Getting more for less

At a time of continuing economic pressure, Chris Cann highlights a number of options for getting more from practice systems without necessarily having to make major investments.

Case Management systems

If you have bought a case management system some time ago and are saying, ‘it has never worked properly’, consider now dusting it off and seek to extract maximum return from that investment. With the new competition entering the legal market place over the next few years it is going to be very important to keep the cost of producing client work as low as possible where those services do not add value in the clientsí eyes. What I mean by that is that a client will value greatly the personal contact they have with you and your team and the advice and knowledge you can bring to bear on their problems, but they will become more and more unwilling to pay for processes and services that could easily be ëdelegatedí to a machine. Document creation is certainly one such process.

If youíve already invested in the case management system why not use it? And if you havenít yet made that investment, why not? A good case management system is not just for the ëbulk factory operations out there. It is about precedent management; brand protection (house-style embedded in all precedents and documents produced); client document production, storage, and retrieval; and can be used to provide a very robust risk management system to be demanded by the SRA in its new Handbook.

The system can be as simple as ëmatter managementí which helps a fee earner to open the file and close it down, but leaves all the fiddly middle bits for them to figure out (providing just blank stock letters, faxes, attendance notes, and other precedents which will be topped and tailed for the fee earner). Or it could be a full-blown workflow process designed to allow maximum ësafeí delegation of standard tasks to unqualified staff who are paid a lot less than the fee earner.

If you don’t have the time or expertise in-house to get this working, why not call on someone who has, ëbeen there and done that? Invest a little more of your income in that expensive piece of software to finally extract that full benefit promised by the sales person when you bought it.

Digital dictation and speech recognition

You may have tried speech recognition software in the early days of its development and realised that it simply didnít work. You may have come to the conclusion a while ago that you weren’t big enough as a business to take any benefit from digital dictation. However, I would urge you examine your options just one more time, and consider the advantage you could derive from combining those two services into one offering.

Your secretary/typist probably spends in excess of 50% of their time converting your spoken word into text on the screen. The other 50% will be spent on the valuable, do this… and do that… support services that a machine will probably never be able to master. If you are one of these modern keyboard literate fee earners, you are probably wasting even more of your valuable fee earning, or worse still family, time in converting your thoughts into the written word on screen. What else could you and/or your secretary be doing with about four hours a day? Perhaps you could be bringing in more business (on the golf course!), or delegating more of the straightforward fee earning work to your secretary? This would increase the overall chargeable time output from your team and, certainly, increase the time that you can spend on quality fee earning or marketing.

Take a look at the combined digital dication/speech recognition package being offered at the moment. I believe that Big Hand have a solution which is in its infancy at the moment, but the outfit that has been in this market place the longest is Loasys and they seem to have a very slick solution. If you need it, they also include a document management package that takes full advantage of the dictation/recognition part of the service. Based on Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition system, it has been re-designed by Loasys to fully benefit the UK legal market with customised dictionaries and enhanced recognition so that it boasts a 98% recognition accuracy for even first time users.

The fee earner dictates into a hand-held device (from Philips) just as they do for any standard digital dictation system, but rather than then being routed to a typist, the voice file goes to a processor where the system converts the spoken word to text and returns it to the fee earner (or their secretary depending on the preferred process they wish to use) for correction and processing/printing as needed. The ‘correction’ process also helps to ‘train’ the system to recognise any idiosyncrasies of the individual dictator and increases the accuracy of the system over time.

The price is relatively modest and well worth a look, and probably a trial to see if they can fit into the way that you work. The upside of hours freed up and typing backlogs demolished is tremendous. If you don’t have the resources in-house to organise this, consider contacting me for a free initial chat about our system selection and project management solutions?rn

Infrastructure

If your network is creaking; if the IT department or support company are tearing their hair out trying to keep the servers and desktops working; if you are coming under increasing pressure to spend an awful lot of capital you probably donít have, or donít want to spend on IT even if you have it; if you have heard about the ‘Cloud’ but don’t understand what it is or how it might affect you? Donít take that final decision until youíve considered all of your options.

Could you extract a few more months/years out of your system? It may be possible to outsource just a small part of a troublesome infrastructure to the ‘Cloud’ such as the Exchange/email system, or perhaps the backup/security system. By doing so, it may free up resources (human and machine) to enable the rest of the network to survive for another year or more.

It may be an option for some firms to go the whole hog and hand their IT problem over to a fully managed or SaaS solution which would give your business the state of the art IT support it will need to compete in the new legal market place but on a monthly fee basis rather than capital investment.

It must surely be worth a small investment to get an independent view of your current setup, to have a critical eye cast over your existing infrastructure and staffing, and to have your options for the future delivered in a language you will understand.

Precedents and document managementIf you donít currently have a working case or document management system installed, my prime advice would be to do so as quickly as you can, but if you would really prefer to struggle on, there are some small things you can do to make your life easier and save time (and therefore money) by organising your existing systems.

You are probably relying on some good luck and a loyal secretary currently to keep you in order. However, what happens when they are off sick or on holiday? Do you have to try to find those precedents or client documents yourself, or try to explain the electronic filing system to the temp? Or if you are a firm with multiple fee earners and secretaries/typists you probably have a situation where every team has its own system for storing client documents and precedents, and other teams do not know or understand each otherís. The whole firm probably wastes hours and hours re-inventing the wheel and searching for key documents. The solution is simple to state, but much more difficult to implement because you have to solve the ëpeopleí issues first. You must get the buy-in of all of the key stakeholders. Everyone: partners, fee earners, secretaries, typists, temps, managers must be helped to understand the need for a unified system of storage of key precedents and completed client documents, and then a small committee (in my view the preferable size for such committees is one, but get one as small as you can) can go to work on designing and implementing a system. One system you might like to consider is as follows.

On your central network drive have one folder for central precedents and another for Client files. Divide the former into the various legal work-types the firm undertakes and then allow each work-type team to sub-divide their precedents into logical groupings with a new folder for each. Divide the latter folder into new folders for each Client either using their account number (if your accounts software uses a numerical system) or their surname if it has to be alphabetical as the first typing of each folder name. Under that open separate folders for each matter opened for the client. Within those folders store the documents, letters, attendance notes etc produced for that client matter. These documents should also have a labelling system: either having the date first or the document type first to allow the system to sort the list for you.

Now you have a system that anyone should be able to quickly pick up and use. You just need to police it and ëtrainí any individuals who seem to be driving down a system of their own invention.