Mass tort litigation continues to be on the rise. Once a tiny minority of special cases, Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) now makes up the majority of the US federal civil caseload.
As the frequency, size, and complexity of MDLs grow, lawyers are looking to mass tort management tools for help. Case management software and other technologies can organize their work and keep the entire team on track.
But can new technology also help mass tort litigators solve their client communication problems?
As mass tort practices scale, some lawyers are finding it increasingly difficult to keep in close communication with their clients. You can only spend so much time on calls and in meetings, and still manage to move your cases forward and manage your practice.
Communication is especially difficult with MDLs, which can last for years, often deal with extremely complex matters, and involve case developments that happen hundreds of miles away.
Alarms about MDL lawyers were raised when legal scholars published the first survey of satisfaction levels in former MDL plaintiffs. 59% of respondents said they received few or no updates from their lawyers, while 67% said they didn’t know what was happening in their case while it was being litigated. A significant percentage didn’t even know who their lawyers were.
The study’s authors concede that this sample isn’t necessarily representative of all MDLs, since the group was self-selected and largely composed of pelvic mesh plaintiffs (an MDL with a longer wait and lower than some other prominent cases). But it remains instructive. As lawyers increase their case volume and efficiency, they must commit even more deeply to client communication.
Here are 3 ways to use technology to keep clients informed during mass tort litigation:
1. Centralize and track all communication
Each of your clients is talking with multiple people (lawyers, paralegals, case managers, secretaries) in multiple ways (email, text, phone call, in person). All these scattered threads can lead to chaos and confusion. No one knows when and how your office last connected with that client. Meanwhile, big issues fall through the cracks.
That’s why many lawyers centralize all of their communication in one case management system. You go to the case file and receive a full, up-to-date record of all client interaction. Some of these solutions allow you to easily incorporate your email and text messages in the relevant case file, and also provide one central place to add incoming documents and notes. Online client portals give them even more direct, secure access to your team.
A complete and centralized record of communication gives your team direction and confidence. Without it, clients often get conflicting information from different team members, or they find they have to repeat their question or concern each time to someone who is unprepared to respond. But with it, your team has the latest information immediately available, and your firm speaks in a unified voice.
Cloud-based systems allow your team to collaborate from wherever they are. If something new happens in a hearing, you can immediately update that information from your laptop so everyone back at the office is prepared to answer incoming questions. If you’re busy or on vacation, a cloud-based central system lets you delegate client communication without a hiccup.
Mass tort lawyers should seek out case management software that prioritizes communication tools. Advanced options like Filevine include Threaded Conversations, where texts and emails appear in-line with the activity feed of your case, where team members can reply, follow up, ask questions, and assign tasks that deal specifically with that conversation.
2. Expand your communication technology
Scholars Burch and Williams, in their research on MDL plaintiffs, emphasize the need for courts and judges to use videoconferencing technology. With the equivalent of a Zoom link, your clients can feel some connection to hearings that may be happening far away. The same tools are useful in your own interactions with your client. Video calls can help your client feel more seen and connected than regular phone calls, while allowing the same convenience for you both.
Of course, before sharing sensitive information over a video call, make sure you protect attorney-client privilege by taking the proper security measures. Require passwords, 2-factor authentication, end-to-end encryption, and disable features like recording, screen sharing, and remote control.
Another important communication technology for mass tort lawyers is texting. Look for tools that allow you to send and receive texts directly from your case files. Because texting is easy and convenient for clients, they’re much more likely to actually read and respond to your message. Because you’re sending it from a special case file number, the communication is automatically preserved, different team members can respond at their convenience, and you protect your personal privacy.
Texting is best for routine reminders and quick check-ins. Quick text reminders can help your clients stay prepared for upcoming events and deadlines.
3. Automate reports to ensure regular follow-up
When all your information is centralized, it can also be analyzed to ensure accountability. Make sure your case management platform allows you to run regular reports to see which case files haven’t moved in a certain amount of time. Because MDLs can go on for years, significant updates can be far apart. But you want your clients to know you’re still supporting them in their process.
Run a report to see who hasn’t been contacted in the last month. Assign someone to reach out to them just to reiterate that you’re here and you haven’t forgotten about them. Proactive communication not only increases client satisfaction, it also reduces interruptions from clients who worry they’ve been left behind. That gives you more time to focus on your work and increases your productivity.
What your computer can’t do: the human role of lawyering
Of course, the work of lawyering still involves all the old human skills. As you develop your technological ability, make sure you follow these communication practices:
Set realistic expectations
The intake and onboarding process is often focused on getting the facts of the case. But just as important is coming to an agreement about how you’ll work together moving forward. Make sure you answer these questions in your earliest conversations:
- What methods of communication work for your client? Calls, texts, emails, secure client portals?
- How do you want your clients to contact you when they have questions?
- How long can they expect to wait before you return their calls, texts, and emails?
- How frequently should they expect to hear from you while the case is ongoing?
- Who will they be talking to? Are there paralegals, assistants, and case managers who will also be keeping them informed?
You can’t always be available to every client. But if your clients are informed ahead of time that it might take you up to two days to return their call, or that during certain case phases they might only hear case updates once a month, they’re less likely to feel alarmed or abandoned during the process.
Speak your clients’ language
MDLs are some of the most complex legal matters in existence. It’s a tremendous challenge to translate that complexity to clients so they understand what it means for them personally. In traditional litigation, plaintiffs can see the evidence presented on their behalf, watch their lawyers in action, and analyze the judge’s response. Without these markers of the system of justice, they’re going to feel even more alienated.
Translate the rarified legal terms to words regular people understand. Don’t talk down to them. Understand the issues they’re facing outside of the specific case. If they can see you don’t understand the sort of life they live, they won’t trust you. When disagreements arise, make sure you show your clients that you respect their opinions, even if you don’t agree.
Most importantly: actually listen
In the survey of MDL plaintiffs, only 28% felt like their lawyer took their specific facts into account. Many reported feeling like they were part of an assembly line or conveyor belt, their humanity flattened.
Of course plaintiffs are looking for a financial remedy for their suffering. But they also want a chance to be heard. They might not ever be able to share their personal story with a judge — make sure that they can share it with you. Don’t assume you know what happened, or hand-wave details that seem irrelevant. In addition to helping your clients, getting the full story can help you build a stronger case with better outcomes.
Also be sure to ask clients how they want to be involved in the decision-making process, and work as much as possible to cater your communication plans to their needs.
Don’t be a part of the MDL study’s dismal statistics. Even with all the advanced technology in the world, your clients still need your individual time and attention, and the Rules of Professional Conduct forbid you from taking on more cases than you can fully handle. If your clients feel ‘warehoused,’ it erodes faith in the entire judicial system. But if they feel heard, it can directly improve their healing process, regardless of the case outcomes.