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Case Study: how the Legal Aid Society leverages legal IT to track 300,000 matters and 3 million clients

As theUnited States’ oldest and largest private not-for-profit organization, the Legal Aid Society provides free legal services to low-income individuals and families in New York City. Handling 300,000 cases and matters annually and with a staff of over 1,080, the Legal Aid Society’s law reform work benefits almost two million low-income families and individuals and often represents cases that have both a statewide and national impact.

As the United States’ oldest and largest private not-for-profit organization, the Legal Aid Society provides free legal services to low-income individuals and families in New York City. Handling 300,000 cases and matters annually and with a staff of over 1,080, the Legal Aid Society’s law reform work benefits almost two million low-income families and individuals and often represents cases that have both a statewide and national impact.

In order to accomplish its significant workload, The Legal Aid Society operates three practice areas: Criminal, Juvenile Rights, and Civil which collectively handle more than 300,000 cases and matters annually. The Civil Practice in particular is supported by almost 120 different funding sources, all of which entail significant reporting obligations. Given this complexity, coordination among the practice areas is imperative.

Managing Legal Aid Society’s Case Management Needs
Because of the high number of  cases and matters being handled simultaneously, the sheer number of clients, and the exorbitant amounts of fact patterns that span across practice areas The Legal Aid Society realized that with so much electronic paperwork it needed a matter management system that would:

• Efficiently check for conflicts of interest.
• Serve as a master calendar of cases, notify staff of court dates and deadlines and calendar those dates in staff members’ Outlook calendars.

• Generate commonly used documents without having to reenter information that already exists in the database.
• Facilitate the generation of reports for well over a hundred different funding sources.

After undertaking a comprehensive Request for Proposal process and extensively reviewing three competing proposals, the Society chose Bridgeway Software’s LawManager matter management solution.

Checking for Conflicts of Interest

One of the most important functions of the matter management system was to ensure that conflicts of interest between new potential clients and the Society’s existing and former clients were correctly identified. Under New York State’s Rules of Professional Conduct, which are based on the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, there are certain prohibitions applicable to all firms including The Legal Aid Society including representing two clients concurrently if they have “differing interests.” There are also limitations on representing a client whose case is related to that of a former client. Needless to say, with so many matters, clients and overlapping matters, conflict checking can be arduous.

In addition to the 300,000 client cases it handles each year, The Legal Aid Society’s database contains more than 2.89 million individuals who are being or have been represented at some time in the past. As a result, there is a significant likelihood that any new case for a proposed client may involve at least one party who was represented by Legal Aid at some point in time. Determining if there is a conflict generally depends on whether the cases are substantially related and whether the new client is currently adverse to the former client which makes it necessary to identify and understand the relationships among parties in order to make a determination.

Why Previous Systems Didn’t Make the Grade
While The Legal Aid Society has had electronic matter management systems in place for years, it became apparent that these systems were not providing enough assistance to the case managers in identifying conflicts. For example, all three practice areas had their own systems and none of them were interconnected.  Clients in each system were not uniquely identified, and cases involving them were not linked in any way. If the same John Smith was represented in two separate cases they were not identified as the same person, nor were their cases linked in any way.

Worse, certain facets of The Legal Aid Society’s client base made it  difficult to determine whether two or more names in the database were actually the same person, and as a result there was no way to determine if there was a conflict of interest. Common names compound the difficulty and with almost 3 million records, there are bound to be many people with the same name. Aliases also exacerbate the issue, as government records or the police may not have the actual name on a person’s birth certificate when the client is arrested. The case is opened in whatever name the court case records have which meant that in any future civil matters related to that same client might have been recorded with yet a different name.

Also, the old systems did not have the ability to collect address, phone and e-mail information “longitudinally,” meaning that if the client’s home address changed the old address would simply be overwritten with the new address; there was no collection of changing home addresses. There was also no way to connect two related matters, such as when a client was a plaintiff in a class action but also had an individual matter related to the same class action.

The fact that the various practice areas use different personal identifiers to track their clients presented more challenges. For example, The State Department of Corrections uses a “NYSID” (New York State ID) number that would be known by the Criminal Practice. However, an individual might not necessarily provide his or her NYSID number to a Civil Practice attorney when seeking assistance. Conversely, while a person’s social security number might be known to the Civil Practice, it might not be known to the Criminal Practice.

Because of the lack of interconnectivity between the disparate systems, checking for conflicts of interest was a manual process. Intranets were set up to streamline the process, and attorneys were given limited access to other practice area’s databases. However, and because of confidentiality rules, “screening walls” had to be set up to limit the detail that can be viewed. This means if 200 “John Smith’s” were presented in any given search result each attorney might have to assess and personally review them all to find the correct individual.

How Notebooks Made Matter Management More Effective

Since installing the new system, the New York Legal Aid Society now has a “Case Notebook” for each practice area, where basic case information such as date of birth and address is placed on a case “header” and additional information such as arrests, court appearances, case notes, etc. are located on different tabs. Now, matters can be tracked on a Related Cases tab, so that a class action case can be related to every individual case for the named plaintiffs.

