White Paper

The customization trap 

Why “customize” a court case-management system project if it’s faster, easier, and cheaper to “configure” it?

Trends in court technology have evolved dramatically over the past decade. Courts that invested in their own case-management systems (CMS) 10 years ago have discovered that the cost of maintaining those systems to keep up with accelerating technological changes is prohibitive. Aside from the largest, most resourced courts, many courts have concluded that purchasing an off-the-shelf CMS from a trusted vendor – one that can be customized or configured to meet the court’s needs – yields better outcomes all around. Lower costs, more effective administration of justice, and staff confidence that the court’s technology is always up to date – these are just a few of the benefits of the kind of well-managed, vendor-based CMS toward which courts are currently transitioning.

However, as court jurisdictions nationwide migrate from legacy computer systems to more technologically diverse case-management systems (CMS), administrators are now in the unenviable position of having to evaluate how well a given vendor’s product will serve their needs, both now and in the future. Among the factors complicating this critical decision are the burden of larger caseloads, differing judicial processes, e-filing standards, integration challenges, tighter budgets, and scalability for the future. Public pressure for greater expediency and transparency in judicial matters only exacerbates the risk of choosing the wrong system.

Court systems are complicated, so the ideal CMS wish list tends to be very long. It’s not uncommon for a court to identify hundreds of functions a new system must encompass.

Most courts rightfully want a comprehensive, end-to-end solution that can be customized to do anything; that can provide the court with flawlessly smooth workflow processes; that is easy to manage and operate; that integrates seamlessly with every other system in existence; that can adapt and evolve to meet the court’s changing needs; and that can, because of its superior technical prowess, protect the court from ever having to make such an expensive and onerous decision again. It must also be easy to purchase, install, migrate to, manage, and operate.

Despite the Herculean nature of such demands, many vendors will promise all of these capabilities and more, even if they can’t – or don’t yet know how to – deliver them. Complicating matters for potential customers is that the language used to sell CMS systems can be somewhat misleading. For example, the discussion about what a CMS can and can’t do often focuses on the degree to which the system can be “customized” or “configured” to provide the comprehensive level of functionality the court desires. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably to emphasize a given system’s “flexibility,” but in practice there are important differences, ones that can cost customers a great deal of time and money.

The customization trap

For example, most court case-management systems are composed of a core suite of functions – e.g., caseflow management, court administration, calendaring, e-filing, correspondence, notifications, etc. – to which modules for specialized tasks can be added. Both the core suite and modules can be modified to perform additional functions, and the process of bending and shaping a CMS to fulfill a customer’s wishes goes by the names “customization” and/or “configuration.”

What prospective customers should know, however, is that the distance between what a vendor’s core CMS can accomplish and the degree of customization it needs to do the job can constitute a “customization trap.” Vendors offering an extraordinarily high degree of customization sometimes use this attractive-sounding term to mask the limitations of their core product. Flexibility through customization is all too often a euphemism for teams of programmers working very hard to generate lots of back-end, workaround code that reverse-engineers whatever functionality the customer wants – somehow, some way. In practice, what such vendors are essentially doing is hacking around the limitations of their own system under the guise of “adding value” or “simplifying.” The reality is managing a court system requires a great deal of work, and a CMS is a tool that can help – but even the finest wrench in the world can’t tighten a bolt by itself.

For sales purposes, some vendors promise an amazing amount of flexibility, configurability, and customization capabilities because that’s what customers want to hear. But such everything-is-possible rhetoric can represent a “trap” that locks customers into a long, expensive process of coding, beta-testing, and retesting new software that may or may not deliver the promised magic. The further the client strays from Off-the-Shelf (OTS) platforms, the more they bear the development costs and lost productivity that comes with unique systems, and the more they become a captive customer to the jerry-rigged design. At best, the solution is likely to be an ad hoc one. It may solve the immediate problem but will cause trouble when it’s discovered that the solution can’t be scaled or must be reworked to integrate with another system. Because they’re not built into the base product, such customization efforts must be paid for in additional consulting hours that aren’t part of the original contract.

These and many other problems can occur if a vendor’s core CMS is weak, and the sales proposition behind it is based on an intense willingness to customize.

Configuration vs. customization

By contrast, an entirely different scenario can unfold if the core CMS is extremely robust, already contains most of the functionality the court desires, and can be easily “configured” to bridge the small gaps between the system’s already comprehensive suite of functions and the court’s specific needs. Configuration, in this case, means the CMS may only need minor modifications to add wished-for capabilities or adapt functions that already exist. No CMS is perfect right out of the gate; some configuration is always going to be necessary. But with a strong, intelligently designed core CMS – one that has been developed from the ground up for the specific purpose of executing best-in-class case-management practices – a great deal of customized code may not be necessary. Configuring elements of the CMS that already exist may be sufficient to reach the desired performance targets.

Unique, customized case-management systems can “trap” customers into a costly cycle of added consultation fees, endless beta-testing, and problematic future updates.

The difference between a system that only needs to be “configured” and one that needs to be completely “customized” is like buying a fully equipped Lexus to which accessories can be added or buying a chassis and couple of axles, then paying someone to build a “custom” car on top of it. The latter will take longer, cost more, and there’s no guarantee the resulting vehicle will even run.

The ideal CMS, then, is one that’s already designed to meet most of the court system’s needs and can be configured (by both the vendor and the user) to meet the rest. Enough configuration flexibility to accommodate different administrative structures and workflows is important, of course, but getting it right in the base product is arguably more important. After all, the more capable the base product is, the less configuration it needs.

Thomson Reuters C-Track offers a comprehensive, configurable, and contemporary system that leverages best practices cultivated through experience but remains flexible to match your court processes. Our legal history and vision for a connected Justice Ecosystem combines with technology expertise to streamline your processes and increase access to justice within your community.

Starting with a robust base product and providing built-in configurability and continual updates allows your court to invest in evergreen technology that does not grow outdated. Our flexible contracting terms meet the needs of smaller courts that require full IT support to the largest court systems that prefer to “take the keys” of our system and manage many aspects with their own IT experts.

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