Culture and Case Management Systems within Law Firms

June 30, 2005

Why is it that some law firms have been able to build a profitable niche practice using case management technology yet many have not been able to get a system up and running – let alone a decent return on their investment.

When talking about a return on investment what should this be? A ‘quicker service’ a ‘better quality service’ or ‘greater transparency of operations’? These are admirable improvements but should in no way be seen as the ultimate return on what will be an expensive investment in terms of both money and time. If your firm does not achieve a hard-edged return of, at the very least, a 25% reduction in its cost base, then you have missed the boat.

Many firms do not get anywhere near this ROI. This is mainly because they carry on processing the work in exactly the same way as they did before the case management system was introduced. With the same people doing the same things. They do not take the opportunity to use the case management system to drive costs out of their service delivery processes by re-engineering how the work is done, by whom it is done and by how many it is done.

The reason they have not been able to do this can normally be summed up in two words – organisational culture.

What is Culture

In this context, culture is simply ‘the way we do things round here’ (Deal & Kennedy). It is ingrained into everything that happens in your organisation. If you view the management structure as the skeletal aspects of your firm, culture would be the central nervous system. The outcome of every business process and every human interaction is in accordance with your firm’s culture.

Culture develops as people come together and share experiences, values and beliefs which they then all come to accept as the established “norms”. The result is “a sort of collective programming of the mind” (Hofstede). These “norms” then shape [constrain!] how your staff behave, interact with others and go about their work. Unless something significant happens they then get passed on to each new employee and so these new staff perpetuate your culture – the good points and the bad points. Culture cannot be listed in a manual or displayed on a Web page and therefore, unlike company policy or management directives, it gets little direct recognition or attention.

Culture can actually be observed. I have found that it is possible to see the distinctiveness of different cultures once you have visited a firm or organisation a few times and spoken to some of their staff. In short you get a different ‘feel’ for the place. The pace may be different – some have a buzz others seem sleepy. You can see it in how you are greeted, how employees dress, the physical layout of the office. People behave differently towards each other. People work together in a different way.

In some firms the culture is clearly one of being a team (the office layout shows this up well) and in other firms it is quite obvious that the culture is based around ‘fee earners and secretaries’ (fee earner has his/her own office, usually with files all over the floor and a secretary sat just outside).

Charles Handy, a leading management guru, would recognise the Fee Earner/Secretary as a ‘Power’ culture. One in which a dominant source holds the power. In law firms however the main problem is the dominant power [the fee earner] tends to control how things will work far too much and makes ‘change’ difficult. Also in this model it is very difficult to scale up the workload without acquiring more ‘dominant’ sources as they create a bottleneck restricting the amount of work that can be done. Handy would see the Team model as a ‘Task’ Culture. This is where the focus is on doing the job in hand, using techniques such as enablement and empowerment. In this culture there is no dominant figure. People value each other for what they contribute and expect everyone to help as needed, constantly looking to drive cost out of the process. This model is much more flexible and adaptable and it can scale up much better.

Fee earner/secretary v Team culture

Unfortunately case management systems and ‘fee-earner/secretary’ cultures mix like oil and water. Case management systems really need a ‘team’ culture to work well.

In a ‘fee earner/secretary’ culture, responsibility and accountability lies predominantly with the fee earner. In a ‘team’ culture, responsibility and authority are assigned to a team which is mutually accountable for the way it works and all of the results. Commercial organisations have been aligning with these principles for years and many professional service organisations have, in their search for more flexibility, lower costs and faster response (through delegation and empowerment) started moving to this model.

The differences between a fee earner/secretary and a team culture in a law firm are large and can create significant conflict operational problems when trying to effect a wholesale change. Some are listed in the box below.

‘Fee earner/Secretary’ culture

‘Team’ culture/Case Management System

Fee earning totally pre-occupied with acquiring clients, recording enough billable hours. No consideration for how much will be recovered or profitability of work being done.

No such thing as a ‘fee earner’ (in traditional sense) Everybody contributes to fee earning role. No one ‘owns’ clients – they belong to firm/department. Focus on team work, reducing cost and increasing profitability.

Fee Earner decides what/when to send a letter and dictates letters for secretary to type

Standard letters set-up on system. System produces letters. Fee Earner might not even know (and does not need to know) a letter has been sent out!