Security rules specify who can do what in each case notebook across and within all of the practice areas as generally, attorneys have no rights to look in the notebooks of other practice areas. This guarantees there is no breach of the screening rules. Non-case matters such as training events conducted under a particular Civil Practice grant for a particular year can also be opened and tracked in this notebook where they are known as “tracking matters.” Previously, reporting obligations for specialized Civil Practice grants were handled by creating Special Program tabs for such programs.  Funding sources for each case were entered in the case header, and Special Program tabs were made visible or hidden depending on the funding sources indicated.

A fourth notebook called the “Entities Notebook” was also created and consists of a master list of all unique individuals who have come to The Legal Aid Society for assistance. All staff members have access to the Entities Notebook and cases are linked to entities by means of a “Players” tab on the case. Every entity involved in the case is placed on the “Players” tab in order to link a unique entity in the Entities Notebook to every matter associated with that entity.

Furthermore, all matters in which the entity has been involved are displayed on an “Involved Cases” Tab in the Entities Notebook. That tab is dynamically generated based upon a LawManager search of all matters across all practices where that person is a “player.” This is the means by which an attorney can find all the related matters. Additionally, all known unique identifiers related to an entity are in the Entities Notebook. Two tabs in the Entities notebook are used: a “Names” tab that tracks every alias ever used and an “Additional Identifiers” tab that tracks a list of all identifiers associated with the entity from any case. Thus, if the same entity used a social security number in one civil case and a NYSID number in a criminal case, both will be listed on the Additional Identifiers tab, making it possible to determine that they are the same person, even though both identifiers were never used in the same case.

Addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses are also collected on tabs in the Entities Notebook and an old address is not overwritten, just “end-dated” so a client’s changing series of home addresses will be shown, further helping the attorneys identify whether two entities are actually the same person.

Taking Control of Conflicts

To demonstrate the importance of the conflict-checking process within The Legal Aid Society, let’s consider a divorce case where the wife asks the Civil Practice for representation.  In this scenario the solution does the following:

1. The Civil Practice checks to see whether the husband exists in the Entities Notebook based on any information known to the wife, such as social security number, addresses, aliases, etc.
2. If the entity (husband) already exists, the Civil Practice checks the Involved Cases tab to see all cases in which the husband is or has been represented. If he has an open matter with the Criminal Practice, the Civil Practice cannot represent the wife.
3. If the husband has a closed matter with Criminal Practice, then the Civil Practice must determine whether the matters are substantially related. At times, this can be determined directly from the matter management solution.  For example, if the old matter pre-dated the marriage, it would not be substantially related to a dispute about the marriage.  In such a clear-cut situation, the attorney might be able to determine immediately if the Civil Practice can represent the wife.
4. In less cut-and-dried cases, the matter must be referred to a conflict analyst for further investigation.

Leveraging the new solution, conflict checking has become much simpler, quicker, and far more accurate. Now, The Legal Aid Society is able to spend far less time checking conflicts, which allows more them to focus on its core mission of providing quality legal representation to low-income New Yorkers.

Besides the ability to use case notebooks to speed and simplify conflict checking, the matter management solution enables:

Document generation: Provides document assembly tools that allow the Society’s attorneys to automatically generate documents such as complaints and then populate the document with existing database information.  The attorney can then make any necessary edits in Microsoft Word.

Scheduling: Events scheduled get pushed out to Microsoft Outlook, in order to make sure all matters are properly calendared. This is more efficient and more accurate than in the past where attorneys calendared cases in their personal electronic and paper-based calendars. Previously, information such as court appearances, was known to individual attorneys. It was also not easily accessible by supervisors or colleagues assisting on particular cases and not searchable electronically. Today supervisors or administrators can generate a calendar of all cases on the court’s docket in a given court on a given day, or all deadlines for a given attorney. Attorneys also receive e-mail notifications of scheduled court appearances and deadlines issued by the court but not during a court appearance.

Automatic Data Feeding: Replicated from the Society’s previous systems, the new matter management system sets up a data feed that updates cases directly from the State’s Office of Court Administration database. This means that within 24 hours of when any entity makes an appearance in any criminal court in New York, the information is automatically fed into the matter management solution.

Administrative Matters Notebook: In addition to the three practice area notebooks and the Entities Notebook, there is a fifth notebook dedicated to internal administrative matters that do not concern clients. The Society’s general counsel, for example, uses this notebook to keep track of internal grants and contracts, and the Society’s recruitment staff uses it to track all applicants for attorney positions.

Taking Matter Management to the Next Level

Despite the value The Legal Aid Society has achieved since implementing the new solution, the work is not done. Currently, the Society is working to deliver an even more automated conflict checking process. The Society has begun to define a series of algorithms and pre-programmed rules in order to eliminate the need to manually search for conflicts. Once this stage is complete, attorneys will be able to simply click a “conflict check” button in order to find all related entities and determine whether there is a potential conflict without manually reviewing the Involved Cases tab.

With almost 3 million current and former clients, over 300,000 cases and matters a year, more than 100 funding sources, and three major practice areas whose cases can often overlap, The Legal Aid Society presents a challenging environment for any case-management system.   As Legal Aid’s attorney-in-chief, Steven Banks, put it “If LawManager can meet the complex needs of Legal Aid as it has done for our unique high volume practice, then it can certainly meet the matter-management needs of any law firm or law department in the country.”