Management Assistance Program
Observations of Today’s Law Firm Client Files
By Jim Calloway
Each client’s information is maintained by the law firm in the client file. Lawyers do not frequently use the term data, but it is data that is contained in the client file, and data from the client file is used to deliver legal services to the client. Our tradition, however, involved “extracting” the data by reading or scanning written documents and taking notes. That will likely always be something lawyers do, reviewing documents to see what is important.
But reading the documents you created to recall the date of the accident or how many children your client has is not an efficient 21st-century process. And most lawyers don’t have to do it that way. They may have a quick-reference datasheet. It may be called Initial Client Interview. Looking at that was quicker than reading legal documents, but it could trip one up if a mistake was made during the interview that was fixed before the document was executed.
In the pre-computer days, my law firm had a form printed on construction paper we called File Opener with all of the client’s contact information, the basics of the matter, a place to handwrite opposing counsel’s information and places to jot down new dates if matters were reset. The form stayed on the top of one side of the file for quick reference and was often removed to file documents under it – hence the need for construction paper. That concept could still be useful today as many lawyers who have converted to digital client files still have a “back up” paper client file to take to court with them.
But that’s not how we do it today! Today we search. Today we organize data. This brings me to what some would consider a controversial statement that many of my professional colleagues also consider obvious. Digital client files are superior to paper-based client files. It is true today and will be truer going forward. This does not mean that lawyers who are using paper-based files to represent their clients are doing anything wrong concerning their client representation. The legal profession has traditionally used paper-based information management tools from client files to exhibits entered into evidence at court to legal treatises. For centuries, paper was the best way to organize information.
TODAY DIGITAL TOOLS ARE REPLACING PAPER-BASED ONES
Business operations run digitally. When a business converts its data to digital, it can be used more effectively. And yes, the legal profession is lagging a bit in this transition to digital compared to many other types of businesses.
The most obvious reason a digital client file is superior to files held solely in traditional file folders is a digital client file can be securely backed up and the client’s information protected, while paper files can be destroyed or lost. Fires and natural disasters do happen, but they are rare. Hard drive crashes are also rare. Malware attacks are a greater danger. If this was the only reason digital client files are superior, the weakness could be remedied by an appropriate data backup regime. Digital client files also:
- Allow the lawyer to locate any document in the client file with a mouse click or two
- Allow for more than one person to work on a client file at a time
- Allow for easier remote access
- Provide for easier and secure sharing of client information with the client or co-counsel
- Allow lawyers to use specific data with automated document assembly functions
- Result in never misplacing the client file
- Make it much easier to quickly check the current status of projects.
During the 2020 shelter in place period, law firms immediately experienced the reality that digital client files were superior in the event several people from the law firm needed to have access to the client file, particularly if they were working from different physical locations.
For solo and small firm lawyers, the structure and sophistication of a practice management software solution is of great value for managing and organizing digital client files. But even larger law firms should explore these tools if their “homegrown” solutions are not meeting their needs. Practice management tool Clio is a sponsor of the 2020 OBA Virtual Annual Meeting. Discounts codes for OBA members for Clio and other practice management solutions are available to new subscribers by logging into MyOKBar.
I frequently talk with lawyers who have been planning to make this move for some time but can’t find the time to do so. In fact, I talked to one lawyer three Decembers in a row before his law firm finally made the move. The monthly subscription fees for these tools that provide data storage, time and billing and client portals are well worth the price. I have been making this pitch for years now, and now many law firms use these tools. But many still do not. It is a business choice.
SECURE CLOUD-BASED STORAGE IS A MUST
A lawyer or law firm may decide to not utilize complete digital client files. But having some method of secure, online storage is an important tool and a good insurance policy to protect against critical document loss, at least when a representation is concluded – even if you do not enjoy the benefits of using a digital file during the representation. While you may not have complete digital client files, it is a good insurance policy to scan and upload a final decree or a last will and testament to a secure cloud storage site. For Microsoft 365 subscribers, OneDrive is a safe and secure cloud storage option.
If you have decided not to subscribe to a practice management solution, the next best solution (and, sorry, but it is not a close second) is also a subscription service. But many consider it a better value because they have (or will soon have) this subscription already.
MICROSOFT 365 (FORMERLY OFFICE 365)
A Microsoft 365 subscription is “must-have” software for the majority of law firms. Certainly, some lawyers use the G Suite alternative or other tools, but Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Word and Microsoft PowerPoint are mainstays of modern business operations today. That is an important reason why “Everything a Law Firm Should Know About Microsoft 365” from Catherine Sanders Reach, director for the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association, is on the agenda for the 2020 OBA Virtual Annual Meeting. There is now an amazing number of tools, add-ons and customizations that are available at no extra charge as a part of your Microsoft 365 suite.
Because Microsoft 365 is still expanding and developing, you are going to have to first learn how to operate the many tools it provides and then customize them to perform the law office functions you desire. And then you would still most likely have to purchase a third-party time and billing application.
Reviewing the already-existing practice management tools and subscribing to one still seems like the best idea for most lawyers, who will at best seek to become adequate Microsoft 365 users as opposed to Microsoft 365 gurus who built their own data management tools.
BEST PRACTICES WITH DIGITAL DOCUMENTS
Digital documents are also superior to paper documents in most situations. Executed last will and testaments and certain affidavits are two of the ever-shrinking list of examples where paper documents are still “better” than digital due to admissibility type of issues. Even with those types of documents, the wise lawyer will scan and save a digital copy “just in case.”
I still receive PDF files that are image-only PDF files and have not been properly created with text accessible in the file. For years, I used to gently reach out to a law firm or lawyers who sent me the file in that format as they might not appreciate what they are doing. Often it was just the default setting on the office scanner not set to optical character recognition (OCR) when scanning. Now it happens so rarely it is just simpler to open the document in Adobe Acrobat Pro DC and OCR it myself.
Whether you are sending PDF files to clients or opposing counsel, they need to be searchable. We want to be able to highlight and copy text from the digital document. I believe most law offices use Adobe Acrobat DC Professional, but some use other tools. Whatever tool you use, you should be able to easily OCR a PDF file, combine multiple PDF files, extract pages and do simple document editing. Every law office needs a resident PDF expert.
BETTER DIGITAL CLIENT FILES, PRACTICE MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE AND IMPROVING YOUR SKILLS WITH PDF FILES
This month my article is very basic and short. It is time to start planning for 2021, which we all agree really needs to be better than 2020.
Investing the time perfecting, improving or establishing your digital client files is an improvement that will keep on giving to your firm in the future, as will improving how you use your practice management software (or subscribing to a service if you do not).
It is not difficult to improve your PDF editing skills. Watch a few videos and do some other self-study on using these editing tools. The next time you don’t know how to do something, use some internet searches to figure it out. It is much easier to learn when you are not trying to accomplish something under a deadline.
Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program director. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma? Contact him at 405-416-7008, 800-522-8060, jimcatokbar.org. It’s a free member benefit.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal — November, 2020 — Vol. 91, No. 9