Choosing the right case management software for your firm is a huge decision. This isn’t just some additional app you’re throwing in the mix to make things a little easier. This is a new central structuring system for your work.
Changing your case management system isn’t like redoing your garage. This is like moving into an entirely new home.
Of course, case management software can also bring massive benefits, like increased client satisfaction and higher revenue. But you want to make sure you’re not an outlier to those rosy stats. With so much at stake, you want to make sure you choose the right system.
How can you make sure?
I recently spoke with Ann Tatum, the senior paralegal in charge of business development for the North Carolina law firm Tatum & Atkinson. Before her current position, she was the VP of business development for a California security firm. She is a woman with brilliant ideas about technology, law, and business development—and she’s generous enough to share them.
Ann worked with senior partner Season Atkinson to make case management decisions for their firm. Together, the two brought a careful, orderly process that many other firms could learn from. Not only did they find technology that fit the needs of their firm, they did it in a way that ensured long-term, firm-wide buy-in.
Here are their secrets:
1. Form a decision-making duo
Ann’s main ally throughout the decision-making process was attorney and firm partner Season Atkinson. Attorney Atkinson was a core figure throughout the search and implementation process, bringing her years of legal and management expertise to the process.
This duo has a few key features that led to success:
- Because it consists of only two people, a duo is agile. Eventually the entire team will be deeply involved, but for the early stages a duo needs flexibility and speed that larger groups can’t match.
- It includes a senior partner, meaning they can act with full authority. They don’t risk coming to the end of the process only to have all their work scrapped by someone higher-up.
- Because no one is operating alone, they can bounce ideas off each other and see beyond each others’ blindspots.
- Ann has a tech background, while Attorney Atkinson has a legal background, creating a wide knowledge base. But both have some interest and experience in the other’s expertise, creating overlap that makes communication easier.
- Both members share mutual respect and trust.
2. Act before it’s urgent
This advice won’t be relevant to those who were thrown into the most urgent moment of their professional lives by the COVID pandemic. But there are still many firms feeling like they could hold on to their current system for a little longer, until they’ve got more time and lee-way to make a big change. Ann and Attorney Atkinson’s experience speaks directly to this conundrum.
Ann explains: “Our previous system worked, but it just worked ok.” At the time, they were operating off of a case management system that was based on an in-house server. The technology was growing outdated and required frequent off-site back-ups to protect against information loss. “I could see this system wasn’t going to give us the efficiencies we would need to be competitive beyond 2020.”
Because Ann and Attorney Atkinson started the process before it was urgent, they were able to go through a more measured, careful transition—one that ensured they found the best tools for the firm.
Once the true urgency hit, with the catastrophe of COVID-19, Tatum & Atkinson were well-positioned to weather the storm. Ann explains: “we sent everyone home with a computer. The next morning, we were all up and running remotely, without hitches, and with minimal business disruption.”
“If we didn’t already have those tools in place,” says Ann, “this would have been a terrible year.”
3. Strategically involve the whole team
“I’m a strong believer in team,” Ann explains. She knew if she and Attorney Atkinson made the decision completely on their own, they’d be missing out on the benefits of collective input and a shared sense of ownership. They needed their team to be part of the process from the very beginning.
But this didn’t mean that each team member had to look at every demo and make nitty-gritty implementation decisions. Instead, the duo engaged their team at the big-picture level. They asked all the lawyers and staff to write a list of their must-haves: all the capabilities they needed in order to best accomplish their work.
The impetus for making a dramatic change was the need for comprehensive disaster management (a very prescient concern back in sunny 2018). But through this exercise, Ann and Attorney Atkinson learned that different team members also needed other capabilities — they wanted robust case management and document management tools, such as the ability to send and receive faxes digitally and run optical character recognition on scanned documents.
By engaging the entire team, they were able to get an overview of how each role at the firm might engage with the technology. At the same time, they primed each team member to feel a sense of accountability and ownership in the process.
4. Think from the perspective of your clients
It’s not only the legal team that the duo needed to consider. They also worked to understand the needs and desires of the firm’s clients, now and in the years to come.
