The Future of Case Management and Electronic Forms in the Legal Profession

November 1, 1998

Having won the SCL annual award twice, once in 1996 for our electronic legalforms system, and this year with our CaseControl case management system,Laserform should be ideally placed to comment on the future of this type oftechnology. However, gazing into the crystal ball has never been one of mystrong points. All I can do therefore in this article is pass on the informationI have gleaned from visiting and listening to the views of many practicemanagers and IT managers regarding the subjects to be covered. I will approachthe subjects in reverse order, as the future of electronic forms is a muchnarrower application and much easier to forecast.

Legal Forms

The commercial application of technology to legal forms has now been aroundsince we started developing Laserforms in 1987. The product came about throughlistening to my contacts within the legal profession and finding out thatpre-printed legal forms were a major headache for all practices, and thatmassive savings would accrue if the forms were available in electronic format.

This proved to be the case and now we have a thriving business.

Well, there are two real threats. The first is the advent of EDI (electronicdata interchange) and the other is the acceptance by the various authorities ofword processed documents rather than fixed-format forms.

I have been expecting EDI to take off for some time now, but it does not seemto get any closer, and although most authorities are aiming towards this, theyare taking a great deal of time. Even when it does take off (and I would predictnothing major will happen for the next three years), it is still probable thatpractices will want to use the electronic form to collect and verify data beforesending it off via EDI to the various bodies. Obviously many practices will beusing case management by the time that EDI is here and these systems collect andverify data without needing to use the fixed-format forms. EDI will herald thedemise of electronic forms – eventually.

We have also seen a move by some authorities towards accepting word processeddocuments as well as fixed-format forms. This trend will allow many legalpractices to build their own forms rather than relying on electronic formssuppliers. However I believe that only a few practices will take this option. Itis clearly not cost effective to create these yourselves and keep themup-to-date when an electronic form can be bought and kept absolutely up-to-datefor less than £2 a year per partner. Many practices have had some enthusiastic‘invented here’ persons develop a range of forms, only to fall foul of thefact that they do not have the resource to keep the forms up-to-date when alarge statutory change occurs.

Overall I believe that the future of electronic forms is relatively rosy, butwill start to fade in about three years time. The market will be dominated bytwo suppliers (Laserform and one other), as the others do not have theresources to provide a good range of forms or the support services necessary toattract the Top 1000 firms. The electronic forms will get less expensive, becomemore intelligent, and will move from stand-alone use towards use within casemanagement applications.

Case Management

I foresee an extremely buoyant future for case management within all legalpractices. It is clearly the way forward. I often ask doubting practices howthey intend to increase efficiency and quality if not by using case management– they never come up with an alternative.

Basically, I break down case management into two distinct types. High volumesystems and fee-earner systems.

High Volume (deskilled) Case Management
The high volume systems have been around for some considerable time and have hadlimited success. These are typically debt, claims handling, and residentialconveyance types of application. All of which follow a relatively predictablepattern for the vast majority of matters. Non fee-earning staff usually operatethem, with only those areas requiring legal knowledge being automaticallyreferred to fee-earners.

The problem with this type of case management is that if a process is to befully automated, and produce quality output, then it is often difficult andtime-consuming to construct. They are difficult to change, and the more complexthe work to be ‘automated’, the less chance of success.

For example we have just completed such a system which allows for high-volumeconveyancing. On the surface this seems relatively simple, and there are anumber of systems already available. However, this system is run almost entirelyby unskilled staff (12 hours a day, 7 days a week) and a quality product isproduced with very little fee-earner intervention. This made the task much morecomplex. Every possible contingency had to be catered for, every piece ofinformation had to be known to the system (eg the exact requirements of alllocal authorities – even down to the costs of Part 2 searches, etc). Featuressuch as automatic dialling (CTI), Scripting, Checklisting, and a high level ofmatter management and client reporting are essential. it took over a man-year ofthe customer’s time (fee-earner time) and over three man-years of our time tobuild the system.

Many practices buy these systems and start developing the processes only tofind that they do not have the necessary ‘committed’ resources to completethe task within a reasonable time-scale, consequently many projects fail.

However I do believe that things are changing. There is a growing realisationwithin the large practices (and some niche practices) that if they are to stay,or get into, the market-place for high volume, low margin work then they willhave to invest heavily in the technological and the organisational changesrequired.

Fee-Earner Case Management
This brings me to my major interest area, fee-earners using computer systems toperform their day-to-day tasks.

Over four years ago, through my normal methods of gut feel and marketresearch, it became very apparent that a major concern of the more ITenlightened practices was that fee earners were not using computer technologyfor matter related work. This was partly because of a resistance to the use oftechnology and partly because most of the case management systems were notdesigned for fee-earner use and were inflexible.

So we set about designing a case management methodology that not only allowedfee earners to use the system, but one that they were positively excited aboutusing.

In essence the fee earner sees each matter as a set of defined stages, ineach of which there is a list of documents and forms and decisions to be taken,all laid out in a roughly chronological order. This ‘workflow’ can bechanged by the fee earner, as can the follow-up actions. Obviously diaries, todo lists, checklists, etc, are also supplied to allow the fee earner to manageall the matters in an efficient way.

In putting together this type of system, we came across a major hurdle, inthat when fee earners are rasing letters and documents they often find itnecessary to dictate them and get them typed. We solved this by creatingintelligent documents. These are documents that are pre-programmed usingdocument assembly techniques to present the fee earner with a series of optionsin order to tailor the document/letter to fit the required circumstancesexactly.

This type of case management is now termed ‘lite’ case management and inmy view is the technology that will start to be used by many practices.

Practice Management Perspective
The top management within most practices have now generally accepted that, inorder to prosper in an ever more competitive legal market-place, it isabsolutely essential to become more efficient in the processing of matters. Theyrecognise that case management is the way forward.

However, strong management will be needed, as many fee earners are resistantto the use of technology. Many remain convinced that everything they do isunique, and they cling steadfastly to their own individual letters and documents– I’ve even heard this expressed by conveyancers of residential property. Alsoit must be recognised that the fee earners are under a great deal of pressure toearn fees and are usually unwilling, or unable, to spend the time necessarysuccessfully to move to new technology.

It will take a little time before we get a real explosion of case managementtechnology because of the resources required to successfully implement thesystems (both from the practice and from the suppliers) – but there are signsthat it is starting to happen.

The future for the high volume ‘deskilling’ type of system is that therewill be a limited number of practices using them, but those that do willgenerally be large national concerns or niche practices who are committed toobtaining a large market share. The systems will be tailored to the practices’exact needs, and the practices will plan the implementation properly and devotethe necessary resources to ensure success.

But, I believe the biggest growth will be fee earners directly using‘lite’ systems that extensively employ the use of intelligent documents.These systems come ‘shrink-wrapped’ with the databases, sample workflows andsample intelligent documents already set up for the various areas of law. Theyare easy to implement, easy for the individual departments to tailor and aboveall the fee earners like using them.

Pressure from clients will also require that both types of case managementwill need to be Web-enabled, both for the acceptance of instructions and in thereporting on progress costs via an extranet facility.

Charles Christian’s excellent book, Legal Practice in the Digital Age,examines the decisions facing today’s practices with regard to technology. Heconcluded that unless a practice starts putting clients first and startsinvesting in IT quickly they may miss the boat. I think that for those who havetypically relied on areas now regarded as high volume, low margin work, it mayalready be too late.