by David J. Kalmick
[Note: CompuLaw, LLC. is the nation's leading publisher of Calendar/Docket and Legal Rules processing software. and publisher of Advanced/Network Docket™ (named winner of the National Association of Legal Vendors Award for "Best New Law Product of 1991") and Vision Docket™, which received a similar award from Legal Assistant Today for 1999. While Advanced/Network Docket has all of the features contained herein (and then some), Vision Docket far surpasses this feature set, with its built-in experts and other advanced features.]
It is unusual to find software that actually pays for itself-but that is the case with docketing software being used by many law firms. A survey of insurance carriers writing malpractice policies for California law firms determined that more than half (66 percent) are now granting premium reductions to firms that have effective docket control systems using docketing software.
The survey, which was conducted by Polk Communications, a Los Angeles-based marketing firm, found that insurance companies are granting premium reductions of 2 to 10 percent for firms with effective docket control systems using docketing software. The survey was commissioned by our firm, CompuLaw, Ltd., publisher of the award-winning docketing software, Advanced/Network Docket, and was conducted in late November 1991 [see note above].
The insurance companies granting premium reductions were Reliance National Insurance Co., Crum & Forster, Home Insurance Co., Insurance Co. of the West, Evanston Insurance Co., and Virginia Surety Corp.
The insurance companies not presently granting reductions were Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co., National Union Fire, and American International Surplus Lines. Other carriers providing malpractice coverage for California firms could not be reached for comment.
With annual malpractice premiums ranging from $2,000 to $14,000 for a single attorney to hundreds of thousands for an entire firm, the premium credits quickly pay for even the most expensive multi-user versions of the software.
It's easy to understand why insurance companies are granting these reductions. An estimated 24 to 46 percent of all legal malpractice claims stem from failures in scheduling. With the proper docketing software, attorneys' dockets are automatically scheduled in accordance with court rules, greatly reducing the possibility of missing statutorily required dates.
That capability alone protects attorneys from a myriad problems-most notably malpractice claims and financial ruin, not to mention breached attorney-client relationships and increased insurance costs. And in California, where the California Lawyer reports that many solo practitioners and small firms are reducing caseloads in order to abide by Fast-Track rules, the capacities of docketing control software can spell the difference between profit and loss.
The surveyed insurance companies would not disclose their evaluations of any specific software because, they said, they are not in the business of touting one software over another. Still, they were clear in saying that they granted premium reductions for "effective" docket control systems using docket control software, suggesting that some software is more effective than others.
TWO CRITICAL FEATURES
So the question becomes: What features in a docketing software package enable it to provide an effective docket control system? In our view, and in the opinion of numerous evaluators of legal software, the effectiveness of a docketing control system using docket software rests in two basic areas:
1. Features that prevent operators from entering data incorrectly; and
2. Features that enable the software to schedule events automatically based on preprogrammed court rules.
The disasters that can occur when an operator enters data incorrectly are innumerable and frightening. For instance, when a software program permits operators to enter case names of their own choosing (without validation), operators may inadvertently schedule events for a single case under numerous different case names. A case involving a company called, say, North American Capital Corp. might have events scheduled in cases entitled "North American Capital Corp.," "NACC," "North American," or "Capital Corp." When an attorney needs to see a fully scheduled calendar of the case, the operator could possibly print out a schedule for only "North American Capital Corp.," which would not include events erroneously scheduled under the other three case names.
Effective docketing software needs features to prevent this. One such feature is called data validation-once a case is created in the database, the program lists it in a pop-up menu along with all other cases. This feature requires operators to pull it from the menu so they cannot mistakenly create a new case file under some other name. To back this feature up, the software needs to require that certain mandatory fields, such as "Case Number," be completed before scheduling can occur.
With data validation and mandatory fields features, the software literally prevents operators from making errors, thus avoiding missed dates and malpractice claims.
There are two basic genres of software used in docket control systems: calendaring and docketing software. Calendaring software simply enables lawyers and law firms to create calendars of upcoming events-they are not dissimilar from handwritten calendar books. For example, if you have an event scheduled for March 7, you write it in under March 7.
