Legal Practice Management
Legal Practice Management software is software that law firms and lawyers use to handle their client and matter information, case management including a docket calendar, accounting and financial (billing and bookkeeping) management, document management, conflict management, and other issues related to legal practice management. The American Bar Association recommends that attorneys use software to manage their own legal practice to avoid legal malpractice.
This book is a guide to what to expect from legal practice management software, as well as what an open source developer might want to consider for developing an open source legal practice management software. As of the writing of this book, there are hundreds of commercial legal practice management software and very few open source versions. This is an open source book written for both lawyers and developers in the hope of developing better quality software for legal practice management.
Client and Matter Information Management
Attorneys and Law Firms keep track of information in a number of different ways. As part of legal billing almost every expense is kept track of by client and matter number. From as far down as using a photocopy machine or fax machine all the way up to representing a client in court. While each client is assigned a client number, there is usually a client number assigned for general office use to keep track of expenses not related to billing clients, but to help cut costs of general work. This is a variation of job cost accounting and can help attorneys and/or law firms become more profitable.
First there needs to be a system to search for client and matter numbers and names. Usually the billing office sets up the data entry of each client and matter number or the legal assistants and/or administrative assistants do that if a law firm or attorney lacks a business office. When an attorney or another employee of the law firm fills out a time sheet each task or job is given a client and matter number so that they can bill the client for work done on the matter. Each matter number has to have a client number associated with it, usually a matter is a court case but it could be anything from legal research, wills, accounting matters, preparing for a case, writing letters and other documents, etc. There needs to be a system to search for client and matter information to keep track of jobs done, as well as copy that information from the database to letters and other documents via bookmarks in the document, like a check request, to automate the office.
There are other things to search by, for example practice area or area of law, work group, billing attorney, legal team, and so on. Sometimes a law firm needs to keep track of client and matter information for these areas. There also needs to be a billing active and search active flags set to see if the client and matter information are still being billed to the client, or are still active with the firm and can be searched. Sometimes the client and matter data is so old that the law firm no longer bills the client or has been marked as search inactive by the business office as a result of record retention. Still even if inactive in some way there is always a need to search for it, but normally there needs to be a way to filter the search so that only the billing active and search active client and matter data is searched to keep the searches faster.
Case Management and the Docket Calendar
In almost any law firm the amount of cases handled can grow so big that they are hard to manage or attorneys can leave a law firm and not tell other attorneys what cases they are handling that it leads to legal malpractice. Any law firm worth their salt has to represent their clients for all cases, or else they face legal malpractice issues. While there is Calendar software for almost any operating system made, attorneys usually don't share their docket calendar with other attorneys and either the data goes with the attorney who takes their laptop with them, or the desktop or laptop gets reformatted and the data is deleted. Also when an attorney goes on vacation or gets sick, nobody knows what he or she was covering as far as the case management and docket calendar cover. What a horrible way to manage cases and the docket calendar when the data goes missing.
The solution to this is to store the case management and docket calendar on a shared server and when an attorney leaves the law firm or gets sick or goes on vacation, someone else can reassign his/her cases and docket calendar with other attorneys that can cover for them. This helps to prevent legal malpractice as well as helps to give the law firm a more professional image. A law firm loses their professional image when they miss court dates or are not there for their clients. No amount of public relations can help gain that professional image back, especially when the news media covers the law firm's missing of court dates and other legal malpractice.
Accounting and Financial (Billing and Bookkeeping)
The legal practice management software should handle billing and bookkeeping, aka the accounting and other financial data. This means the time sheets of attorneys and every other employee and every expenses should be accounted for and billed to the client or put into an expense for the law firm if it is not client related. It should follow accepted accounting practices for the nation the law firm is located in, and in the case of international law firms be able to show the accounting books in the format of every nation the law firm has an office in. Sometimes the software is only written for one nation's accounting practices, like the USA, but not another. In that case there should be an option to export the accounting data to another program that can put the accounting books in the correct accounting format that another accounting software can use to organize the books.
The law firm needs software to keep track of the documents they create as well as documents they collect via evidence for court. Keep in mind that the original documents that are usually scanned and then put into an image database need to be kept in case the judge of a court requests the originals, as some judges want to see the original watermarked documents and not the copy that was scanned into the database or copied by hand. The document database should be able to keep track of document changes, and have a search feature to search by client and matter information and other information covered in other parts of this book such as area of law or practice area, work group, billing attorney, case number, and so on.
A Law Firm needs to know when there are conflicts of almost any type. Is the attorney related to someone involved in the case, or the client, etc? Each law firm has their own code of ethics that helps avoid conflicts, so this part of the program may need to be customized to each law firm. If there is a conflict of interest, it needs to be recorded via client, matter, work group, case number, and so on, so that when the same thing comes up again, the law firm can avoid it by reassigning a different attorney to the case, and so on. The last thing a law firm needs is to have a case thrown out of court due to a conflict that they easily could have noticed via conflict management software.