File Systems and Checklists for Better Paralegal Work

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Few paralegals are born with the knowledge required to run a bustling law office (although some may give that impression). New paralegals, associated support staff, and even the attorneys will need to familiarize themselves with any new office management or case handling systems. If you're in charge of training the entire office to use some new procedures, keep this in mind and take your patience pills as necessary.

Engineers write computer programs. And those same engineers often write the computer software manuals. If you don't speak "engineer," your computer familiarization process could take quite a while, both for you and your office-mates. If you're in charge of the training, allow your colleagues to learn at their own paces. Answer their questions, provide some helpful advice and examples to follow, and give them some selected positive reinforcement to keep up morale. Above all, allow more than enough time to get everyone in the office comfortable and up to speed with any new computer systems.

With money and time out of the way, our focus shifts to rules. A society without rules is a society in chaos. Similarly, an office without its own hard and fast rules is an office in chaos. Shoddy work habits, poor organizational methods, and outdated or poorly designed systems cause missing or incomplete files to become the norm rather than the exception. In a busy law practice, chaos is totally unacceptable.

In a computerized office, you need to establish a set of rules about who has access to the software files and when and how the files are updated, printed, purged, etc. The "too many cooks spoil the broth" theory applies here. If many people can get into the computer files and add, change, or delete things willy-nilly, the potential for disaster looms large. If it's your job to update the client files, do it alone. Don't allow other people to gum up the process.

If it falls on you to choose a fellow staffer to be the designated "data entry/computer person," use good judgment and select the one with the most computer experience, not just the most legal knowledge. With a computer-literate staffer in place, you'll save training time, prevent lost data problems, and preserve your peace of mind. If your office runs on a paper system, strictly using client file folders to keep track of each case, you'll need to tighten the rules and procedures even more than with the computer method.

Here, checklists make the most sense, and many law offices use them in one form or another. The reasoning and the history behind these checklists is clear: If every time you go into a specific file you document your work, anyone else who comes along and reviews that file (an attorney, another paralegal, an investigator, etc.) will know what has been done, when it was done, and equally important for purposes of follow-up, by whom it was done.

Imagine picking up a thick case file and looking into it, only to see no record of activity for the last six months. Has the statute expired? Has the client finished treatment with the doctor? Did escrow close correctly on the real estate deal? Is it ready for trial? Has the case been given a court date? Has the other side made an offer? Have we made a counter-offer? What is the name of the insurance adjuster, opposing counsel, or outside litigator? Has the case settled, and have we or the client received payment? The possible questions are nearly endless, and the resulting number of "Who knows?" answers is even worse.

Working with paper file systems

If you work in an office with an established paper file system in place, stick with it and follow it correctly. The headaches (and the job) you save more than make up for a bit of extra time or seeming inconvenience on your part.

Some firms go so far as to post the "File Handling Rules" in various key places around the office, such as in the copy room, the employee break room, and in each work area.

Here's a sample list of 10 proven paper system rules that can apply in nearly every office:
  1. Label all files the same way-by the client's typewritten last name; by the company name; or by a file number that corresponds to the date the case was opened, the type of case, or any other convenient tracking method.
  2. Always attach the standard office file checklist to the inside left facing page of the file folder.
  3. Always sign the individual file cabinet log with the name of the file you removed? the date, and your name or initials. (Failure to do this can cause a fate worse than death.)
  4. Leave a physical placeholder in the file cabinet where you removed the file. (A cardboard strip works well.) This saves you time when refiling the case and it tells someone else the file is out.
  5. Use the copy-room correctly and clearly. Select the proper page size and make as few copies as possible; don't forget to refile the original documents with the copies; and don't leave the place a mess.
  6. Don't leave completed files on your desk any longer than necessary. Refile them as quickly as possible.
  7. Refile the files in their proper places. New clients, pending settlement cases, pending trial cases, settled cases, and "dead" cases should all go in their respective file drawers.
  8. Protect the files from the usual office hazards. Keep them away from coffee spills, and prevent accidental loss or damage.
  9. Make sure an assigned person or designated alternate always locks the file cabinets at the end of the workday.
  10. Aim for a ''no lost files'' goal for your entire office.

Even the most organized professionals in the most organized office can slip up. But if you adhere to the rules as closely as possible, you won't spend sleepless hours tossing and turning over the 5,000 possible locations of Mr. Smith's file in your office.

Client Management

The lifeblood of any practicing law office is obviously the clients. Just as no business could function without customers, no law firm could survive without clients. No matter how you want to look at it, clients are customers. More specifically, clients your customers. Unless complexities of the case or personalities of the clients demand special attention, the attorney or attorneys in your office may speak to clients only a few times over the course of the case. You, on the other hand, may need to speak to the clients constantly, updating them on various matters and advising them of deadlines, appearances, and any progress made in the case. Moreover, since the client's attorney is usually busy with other matters, you may have to take on the role of "point man" for most attorney-client conversations and correspondence.