Fee Earner’s secretary types his/her letters and organises sending by post, delivers timely information to client, handles basic enquiries etc.

No such thing as a secretary – all letters and documents are generated automatically by the system. Many letters are instantly e-mailed or faxed. System provides information to client by way of progress reporting and e-mail updates etc. This role is completely absorbed by case management system and needs re-defining.

Fee Earner has personal way of working and own versions of letters, way of saying things etc. Also thinks all work is ‘legal work’ and does not think a computer system could replace his/her ‘legal mind’.

There is only one set of letters and documents and one prescribed methodology for doing the work. This will be automated by the system. The system does not attempt to do the real ‘legal work’. It does the ‘administrative’ work providing a high degree of ‘systemisation’

Fee Earner thinks every file needs a different approach and no one system can cater for every possible output by way of letter, document or business process that is needed

The system works on the basis of the 80/20 rule and there will be exceptions that will need to be handled manually. Just because one file does not fit the ‘system’ it does not mean the system is not suitable.

Fee Earner likes to feel in control and now feels he/she is losing control and does not trust the system

The system is in control (generally far better control) and can communicate this to anyone who needs to know. It is just that the fee earner has chosen to ignore the system.

Fee Earner details all appointments, tasks and reminders in paper diary (or keeps in short-term memory)

All reminders and tasks recorded on system where they are more useful and team can see them and system can monitor them

These are just a few of the conflicts that will occur when implementing a case management system in a firm or department with a fee earner/secretary culture. Moving from ‘fee earner/secretary’ to a ‘team’ is a difficult process of culture change and one that should not be taken lightly.

Culture change

So how do you change the culture in your firm or department? A different answer is needed for each firm. Changing culture is radical and fundamental and some experts say that you just should not do it. There is no blueprint, but a ‘managing change’ project is at its core.

Forewarned is forearmed. Many firms do not realise the cultural issues until the oil has gone into the water, big money has been spent and time lost. When this happens it is extremely difficult to rescue the situation. What normally happens is the case management system gets used initially but then less and less. Eventually it is used only sparingly by a few die-hards who can see the benefit (usually the secretaries). In the main the system is ignored and criticised and the prevailing fee earner/secretary culture continues around it. It goes without saying you do not get any return on your investment and in fact your costs might well go up.

If you know you have a strong fee earner/secretary culture, hopefully you will recognise it and you can prepare for the introduction of a case management system in good time. You might consider how each element of the culture (as listed above) can be addressed and start your ‘change management’ programme before the system arrives. You will definitely need to get people on board so they are behind the ‘team’ based approach. You will need strong ‘change management’ skills to make sure people do alter their way of working (and thinking) to fit in with the system – especially the fee earners. It will probably be necessary to put a different staff structure in place, you will definitely need to redefine roles/responsibilities and if possible create an open-plan office environment.


Without doubt the firms that are winning in the ‘niche’ practice market are those who have managed to change from a ‘fee earner/secretary’ culture to a ‘team’ culture and, in the process, successfully implemented a case management system to drive the unnecessary administrative and procedural costs out of their delivery chain.

These firms have done this through the re-definition of roles and responsibilities, the development of well balanced and well motivated teams with the requisite technical skills and by selecting and working with a knowledgeable and appropriate case management system/supplier. These firms are now clearly benefiting through a significant reduction in their cost base and being able to respond faster and more flexibly to external changes in their market place. Classic examples are the ‘niche’ conveyancing and PI practitioners who are able to take on more and more work from agents and lender panels, absorbing this quickly into their existing cost base. Through ‘systemisation’ these firms are delivering a consistent, high quality product with reduced risk to their clients and themselves. Their work load is increasing as a result of ‘cost leadership’ and provision of a superior value proposition.

Interestingly this concept is not new, many service organisations have been using it to drive profitable and sustainable growth for many years. It is called ‘Economy of Scale’.

Steve Ness has over 25 years’ legal IT experience acquired initially in a development and then a consultancy and project management environment with the leading IT solutions supplier at that time. In 1993 Steve was one of three founding Directors of Select Legal following which, in 1998, he took a drastic career change by assuming the role of Sales & Marketing Director for the company. Steve is also Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.