University of New Mexico
The COVID-19 pandemic’s outbreak forced people in nearly every line of work to reorganize their work very differently. It’s been no different for legal professionals. With work processes needing to adjust to an ever-changing new normal, legal professionals discovered that they needed tools that would allow them to be more productive — despite the social distancing.
That was certainly the case at the Office of University Counsel at the University of New Mexico (UNM), whose staff of 15 attorneys and 15 support professionals oversees all the university’s legal activity. This work includes handling employment contracts and public records requests under the state of New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). UNM also engages in various kinds of litigation, including medical malpractice suits against the university hospital as well as matters involving students and employees. “We typically partner with an outside counsel firm to help with the actual going-to-trial part,” says Jessica Bowen, the Office of University Counsel’s senior operations manager. That requires her department “to share a lot of highly confidential documentation back and forth.”
Before COVID-19, the Office of University Counsel relied on a variety of digital tools, including what Bowen describes as “dated document management software” that was no longer being supported. What made the system particularly out-of-date when the pandemic arrived was that it was server-based. With attorneys and staff working remotely, that system became harder to access. What the counsel office needed was a legal management system that was more flexible, and not only in terms of access. It had to be capable of taking on the office’s complex needs — and grow as those needs grew. In addition, UNM’s legal team wanted a system that could put in one place all the digital sources of information it had been accessing. For instance, the legal office was using different platforms for case management data and file sharing. Having one system would simplify numerous tasks and make the office’s work much more efficient.
But it wasn’t easy to find such a system, particularly one that works for the way a university legal department works. “The main thing we needed because of COVID-19 was a cloud-based system, where we could go to a website and just log in,” Bowen says. “But we also have to handle HIPAA compliance and the many other security protocols, and there was a limited pool of technology options that would actually meet those.”
Then Bowen discovered Thomson Reuters® HighQ, which not only was web-based but also able to manage both matters and documents. “There are a lot of programs that do just one or the other,” Bowen says. “We didn’t want to be on two systems if we didn’t have to be. That was probably the biggest selling point.”
And so, in the summer of 2021, UNM’s Office of University Counsel officially subscribed to HighQ. It has taken advantage of the fact that the solution’s versatility extends beyond providing a centralized cloud-based system. “We handle a wide range of legal matters,” Bowen notes. “We wanted a system that we could mold to each of these different pillars of work that we have.” With HighQ, she adds, “you can build modules in whatever way you need.”
Putting it to work
Although HighQ has simplified a lot of its work, the university’s counsel office found that it needed time to build it out — and a bit of counseling.
Happily, UNM found it could lean heavily on its support team at Thomson Reuters. “The service they provided was fantastic,” Bowen says. “We’ve been able to have weekly meetings with our HighQ team, where we can share screens and they can teach us about the different features. Now that we better understand how it works, it’s much easier to add new capabilities and enhancements.”
One of the first ways UNM’s Office of University Counsel used HighQ was for document sharing — and in many cases, those documents can run thousands of pages. “That was an immediate benefit,” says Alissa Mavridis, a UNM paralegal who specializes in medical malpractice work. “It’s easier, because instead of emailing documents back and forth, we have set places to save them.”
For instance, when an attorney has a new pleading, he or she can place it in a “pleadings” folder and then inform UNM legal staff where that information can be found. HighQ can be set up to provide digital alerts whenever an item is added. Admittedly, “you don’t want to receive 100 alerts every day,” Mavridis notes. “But you want to be alerted about some things, so we’re working to establish a balance.”
The Office of University Counsel uses HighQ to track discovery and the people named in cases via iSheets, spreadsheet-like tools that allow people to share and track structured data. UNM creates a separate iSheet module containing information for each case. It also can link the iSheets together for simplify search and reporting.
The ability to generate reports more easily is one of the capabilities of HighQ that UNM’s Office of University Counsel particularly values. The office’s reporting includes the date a lawsuit was filed, the date the suit was served, the attorney working the case, and the judge. With HighQ, “we are able to set up the columns so that we can export the information,” Mavridis says. “That is a huge time- saving capability. Instead of spending half the day on a report, now it’s a half-hour to an hour.” For instance: “When we’re asked how many cases we have open and how many recently closed, we now can look it up right away.”
