Organize Information in Your Law Office by Context

In this article you will learn how to organize information to increase productivity by structuring information in your law firm to be more accessible and accurate.  When implemented correctly, context will help your team to take the next step in a process naturally.  You can take this design further with workflow automation.

A lawyer does not a law firm make

You want to organize your law office to reduce wasted, non-billable hours, close cases faster, improve client satisfaction, and to keep from pulling your hair out.  While you as a lawyer may view your job as devising a case strategy or knowing the law, the first thing you must acknowledge is that your firm is in the information business.  The quicker a lawyer in your firm receives the right information, the better the outcome for you and your clients.  The second thing to acknowledge is that the flow of information is bidirectional.  It occurs 1) from you (the lawyer) to your team or vice versa and 2) from the client to you/your team or vice versa.

Information Gathering

Often times, we find that law firms focus on gathering information almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the assistant or paralegal.  Firms have a fairly well-structured process for the intake of a new client and, generally, manage to collect/request new documents as the case develops.  Paper forms are still, unfortunately, the norm and are later scanned into the system.

The aforementioned examples are process that neatly align with simple triggers and deal with teams that are centrally located.  While having processes for this type of work is essential, it is only half of the equation and completely ignores the bidirectional nature of how information flows in a law office.

Lawyers collect information a variety of ways.  A lawyer will send/receive emails related to the case, make case notes somewhere, record a deposition, log billable hours, and wish a client Happy Birthday.  The result is nearly 50% of documentation isn’t recorded.  This leads to a lot of wasted time.

The overall success of a case, client relationship, and fiscal health of your firm depends on the accurate capture of all information.  Technology can greatly aid you in the accurate capture of information with electronic forms, video recordings, smart tagging, and text-to-speech recordings.  These are specific tools, but they will not organize your law office by themselves.  In the next section, we’ll discuss how to do that.

Policies and Procedures

As you identify the various channels and methods of gathering information, you’ll soon discover that your operational information is divided into four categories:  documents, cases, contacts, and billing.  Each type of information is important to the business to a different degree.  The first step to building a policy that will organize your law office is to identify the relevant compliance requirements of each.  Armed with this knowledge, you can decide on the appropriate procedures and, later, what systems best fit your needs.

It is hugely important that your methodology for identifying, storing, and retrieving information of each kind be thoroughly documented in the simplest language possible.  Even more important, however, is to make sure everyone knows where to find the Policies and Procedures.  A review of its location and the any changes must be completed regularly.  People forget and how people use technology to communicate changes rapidly.  If you do not review the location, purpose, and methods of each information type, your policies will be ignored or age badly.  Your team will begin to do what is easiest for them individually and not what is best for the law firm.  You must audit your policies.

Managing Documents

When most people think about managing documents, they think about their folder structure on a server and, sometimes, a file naming convention.  They’re right, but let’s take a moment to remind ourselves that the goal is to store and retrieve the relevant information quickly.  We must keep that goal clear in our mind as we develop a structure so that it remains simple to understand and navigate.

Let’s imagine you’ve completed a case and sent out an invoice.  You have either sent this invoice through a payment system or via paper(less) billing.  Where does the actual invoice reside?  Is it a document (PDF), is it in the billing system, or do you keep a copy of both?  When a client asks about the invoice via email, where do you save the email conversation?  If a client likes to receive more detailed notes on their invoice, where do you store this information for next time?

Document management is about storing and receiving documents – PDF, Word, and Excel files.  It is not about managing invoices or information on the client.  Those belong within a billing system or a client relationship manager.  There are some document management solutions that offer advanced search to make finding information inside of your email easier.  Your inbox is not a filing cabinet and is not part of document management.

Once you’ve stripped all of these things away, your folder structure becomes a lot more straightforward.  While there are many ways to organize your folders, we find the best way for a law office comes from the American Bar Association’s article on organizing paper files.  You can see how these principles are applied in the modern era using this real-life example of an Immigration practice.

Everyone will prefer something slightly different.  Use the above examples to help structure your own method, but keep it mind that you can’t please everyone in a large firm.  Keeping it simple is far more efficient than a more complex system (or ‘robust’, if you prefer) tailored to the desires of one or two people.  If people don’t understand it, they won’t use it.

Time-tracking / Billing System

You need to know how fiscally healthy your practice is.  A billing system allows you to know this.  No matter the system, the two questions it must answer are, ‘Where is the money going?’ and, ‘Where is the money coming from?’  Billing is a highly predictable process and is easy to automate, so long as the information input into the system is accurate.  The easier the system is to input information into, the more likely that information will be recorded.  Disputes and other notes can be added as attachments inside of most systems.  There is no reason to keep individual copies of files separate from the system.

Client Relationship Management (CRM)

Most new client work will come from existing clients.  Managing the information related to CRM is about leveraging your network for more business.   This kind of information is unlike any other stored by your practice because it’s a function of Sales and Marketing, not case management.

Many small firms have one or two rainmakers that store this information in their heads or make extensive use of the Notes section of their Outlook or Gmail Contacts.  The tool you use is unimportant.  What matters is the quality of the information.  Many CRMs make it easier to store emails by topic or category, record the quality of an interactions, and maintain a list of potential sales leads.

Though outside the scope of this article, it is worth noting that it can be difficult to get rainmakers to buy into using a CRM.  Many see their value to the firm as directly related to the relationship they maintain with the client.  This is all the more reason to acknowledge that this is a type of information that determines the success of your law office.

Case Management or Practice Management Software

As your law office grows and the cases grow in complexity, you’ll find that no matter how well thought-out your original design, it’s gets a bit clunky.  Once you’ve reached this point, you should turn to a Case Management or Practice Management software.  It takes all of the above concepts and fuses them together.  Instead of recording client information in multiple locations, you only record it once and that information is shared across multiple systems.  As a tasks are assigned and completed, forms and notifications will be sent automatically.  Rest assured, the work you’ve done to organize your law office will serve you well.  You cannot make full use of practice management software without a proper understanding of how information flows in your practice.

Putting it all together

Every law office does things a little differently and, often, the firm owner believes this is part of their competitive advantage.  When the firm is small, this is likely true.  The system is superior because its primary user is its creator.  As the law office grows, the systems and structures need to make sense to others who do not have as much insight into the entire process.  Information becomes much more contextually relevant and your systems for identifying, storing, and retrieving the right information quickly must adapt.

Sherwood Chamberlain has helped many law offices in Miami to organize their information so that it is contextually relevant.  The team member does not have to understand the entire design to know how to find and store information.  We reinforce good system design through constant training and policy review.  Once we’ve established a foundation, we introduce workflow automation so that work happens automagically, rain or shine.  If you have additional questions about how to organize the information in your law office to improve operational efficiency on the way to automation, contact us, phone: (888) 967-7768 x2, or leave us a message below.

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