Matter management tips you should follow in 2018

Legal experts weigh in on best practices for matter management

Whether you want 2018 to be a breakout year for your firm or you simply want to still be practicing in 2019, you should heed the actionable, common-sense matter management advice of four of the nation’s top legal experts.

Nerino Petro

Nerino Petro
Nerino is a long-standing technology evangelist. He is CEO of a legal technology consulting firm, and technology co-editor for the ABA GP Solo Magazine. He also serves on the board of the ABA TECHSHOW.

He recommends that you:

Start with the newest first when digitizing files.

If you’re going to convert paper files to electronic, skip the closed files and start with the ones that will make you money, advises Petro. “You want to put technology to use where it’s going to help you do things faster – generate revenue for less work or the same amount of it,” he explains. So he advises digitizing files in this order:

  1. Files open after today’s date or a date in the near future.
  2. Files currently opened.
  3. Closed files.

Set client expectation regarding electronic communication.

Use representation or fee agreements to set expectations and educate clients on how to protect their rights, he advises. Specifically:

  1. Let them know how quickly you’ll respond.
    “Just because an email or text can be sent instantaneously doesn’t mean you’ll be responding in real-time, although they’ll expect that if you don’t make that clear from the onset,” he says.
  2. Remind them not to breach client confidentiality.
    Include language that advises not to:
    • Forward any communications – email or text – to anyone outside the matter
    • Use work accounts because employers have a right to review emails
    “Hopefully, that will get the client to stop and think before they take a break at work to text or email Betty the hairdresser about their case,” he says.

Make sure staff understands your technology and takes advantage of free vendor-provided training.

“Technology is only as good as the person using it,” says Nerino. “So if you’re going to make an investment in it, you also need to invest in the human capital that will use it. This will help ensure you and your staff take full advantage of it in a way that’s consistent with obligations under the rules of professional conduct.”

He cites law practice management software as an example. If you don’t understand the technology, he warns that staff will use a robust practice management system to merely store contact information and won’t take advantage of other, more critical, functions, like client portals.

“So they’ll send documents via an unsecure system like Dropbox or Google Drive, when they have a secure way of doing it that they’re not using because they don’t understand the technology,” he warns.

Ellen Freedman

Ellen is the founder and president of Freedman Consulting, a law-practice consulting firm. She also serves as the Law Practice Management Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Bar Association where she assists members with management issues and decisions on the business side of their practice.

She recommends that you:

Ellen Freedman

Be proactive and purposeful.

“Firms are still reactive and retrospective,” contends Freedman. “They’re still relying entirely too much on serendipity. If it happens to work out, they take that as cosmic reinforcement. They don’t take time to think that if they actually had a really good game plan, maybe the outcome could have been twice as good.”

Think strategically.

Freedman advises that firms think about how they should strategically drive revenue – such as who they should hire and why, as opposed to hiring someone because there’s an abundance of work.

“Anticipate future needs, look at gaps in service points and where you can innovate or augment what you’re already doing for clients,” she insists. “Too many firms will spend more time deciding mundane issues such as whether to get new plants for the reception area than think about whether any practice areas can be improved by upsizing, downsizing, or automating.”

Jim Calloway

Jim Calloway

Jim is the Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program where he frequently writes and speaks about legal technology issues. He also served as co-chair of the ABA TECHSHOW. He recommends that you:

He recommends that you:

Set a standard for whom your firm will represent.

Firms that operate as a single entity, as opposed to a group of individual practitioners, need to have hard-and-fast rules about which types of clients they’ll accept, he explains.

“In many small law firms, lawyers take the client they want. But it impacts the other partners financially if you take on a non-economic case. Some lawyers tend to be too sympathetic or they don’t have the objectivity to say no to a certain kind of matter they love,” he explains. “That’s why it’s important you have rules around which clients you’ll take, such as setting a minimum retainer or specifying the types of matters you’ll accept.”

Standardize document production.

“We have to change from an artisan-type system where every new matter is approached as something unique, to a manufacturing-type system where you get all the same type of information from a client and insert it into pre-made templates,” explains Calloway.

He reflects on a recent legal technology podcast that questioned why lawyers haven’t embraced this type of document assembly.

“When you go to a bank to get an automobile loan, they don’t call the bank’s lawyer in to draft the paperwork. Instead, the bank officer enters items of data. The paperwork, that was previously drafted and approved by the bank’s lawyers, comes rolling of the printer,” explains Calloway. “In today’s marketplace, where consumers are especially price-sensitive, automated document assembly is a smart way to better meet their needs. In fact, I foresee that document charges will almost be like sales tax, and instead, clients pay lawyers for negotiation, strategy and legal advice.”

Heidi Alexander

Heidi is Director and Law Practice Advisor for the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program and Deputy Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a nonprofit lawyer assistance program.

She recommends that you:

Heidi Alexander

Streamline operations.

“A lot of what law firms do is repetitive,” she points out. “For instance, there’s no reason why you need a potential client call you, and you write down their information and put it into a practice management system. You can skip those steps by having them complete a form online.”

Like Calloway, Alexander exhorts firms to embrace automated document building.

“While we say each client is an individual and we need to tailor their work for them, you end up reusing a lot of what you’ve done in the past,” points out Alexander. “That’s why firms should have a centralized client-information database that allows you to pull its information into templates. Larger firms are certainly doing this but small firms are still getting on the bandwagon.”

Avoid doing it all.

“Implementing new technology can take a lot of time and energy. Embrace one, two or three things you can implement in the next year. Really think about that and get your firm involved. Take one piece at a time, master that, and move onto the next,” notes Alexander.

“Good planning and continued training is key. Remember, there’s a learning curve and no one should be expected to master everything in the first few weeks or months. But once you get beyond that, you’re going to be saving a lot of time,” she assures.