Did You Buy the Wrong Case Management System Software?
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Law firms often underestimate what it takes to implement a computerized case management system (CMS). There is a significant investment in dollars and time required. If properly implemented, the payback and return on investment can be enormous. However, not all firms are successful in their CMS implementations. What do you do if, for some reason or another, the system doesn’t seem to be a match for your firm? It could be a variety of reasons, but have you exhausted all your resources before you make a decision to trash the system? The purpose of this article is to help you explore some of the reasons why you and your CMS may not play well together and to try to help you determine the right path to follow.

Generalities of Case Management Systems

Case Management Systems (CMSs), like most any other software application, come in a variety of flavors. CMS developers don’t like me to say this, but most tend to agree with me: under the hood, most CMSs provide the same basic functionality. Here’s a brief description of the main functions found within most case management systems:

  • Rolodex or Contact Database – storage for basic contact information about clients,
    opposing counsel, judges, and other interested parties. You’ll only need enter this information once; it’s shared elsewhere throughout the case management system. Most CMSs also have a note pad associated with each contact in the rolodex. If you need to enter notes about a particular interested party, you’d do it here.
  • Calendar system – the calendar can be either appointment, rules-based, or both. A
    rules-based calendar allows you to define a set of “rules,” based on a key date, such as a trial. Typically, you’ll have four or five events associated with the key date. Apply the rule and the CMS will automatically populate the calendar with the correct dates, including calculating for holidays and weekends. If the trial is postponed, simply move the key date and all other events are automatically repopulated in the calendar. Almost all CMSs integrate with Microsoft Outlook, and many integrate with Novell GroupWise.
  • Case Database – storage for all information about the case or matter. Client and other contact information was already entered into the Rolodex; if you use an expert witness (who is already in the Rolodex), you’ll simply link that expert here – no more double entry of data. You’d link opposing counsel, judges, and any other interested parties associated with the case.
  • Case Notes or Case Diary – storage for “memos to the file,” telephone conference
    notes, and any other free form information about the case. Basically, anyone working on the case or matter can track the case in the Case Notes.
  • Document Assembly – the biggest time saver of all; using the information already entered into the Rolodex and the Case Database, you can merge this information directly into your standard Microsoft Word and/or Corel WordPerfect boilerplate documents.
  • Reports – either ad hoc queries to quickly look up information or standard reports
    that are run on a periodic basis. In addition, these products should integrate into your exiting environment. In other words, whether you use Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect the information in the CMS should merge into these boilerplate documents. If you use Microsoft Outlook (or in some cases, Novell GroupWise), the CMS Calendar and the Rolodex should synchronize bidirectionally. Your existing document management system (Hummingbird DOCS, iManage, or WORLDOX) should also integrate with the CMS.

General Purpose Case Management Systems

There are more general purpose case management systems in the market than substantive case management systems. Most of these systems provide capabilities for the law firm or law department to customize (or configure) the system for their particular needs. In other words, these systems allow the data input screens, document assembly, calendar, and reports to be configured for the firm. Oftentimes, law firms with multiple departments may choose one case management system and customize it to all (or most) of their different practice areas.

Substantive Case Management Systems

There are specific case management systems for substantive areas of law, such as Intellectual Property, Immigration Law, Real Estate Closing, Bankruptcy, and Foreclosure, to name a few. These types of case management systems are designed specifically for these practice areas and would be difficult to configure for other practice areas. In the same sense, these types of CMSs provide functionality for the particular area of practice that may not be able to be duplicated by a general purpose CMS.

In short, you may be able to customize a general purpose CMS for a substantive practice area, but you probably won’t be able to customize a substantive CMS for another substantive practice area.

