings of key people to discuss files at critical intervals. For example, in the docket meeting it becomes evident that a case is stalled and nothing is happening. To resolve that problem in the docket meeting would take too much of the entire staffs time and unnecessarily lengthen the docket meeting. This is a time to schedule a case management meeting of the key lawyers and staff people involved in the case. Perhaps an hour is blocked out on the calendar to conduct such a meeting. Whether your firm is composed of many lawyers or one, the meeting of people creates a time to focus on the case and put minds together. We all know that two minds are better than one.

Case Management Software

If you are reading this and you do not have case management software, go get some case management software today. You should not operate another day without it. Among other things, case management software allows you to create reminders in the computerized calendar. Reminders can be created in many different ways. First, reminders can be manually created. You desire to check on a client in thirty days, so you go into the system and create a reminder in the client file for the desired date. Most systems allow you to create a reminder after taking notes on a phone call. You open a window for the phone call, type some notes and then click a button in the phone call window to create a reminder in the future. For example, you are talking to a lawyer about preparation of an order. The lawyer says she will prepare the order and get it to you in a few days. The case management system allows you to create a reminder to check on the matter in a few days, just to make sure the other lawyer does what they said. Finally, case management systems allow you to program the calendar so it will systematically and automatically remind you of dates. For example, you can create a simple program to give you reminders in advance of the scheduling of a matter for trial, such as 60-day, 30-day and 15-day reminders. Case management software also allows you to perform the following functions:

  • • Maintain a list of contacts
  • • Target referral sources and create contact reminders
  • • Merge documents
  • • Create “preferences.”

Excerpts from “How to Build and Manage a Family Law Practice,” by Mark A. Chinn, published, 2006, by the American Bar Association Famiy/ Law and Law Practice Management Sections.

Mark Chinn received his undergraduate degree from Iowa State University in 1975 and his Law Degree from the University of Mississippi in 1978. He is admitted to practice in all courts in Mississippi, the Fifth and Seventh Circuits and the United States Supreme Court. Mark is a frequent contributor in periodicals such as the American Journal of Family Law, The Family Advocate, Small Firm Profit Report and Fair Share on the subjects of client relations, service and law practice management.