NOVEMBER 17, 2006 Forum Column


By Michael A. Taitelman

  Administrative tasks occupy a significant portion of both attorneys' and staff members' time at many small and medium-sized law firms. Court calendaring is a very important task, though one that is often done in a haphazard fashion. Finding the hours to research a more effective system and standardize it for each attorney and across the firm can be daunting, especially at smaller firms that lack a dedicated information technology department and docketing clerks.

  But for lawyers who practice in multiple jurisdictions, monitoring court deadlines and compliance with local court rules are critically important.

  The problem can be particularly difficult at smaller firms with minimal support and administrative staff. That's the lesson a two-lawyer fir, in New York learned after missing a filing deadline. In that 2004 case, one lawyer had just returned from China, where he was adopting a baby, the other had been called to military duty in Iraq and the firm secretary went into premature labor. Nonetheless, the judge refused to grant an extension to the firm's clients. In re: Crouse Health Hospital Inc., 01-60785-60790 (N.D.N.Y. Bankr. 2004).

  While most firms have a calendaring system with checks in place to ensure crucial dates are not missed, many systems leave plenty of gaps as dates shift, rules change and are updated, and lawyers venture outside familiar jurisdictions to handle cases. Missing important dates is still all too easy, and the consequences can range from the merely inconvenient to the disastrous, for clients and firms alike.

  At best, you may anger the client and appear unprofessional. But a missed deadline can have much more serious consequences, including those that can lead to malpractice claims against your firm.

  Fortunately, practices of all sizes, including small firms and solo practitioners, have options. As a nine-lawyer firm that focuses on business litigation, we have many court dates and jurisdictions to track, both state and federal. While the Los Angeles County state courts and the local district court are familiar places, other jurisdictions pose a challenge to our firm's calendaring system.

  Though our existing system performed well and contained appropriate redundancies, we were seeking a standardized system for our firm. Fortunately, we learned of an Internet, rules-based calendaring system that we could use case by case. It allowed us safeguards for our master calendar, which all of our attorneys have access to. We no longer worry about jeopardizing a client's case by missing a filing deadline or court date.

  Here are several key things to consider when looking to upgrade your calendaring system.

  Firm's Needs

  At our firm, we wanted to eliminate the paper calendar. We needed a system that would allow us to incorporate dates into one master calendar and let attorneys download those into their Microsoft Outlook calendars. Yet we didn't want the expense of an entire software system that would give us dates that we didn't need and require software we didn't have or want to pay for.

  For other firms, different criteria may be important. The first step in finding a new system is figuring out what you need, then determining which products will get you there. A workable system is key. No matter how many bells and whistles a system has, it won't do your firm any good if no one uses it.

  Cost Savings

  A firm docketing calendar can have an immediate bottom-line impact. Many insurance companies offer reduced rates on malpractice insurance for firms that use rules-based calendaring systems. But cost savings aren't simply a matter of dollars and cents; the time attorneys and administrative staff save with a rules-based calendaring program adds up over the life of a case, especially when time isn't wasted spending hours on the computer or phone checking, calculating and rechecking dates.

  Technology Features

   We use an Internet-based calendaring system, which gives us the information we need immediately. Our system can be accessed remotely, so attorneys can get to their calendars wherever they are, whenever they need to, whether they are at the office, on the road or at home.

  Ease of use is also important. Our system is intuitive and straightforward, so we haven't had to spend much time and money on training or tech support.

  Firms looking at a new calendaring system also should consider how it fits into their emergency and disaster plans. If your office is hit by a hurricane, a fire or even a burst pipe, would you be able to access your court calendar? What would happen to your clients and their cases if you couldn't? An Internet-based system can provide invaluable back-up information that can be accessed, even in an emergency

  You also need to consider back-up features, in case one of your attorneys has her laptop swiped from the airport or another walks away from lunch and leaves his PDA on the table.

  Flexibility is also critical. Will the system grow with your firm? Or will you need to replace it periodically, incurring all sorts of expenses?

  Rules-based calendaring programs can be extremely effective. We use our rules-based program for all of our dates, even in Los Angeles County, where we are quite comfortable with the court rules. Getting critical information takes just a matter of seconds. We have consistency that we didn't have before. It's now standard operating procedure at our office, and it helps everyone at our firm: attorneys, staff and our clients.