Docketing software provides the additional-and in the view of software evaluators, essential-capacities to schedule events based on preprogrammed court rules, as well as being able to alter schedules based on changes in court rules.
"While numerous calendaring packages do not provide for automatic calendaring or event generation, it is my opinion that even the smallest non-litigation office will benefit from the discipline imposed by the pre-defined, systematic, and consistent calculation of deadlines," wrote Linda S. Moore, a partner with the legal consulting firm of LGL Management, in the Spring 1991 issue of Law Office Computing.
The following features enable docketing software to provide effective automatic scheduling:
To schedule or reschedule events automatically, the software must have the ability to be programmed with court rules, either manually or with data packages of preprogrammed local court rules. When purchasing a package of preprogrammed court rules, it is critical to know which jurisdictions are included. Certain court rule packages are quite limited, offering only a few basic rules, while others are jurisdiction-specific and thus more complete.
Once court rules are programmed into the software (a task simpler than it sounds), the software must be able to use that data with great flexibility.
Effective docketing software can generate a schedule of events based on local court rules. This will replace time-consuming and error-prone manual systems, which often have operators counting dates on calendars to determine deadline dates. One law firm used a calendar from the makers of Tylenol to make these determinations-which we found very appropriate because such manual systems are sure to result in headaches, if not actually malpractice claims!
The software should be able to adjust correctly scheduled events that fall on court or firm holidays. Any date adjustment based on holidays must be done by predetermined formulas based on a rule or event, not operator discretion or system-wide adjustment rules, which may both result in erroneous deadlines.
Let's look at a court rule that requires an event occur ten days after another event, and where the event being scheduled falls on a court holiday, e.g., on a Saturday. Some software on the market requires operators to predetermine that all events falling on Saturdays be rescheduled for Friday. That would be a system-wide adjustment rule.
Such system-wide adjustment rules can be extremely costly to a firm because while certain court rules may require that events scheduled for Saturday be rescheduled for Friday, others may permit certain events to be rescheduled for Monday. A firm may have to spend thousands of dollars in overtime and temporary services to meet a Friday deadline, expenses that could have been avoided if the software had correctly scheduled the deadline for Monday.
It is also critical that the software be able to differentiate between firm and court holidays, as well as determine which takes precedence. Without such a capacity, a software program could incorrectly reschedule a court deadline that falls on a firm holiday (which does not take precedence over a court deadline!), and thus lead to a malpractice claim.
An effective docket control system using docketing software must have an automatic reminder feature. It should also enable operators to order numerous reminders for critical dates. If, for instance, an important brief is due April 3, the optimum software will enable operators to call for numerous reminders, e.g., a month in advance, three weeks in advance, two weeks in advance, one week in advance, and one day in advance.
It is also important that the software have the capacity to recalculate all scheduled events in the system based on changes in court rules. If a local rule changes and hundreds of events have been scheduled based on the old rule, then the system should be able to analyze all dates based on the old rule and change them according to the new rule.
When a key or so-called trigger date changes, the software should offer operators a choice between automatically adjusting all related dates or simply changing the trigger date and leaving related dates as they are. The program must also have the capacity to schedule dates that are based on "either/or" formulas. Some rules, for instance, call for an event to be scheduled 10 days after a pretrial conference or 70 days before trial, whichever comes first. An effective docketing software needs to be able to analyze such rules and schedule appropriately according to them.
For law firms with two or more timekeepers, it is also critical that the docketing software have the capacity to schedule multiple timekeepers for specific events. If four attorneys and two paralegals must participate in a scheduled event, the software needs to be able to schedule them in accordance with the court rules and their individual calendars.
These are just a few of the important features you should look for in determining which docketing software is right for your firm. If you examine each software package with these concepts in mind, you will be able to select software that will reduce your malpractice risk by providing you with an effective docket control system.
Excerpted from Law
Practice Management, February 1992 issue, pages 13-15.