Questions You Need to Ask

First of all, recognize you and your firm know a lot more about case management systems now than before this implementation. It’s an evolving educational process – the more you use the system, the more you learn about its capabilities. Face it, no two law firms practice law the same way, so how do you get an off-the-shelf computerized case system to work just the way you want to? “Finding middle ground” between how the system works and how your firm practices law is one key to success. Those firms who have never used a case management system before often find themselves in a bind because they know the system can help make them more efficient, but it’s hard to change
the way they practice law. The larger the firm, the higher the wall to climb. Why? Because there is an ingrained culture in all law firms; it seems to be more prevalent in larger firms. But, if you implement the system correctly, over a period of time and not try to roll it out all at once, you’ll have a higher success rate.

Now, before you decide the case management system is not working for your firm, let’s ponder a few questions. Keep in mind, I’ve been working with hundreds of law firms over my fifteen years of consulting and have pretty much seen it all. What works in one firm may not work in another; that’s why it’s important to ask these questions of your firm, not someone else’s. I’ve categorized these questions into three areas: Ownership, Implementation, and Training.


Who within the firm is in charge of the project? Do you have an internal project manager or did you leave the project management entirely up to the developer? If you’re using an internal project manager, is it someone who has the knowledge of implementation, the respect of the firm, and the time to do it right? I’ve seen law firms who appoint the technology partner to this task. While that might seem like the right choice, does this partner have the time to devote to the project, in addition to other assigned duties? Keep in mind that the beginning of the project requires the most time in order to get the project going in the right direction, making sure the developer follows the project plan, and ensuring the firm’s resources are devoted to the project. If you don’t have an internal project manager and leave everything up to the developer, you are only asking for trouble down the line. While the developer and/or the consultant get the system installed and working, they are not going to be living with the system night and day, week in and week out. There is no ownership on the part of the developer. They won’t be able to spend time with attorneys and staff understanding their personalities and work habits and encourage them to embrace this new technology.

Does the firm have a CMS Administrator? Having an internal person devoted to administering the case management system is vital in all CMS implementations. This person will not only help with training (or is the trainer), but will also help with the customization of the system, building the document assembly portion, designing the reports, and, most important, the “go to” person for any CMS-related issues. Again, the beginning of the project requires the most time. After the system is rolled out and all users trained, there will still be some activities requiring a person knowledgeable with the inner workings of the CMS, but it may not require a full-time person.


Was the CMS implemented properly? Was the project rolled out in phases? Implementing a CMS is not an overnight project. It takes time and patience, since it significantly changes the way attorneys and staff handle data and information. Most CMS developers utilize a project management checklist. This helps to determine what happens when, who is responsible for what, and milestone checks along the way.

Depending upon the size of the firm, the number of staff as well as the number of offices, most developers will roll out the CMS to a pilot test group first. The main purpose of the pilot test is to roll out the system to a small group, implement the system into the firm, and determine how the system will work within the firm. For example, the pilot group may begin by entering Rolodex and Contact data first. During this initial phase of the pilot test, the group may determine some of the data fields may need to be changed in order to accommodate a more efficient method of creating new cases. The pilot group is typically made up of a variety of users throughout the firm.

The pilot group not only works with the software, but the software works with the pilot group. During this time, the project will help uncover any nuances in the use of the software within the firm.

Communication with the firm’s members? It’s rare when a law firm rolls out a new software application and everyone within the firm doesn’t hear about it. The question that everyone in the firm will ask is, “How will this software effect me?” There’s nothing wrong with that question. In fact, I encourage everyone to ask the question because the firm needs to be able to provide the answer. Will the software make the firm more efficient or save the firm money? It better, or heads will roll.

You need to communicate to everyone in the firm why the firm is implementing case
management. It may be more work up front for some people, but the end result is that the firm begins to standardize on areas of case management which may mean efficiencies in other areas of the firm. I’ve heard legal assistants talk in low tones, “I certainly hope this system is making upper level management more efficient, because it’s surely more work for me.” That may be true for a particular function, such as rolodex entry. But, in some firms, while that legal assistant doesn’t see it, someone else has been typing up twenty sets of rolodex cards for each attorney in the firm to have a complete paper rolodex system. Like I said, efficiencies in other areas.