Chief among these was the ability to communicate. “Clients want tier-one communication tools,” Ann explains. Her firm’s clients want the ability to send and receive text messages to their legal team. They also want to receive documents digitally and be able to sign them electronically.
Their focus on client needs paid off. Those exact tools were hugely important when the pandemic hit and the firm had to close its doors. Ann points out: “during disruption, we’ve been able to keep our focus on our clients—not on trying to figure out our systems.”
5. Find your top contenders
Armed with this information, Ann and Attorney Atkinson undertook a holistic review of case management options on the market. They focused on those that were cloud-based, but also ran through the team’s list of ‘must-haves,’ winnowing out the options that fell short of their needs. They demoed the most promising contenders and narrowed down the list to their top 3.
6. Don’t just look at the software: look at the company
Ann and Attorney Atkinson next turned their attention beyond the features of the software itself to the company that created it.
“From there, we interviewed the firms,” Ann says. “I wanted to understand what people’s future strategies were. I needed to know how they were thinking, where their thought processes were going.”
For big technology decisions, firms should ask these questions about providers:
- Do they have a proven track record? Look at reviews and talk with firms that are current customers.
- Do they have a strategic plan for future success? You never want to change your case management structure only to have your tech company go bankrupt.
- Do their plans for the future include frequent updates and new features? Ask how many people they have working on software development. What are their plans for future releases? How will they stay ahead of their competitors?
- What are their security credentials? What kinds of security personnel do they have on their team? What are their certifications?
- What are their values and priorities? Are they a good match for your firm? Will they care about keeping your business or is their attention somewhere else?
- If you have a problem or request, how easy will it be to get their attention?
7. Don’t offload implementation—have a firm leader drive the process
With the steps above, Ann and Attorney Atkinson were able to confidently select the best case management system for their firm. But their process didn’t end there. The next step would prove to be pivotal in firm-wide adoption of the new operating core.
The next step was customizing the system for the firm’s needs. Rather than outsourcing this process to an IT professional, Attorney Atkinson herself led this process.
Ann explains: “I hear a lot of firms say ‘well, we hired an IT guy.’ And I just squish my face up. What do IT guys know about running a law firm? You need someone who knows how to run a law firm to implement the technology.”
With Attorney Atkinson driving the build-out process herself, the final system fit the needs of the firm. Ann says: “I know that isn’t the usual process for law firms. But we wanted the technology to be adopted by our team, and that meant it had to be customized according to the way we do law. Without that, we would get pushback from my team, wanting to go back to the old way of doing things, which was limited but comfortable.”
Her firm knew from the beginning they needed widespread adoption and understanding of the technology. They couldn’t outsource that. “It’s very difficult to get companies to buy into this mindset when choosing new technology. Lawyers might think ‘I can’t use my precious legal resources to implement a software. I could pay someone else to do that.’”
“But case management is a core function of a law firm,” continues Ann. “If the case management system isn’t properly set up, you’ll never get the efficiencies you need.”
8. Utilize ongoing training opportunities
The final step of this process is an on-going one. Lawyers and staff from Tatum & Atkinson regularly engage in ongoing training opportunities. These include user conferences such as Legal X, as well as a Zapier conference to learn how to better automate workflows between different apps.
The most recent ABA TechReport found that 40% of lawyers say they have no technology training opportunities. For small and solo firms, that number is even higher. Almost half of the lawyers in small firms and 71% of lawyers working on their own say they don’t have options for learning about new legal technologies.
To fix this issue, the report authors recommend getting training through software vendors. Even firms that have no built-in tech training infrastructure can still benefit from tutorials, webinars, and conferences offered by software vendors.
With these 8 steps, Ann and Attorney Atkinson helped Tatum & Atkinson move toward greater efficacy and improved client service. They chose powerful case management software that met the needs of the firm, and they did it in a way that encouraged full buy-in from the entire team.
Ann and Attorney Atkinson chose Filevine as their firm’s legal operating core. “It was the right decision for us, and we’re thrilled with the technology and service level we’ve received,” Ann says. “We feel that the team at Filevine has our best interests at heart, and we’re very grateful for that.”
But whatever the conclusion, the steps Ann set out can help you make your major technology decisions with greater confidence and clarity.