You've no doubt realized this last part can be very draining, both physically and mentally. Each client expects superior service from your law firm. Each client truly believes his or her case should be the most important one in the office. Furthermore, each client feels that his or her phone calls should be answered promptly by someone who can give a detailed status report or at least some words of comfort about the entire procedure. In short, each client expects to receive special treatment from his or her attorney.

Most new clients will have had few previous encounters with either attorneys or the legal profession. Short of a traffic accident, a bankruptcy, or a divorce, few people need a lawyer until they really need a lawyer. For these inexperienced individuals, even the prospect of visiting a lawyer's office can bring up certain apprehensions. And thanks to Hollywood and television, the image of the typical law office brings to mind visions of stately oak rooms, large intimidating desks, and well-heeled attorneys wearing expensive three-piece suits. Whether or not this is true of your law office, much of the burden of client reassurance may fall on your shoulders. You must be current on the status of the case, be accessible to give information, and even be the hand-holder if necessary.

In his best-selling book Service America!, management expert Karl Albrecht tells of a common theme among service workers: "You know," they often say as a group, "this would be a great job if it weren't for all these customers!"

With attorney-client workloads the way they are, it's easy to fail into this same trap. While some paralegals will admit feeling underused if they aren't swamped with work, most express frustration when their workloads get out of control.

Getting control of your workload begins with sorting the priorities. One of the easiest ways to fall behind is to get into a "firefighting" mode, in which you bounce from one crisis to the next trying to deal with minor and major emergencies while the so- called routine cases start to pile up. While some people are proud of their messy desks and their ability to locate a piece of paper instantly even if it's buried under mountains of things, not everyone has a knack for this loose efficiency. In many law firms, senior attorneys will admit that a cluttered, out-of-control desk may mean files that are cluttered and out of control. As the paralegal in charge, you are in charge. Begin at the beginning with files and checklists

Excellence in client management begins and ends with the file. The files in your office should reflect an overwhelming sense of professionalism, clarity, and above all else, organization. Any qualified member of your office-an attorney, another paralegal, or a secretary-should be able to go to the filing cabinet, find the file he or she needs, and open it with complete confidence that everything will be in its place. The file should be so seamless-with no time gaps or missing forms, memos, letters, etc.-that whoever reviews it will know immediately what will happen next, or better yet, what to do next.

Many successful firms use internal file checklists to keep track of the flow of paper in and out of the file. These lists vary from office to office, but in most firms they relate to the type of case. Tracking needs of cases involving such diverse matters as personal injury, criminal defense, real estate, business contracts, partnerships, or corporations are very different and require different checklists that address those needs.

In paper files, these checklists are attached to the inside left flap and consist of the necessary items to be completed, space for the date the task was completed, and the initials of the completor. As the case nears the settlement or trial stage, an attorney or paralegal can track its progress simply by reviewing the checklist and quickly perusing the file. In a computer file, the checklist comes first, immediately following the caption.

This handy method also prevents embarrassing errors. Since you or the other staffers in your office can't possibly remember the details surrounding every case, the checklist tells you what you’ve already done. Using a typical personal injury car-accident case, for example, you can review the checklist to track the progress: Our letter to the client's insurance company? Yes, it was sent. Our letter to the defendant's insurance company? Yes, it went out last week. A doctor's lien signed by all parties? Yes. Written estimates and photos of client's damaged car? Yes, attached inside. The defendant's insurance company settlement offer? Received and noted. Tracking sheet of billable hours, i.e., phone time, court time, research time, etc.? Finished and filed. You get the idea.

The checklist prevents you from sending duplicate letters, making unnecessary phone calls, and generally doubling your workload. It also allows you to give accurate briefings to the attorney should he or she need to speak to the client. This can save embarrassment for both of you, as clients will be assured the firm is on top of their cases and they are getting the "white glove/red carpet" treatment they deserve. Other law firms use different-colored files as a way of tracking the progress of each case as the client moves from one legal area to the next. Continuing with the personal injury case, some firms will use red files to indicate a new client (needing to sign representation forms, report requests, medical waivers, etc.); blue files for cases in progress; and green files for settled, "dead," substituted, or otherwise closed cases.

It may sound tedious to change from one file folder color to the next, but in a high-volume law office with several hundred cases, it's an organizational lifesaver. It offers everyone an immediate update for the cases, telling which are new, pending, or complete. It aids your file storage decisions and serves as a constant reminder about the progress of every case in the office.

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