HighQ also has been helpful in terms of transferring data and identifying data that was incorrectly entered. Though HighQ, UNM’s legal team can generate two types of reports — namely, confidential and nonconfidential. Another section that the office uses internally that includes more specific and confidential details regarding the case and the allegations.
In addition, HighQ allows the office to separate the different “entities” or divisions within the hospital and throughout the entire university. “Before HighQ, we would have to go through the list of cases and manually pick out the ones that didn’t apply to a particular entity,” Bowen says. “Now, we can just export from Excel and add a filter that has the entity field in it,” a process that typically takes about five minutes.
“Any piece of information that we ever get a question on, we can create a field in iSheets.” Bowen says. The office can add fields as needed to collect information about all the matters it’s overseeing. This capability is particularly useful when university leaders request data points on certain legal issues — for instance, how many times particular doctors have been named in legal actions. “That’s a huge advantage: the ability to export large quantities of data and have it mean something,” Bowen says. “Senior leaders are loving it already.”
The ease of sharing documents with the nine to 10 outside law firms that help with the university’s cases has also been one of the biggest benefits of HighQ, Bowen adds. The Office of Legal Counsel’s previous document-sharing system with external counsel was “pretty clunky.” The office’s IT team had to be involved in nearly every change in access.
What’s more, Bowen notes, “people would lose access if they hadn’t logged in for three months. It was always a rigmarole to make sure everyone who needed access could get it.” By contrast, with HighQ, “we control the access process, so it’s much easier.”
Scalability in a single solution
UNM’s Office of University Counsel continues to add new capabilities through HighQ. Case in point: it recently began setting up a subpoena flow to organize all the subpoenas the university receives.
Before, it organized these documents by placing in a staffer’s inbox, “which, as we know, is not necessarily the best way to manage a process,” Bowen says.
With UNM’s legal office using HighQ for its litigation workflow, it would now like to apply it to other workflows as well. “We’re also hoping to build it out for contract review, where somebody can submit a contract into HighQ and our attorneys then can do the edits right from HighQ,” Bowen says.
For her part, Mavridis has plans to use HighQ to handle more and more of her workflow tasks, such as case management. “We’d like to set up a timeline of where the cases should be,” she says. COVID-19 made managing timelines difficult. But with the pandemic appearing to settle down, workflow milestones should become easier to track.
For instance, if expert witnesses are due to testify on a particular date, UNM can then determine when it should have the case out for review. The university’s legal team can then “build those into the tasks so that we’re reminded of them,” Mavridis says. “And we know where the case should be if we’re behind, and if we are behind, why we’re behind. If we all have access to these data ranges of where we should be within each case, it’ll be easier to follow it. And since the external attorneys have access to it as well, we can all be on the same page.”
Another task on the counsel office’s HighQ to-do list is setting up separate permissions for each of the outside firms it works with. That way, each firm will see only the documents and other information that pertain to its work. The office will be setting up separate calendars and tasks for each outside counsel. UNM’s legal team also is working to establish access protocols to university leaders who aren’t part of that team but who still need to see certain documents at certain times. “Since everything is confidential and everyone needs to see something different, it’s taking a little bit of time to make sure all of the permissions are set up correctly and that they’re seeing only what they’re allowed to see,” Mavridis notes.
And since Mavridis does a lot of her work in the area of discovery, “it would be really good to have my tasks triggered off of receiving certain documents and when we receive the discovery requests themselves — and have things based off of that for me as reminders.” She also plans to add reminders of upcoming meetings and the reports that are needed for them.
Winning over staff with ease of use
Though it took a few months for UNM’s Office of University Counsel to set up HighQ so that it conforms to the ways they work, it has been easy for both attorneys and staff to learn how to use it. “That’s important, because the legal industry in general is not necessarily known for being tech- savvy,” Bowen says.
Nor are law practitioners always eager to embrace technology. One of the UNM attorneys earned the nickname “the analog queen” for her distrust of digital documentation. Her mantra, Bowen says, was “everything has to printed — on paper.” But even she has been won over by HighQ. Indeed, she has become “one of the biggest champions of this program,” Bowen says. “The fact that she’s the one telling people to get on HighQ speaks to its user- friendly nature.”
Now Bowen and her colleagues are looking to put that ease of use to work in ways that will further boost UNM’s Office of University Counsel’s productivity, even as they return to their on-campus location. As Mavridis says, “we’re hoping to use HighQ for everything that it’s capable of providing.”