Communicate these messages to your firm – help them to understand the reasoning behind these choices. Equally important is to communicate to your staff when they may feel the impact. Larger firms will roll out these systems in phases, typically based on geographic location or practice area. Let your attorneys and staff know when it will be implemented in their area. Try to adjust workloads during the implementation and give your attorneys and staff time to learn the new system.

Do you have enough horsepower behind the software? Case management systems require a lot of horsepower and, depending a lot of other factors, you may not have the performance you used to have before installing the CMS. You need to evaluate the total system requirements of your firm, not just case management. The more applications your firm uses and the more people using them, the more horsepower you need. Often, integrators will “balance” servers, meaning they’ll determine the optimum server configurations for the number of software applications you may have. For example, Microsoft Exchange Server may reside on a server of its own while the case management system may reside on another server. This helps to increase performance throughout the firm.

Are all programs totally integrated and working together? You don’t just buy a case
management system and use it by itself; it integrates with other applications, such as word processing, document management, calendaring, and email (Microsoft Outlook, Novell GroupWise). Each of the systems that integrate with the CMS will also cause a change in the way people work. Make sure they understand the impact and what to expect.

Did you try to implement too many applications at the same time? I’ve worked with firms that have insisted on making too many changes at one time. For example, migrating from
WordPerfect to Word, migrating from GroupWise to Outlook, and implementing a new case management system – all at the same time. Besides losing several valuable employees, the firm lost considerable time and money with this implementation. They thought they’d save time and money; what they failed to realize is that the firm still had to work and bill time during the conversions.

Phase your implementation over a logical and reasonable time frame. If you’re going to convert from WordPerfect to Word, do the conversion first. Dedicate the right amount of resources to the project, use conversion software if needed, and provide training and hand holding as necessary. Do this correctly, and the CMS implementation will be a lot easier with less resistance.


Training is the number one reason for successful case management system implementations.

Lack of training is the number one reason for failed case management system implementations. Did you receive enough of the right training? In my fifteen years of consulting experience, I’ve heard more times than not of the difficulty of getting attorneys to attend training. Equally dismal I’ve also heard attorneys not letting their legal assistants attend training because there was client work to complete. Training must be part of the roll out. It must be a top-down commitment, otherwise, everyone will look for an excuse not to attend training.

Were you trained in the complete environment (case management, word processing, document management, email) or were you only trained in the case management system environment? Most CMS developers will train you only on their software. CMS integrators (consulting and integration companies that implement the software for the developer) will often provide training in the complete environment. For example, if your firm is using Microsoft Word, Microsoft Outlook, and iManage, the CMS integrator will most likely provide training in the total CMS environment, meaning you’ll learn how to use the case management system with Microsoft Word, Microsoft Outlook, and iManage. This is worth the extra training and consulting, since it puts the end users (your firm’s attorneys and staff) in the complete environment.

So You Determined You’ve Made the Wrong Choice, Now What?

Admit it, but be positive. You’re not the only firm who’s faced this dilemma. Besides, you’re much more educated about what not to do than before. Also, you’ll know what issues the firm will face with the next implementation.

Do your homework. First and foremost, make sure you’re purchasing the right case management system. As indicated above, there are two basic types of CMS: specialized and generalized. Research the Internet, read the legal technology magazines, contact your state bar association, or attend a legal technology conference. Find out what’s out there and make the initial inquiries. You should probably issue a Request for Information (RFI) or Request for Proposal (RFP), get pricing and configuration, and talk with the developers. It’s a learning experience, but remember, you’ve been through this once and your more CMS savvy than before.

Figure out what went wrong the first time and avoid these costly mistakes the second time. You should have a pretty good idea now of what not to do. Make sure you convey to the CMS developer or integrator your thoughts and feelings. Take a more active roll in the planning and project management.

Make sure you communicate to the firm the plan and stick with it. A good plan will certainly help with processes and procedures, but what is more important, it provides a checklist for what needs to get done and when. Remember, the firm has responsibilities in the implementation, just as the developer does. Make sure you stick with the plan.

by Andrew Z. Adkins III
January 2005