Kodner and Cramer on the Case (Management) – Can't We All Just Get Along? Integration in Case Management Systems

Welcome to Kodner and Cramer on the Case (Management), a monthly column written by Ross Kodner and Sheryl Cramer.

Ross Kodner is a self-described “recovering lawyer” who founded legal
technology consultancy and integration firm, MicroLaw, Inc. 17 years ago.
He spends his time helping law practices better integrate technology into
their practices, as well as being a prolific CLE presenter and writer on legal techno topics. Ross can be reached at 414-476-8433.

Sheryl Cramer is the founder and principal of Cramer
. Replete with an array of case management and billing system
certifications, Sheryl helps small firms deploy these systems successfully.
Sheryl is also “Of Counsel” to MicroLaw, Inc. Sheryl can be reached at 580-248-3099.

Episode I

Greetings and welcome to our first column on case management systems for law practices. We look forward to addressing the hottest and most pressing issues, questions, trends, techniques and tips related to successfully implementing case managers in your offices. We welcome your ideas, questions and comments! Now on to our first episode . . .

In the world of modern case management systems, the name of the game is
integration. The goal in any case management implementation is to convince
all of your key software systems to sit in a virtual circle and sing “eKumbaya” together. Case managers, properly deployed, quickly become the central beating info-heart of any law practice. One of the keys to success is achieving reasonably seamless integration between the case management software and all the other parts and pieces of the practice’s network systems.

In our first series of columns, we will explore the various applications and functions that connect to and integrate with modern case managers. The linking possibilities include:

1. Billing Programs. Link with a billing program to eliminate duplicate entry and reduce errors. Three popular and widely supported choices are TABS III, PCLaw and TimeSlips.

2. Palm or Handheld Devices. Use a Palm-sized device to always have your calendar, contacts and your to-do list with you (some case management systems also link to handhelds running the Microsoft Pocket PC platform, but these programs are in the small minority; ALWAYS verify the type of handheld platforms your case manager synchronizes with before you buy a handheld!). There is also the ability in some situations to access case management information remotely via e-mail with handheld devices like the popular Blackberry series.

3. Document Assembly Programs. Add a Document Assembly program to produce
truly awesome document creations – turn your current “dumb” forms into “smart” forms. Two widely-used choices are the old stalwart HotDocs and the up-and-comer GhostFill, the latter of which could be thought of as “the thinking person’s document assembler.”

4. E-Mail Linking. Check your case management system’s capabilities carefully in this regard; some of them will enable you to send and receive e-mail “through” your case management software – this allows you to attach the e-mail to the appropriate client file. However, there are LOTS of issues to consider in this area.

5. Word Processors. Increase efficiency with a program you already have.

6. Home/Remote Offices. Synchronize and access your office’s complete case
management system from your home office, from a branch office or literally from anywhere outside your office with portable technology and a variety of electronic access options.

E-Mail Integration With Case Managers

With that said, our first area of exploration, the subject of our first column, is e-mail integration with case managers. More and more of us come to realize that an increasing number, if not already a majority of the “documents” we create, are actually done as e-mails rather than traditional word processed files. With the proliferation of e-mails on our office networks – and there is no question that the multiplication rates of these electronic tidbits surpass even the friskiest rabbits – the need to manage them has increased. Most of us are buried in a sea of messy e-mail piles; our e-mailboxes overflow with them. While there initially may have been some half-hearted attempt to connect them to client files by putting them in Outlook, GroupWise or Eudora “folders” or “cabinets”, the attempt usually failed within the first week – just too cumbersome.

So . . . ta da! To the rescue comes modern case management software offering a panoply of panaceas for the e-mail morass. Um . . . or maybe not. Let’s explore this question.

In most modern case managers, the process of associating e-mails with cases
is quite simple. Many modern case managers either integrate with e-mail software like Outlook, or sometimes also GroupWise, or connect to it via the MAPI (Mail Application Programming Interface) “standard.” Some case managers have begun to build their own internal POP3-compatible e-mail engines – TimeMatters is a notable example of this inclusive approach.

But is this a good thing? At first blush, the possibility of e-mail neatly and reasonably effortlessly organized by individual client matter or firm administrative file seems almost too good to be true – what a time saver it would be! But the question of whether you keep your e-mail systems separate from your case managers or integrate the two functions in some way is not such a simple question.

Separate, Integrated, or Internal e-mail

There are a broad range of issues involved in the question of Separate, Integrated, or Internal e-mail from/with/within case management systems (did that sentence make sense? ). We see the questions and issues as follows:

* Outlook, and particularly the 2002 version, is certainly a fully featured e-mail product. That’s the one good thing we can say about it. Because in every other respect, we think it’s a horrendously dangerous product to use these days.

* Issue number one with using Outlook in ANY respect is that it hasn’t earned its “Lookout!” nickname without good reason. Other than IE and IIS, it’s hard to imagine a single bigger security risk in the history of computing. It’s gotten to the point where there are at the very least weekly announcements of a security hole or an opening for worm writers to exploit these programs, resulting in regular PR embarrassments for those in Redmond. Truly, the ultimate modern oxymoron is “Microsoft security.” Why would ANY enterprise – law firm or otherwise – willingly subject themselves to this. Only masochists . . . well never mind.

* Issue number two is that Outlook, in all its fully featured-ness, has a fundamental flaw: its fully featured-ness. It’s already a tough battle in most firms to get buy-in from all the lawyers and staff in regard to the ideas of consistency and commonality of organization, as well as method and process that are essential for uniformly and successfully implementing a case manager (see Ross’ article on this subject – tips for successfully implementing case management systems at //www.llrx.com/features/cmsystems.htm). But to have the temptation of another calendar, another address book, another to-do list system is just plain dangerous. It’s a red flag of data Balkanization just waiting to happen.

* Think about the e-mail you actually receive . . . and the messages you send. How many are actually related to cases and genuine firm administrative matters v. pure fluff. Why would you want ALL of that extraneous flotsam and jetsam clogging your case management system? Personally, all we’d want to see would be “the real stuff” – client and case-related messages.

* Further, the massive build up of individual records that internal e-mail (inside the case management system) brings will quickly bring many databases to their knees – even in “smaller” firms. This means that industrial strength database engines like the various SQL permutations found in the “Enterprise” or “Client/Server” versions of case management products are practically essential. And even if it’s not for the first six months of using internalized e-mail, just wait a year or two years and e-mail’s geometrically-increasing data-sprawl will get you. It is insidious and inevitable, unless you’ve invested in the underlying database to handle it. And this is simply not a practical (to internally manage) or affordable (for smaller firms) option in many cases.

* Connecting e-mails to cases – our preferred current method for our TimeMatters, PracticeMaster (formerly known as CaseMaster), and Amicus Attorney – using clients is this: many of these clients also use Worldox, integrated with their case management products. So whether they use Outlook or GroupWise, they use Worldox to save and profile the e-mails they want to attach to matter files in their case management systems. Worldox forces them to think about the same kind of profile info to best describe and organize e-mail, just as they would with a word processed document. It’s quick, but still a thoughtful process that puts the document where it needs to go. In practice, this is much better than the “save it all and hope I can find it later” approach. Since Worldox automatically integrates with these case management products, the e-mail/documents get attached automatically to the matter files – no extra work to do other than the standard save process. The data equivalent of killing two birds with one stone – profile information visible and available and searchable in the document manager and also an entry under the “Docs” tab of the matter file in the particular case manager. A Zen-like state of data happiness.

And no extraneous e-mail junk clogging a case manager’s Inboxes – all those messages with subject lines like “VIAGRA – Get Up for Anything at Low Prices!” or “You subscribed to this” (my personal favorite – obviously we must’ve been on drugs when we subscribed to all these “services” and we don’t even DO drugs!) or “FINANCIAL FREEDOM THROUGH HERBAL SUPPLEMENT SALES NOW!” are banished to an e-mail engine. All safely distant from the “real work” contained in the case manager.

So let’s say it this way – if case managers built really world-class e-mail capability that included spam killing, content filtering, easy management of multiple mailboxes, etc. we might change our tune. Otherwise, we don’t think so – we’ll keep our e-mail engines and our case managers separate.

NEXT ISSUE: Watch for the second in this series of case management integration columns.

(C) 2002 Ross L. Kodner and Sheryl Cramer, All Rights Reserved

Posted in: Case Management, Kodner and Cramer on the Case (Management)