You're pretty sure you made a note on your calendar about the brief's due date, but it's nowhere to be found and the deadline was yesterday. It's true, you've had a lot on your mind lately, what with the basement flooding and your son's graduation, but that's not going to mean too much to the court – or your client!
Calendar-related errors are the most frequent cause of legal malpractice complaints, according to the American Bar Association. Because there's rarely a defense to missing a court deadline, malpractice insurance companies have a limited ability to defend such claims.
The good news is that these tremendously costly errors can be avoided by implementing an effective calendaring system. As you grow your law firm, here are seven tips to improve your method of calendaring court dates.
1. Make Sure Your Staff Understands It
While technology is great, it's vital to have a legal calendaring system (sometimes called a legal docketing system) that both you and your staff understand. Training plays an important role too. There's nothing worse than a confusing system in which users have been poorly trained.
2. Require Everyone to Participate
Any system, of any type, is only as good as its implementation. If some attorneys jot dates on their own personal calendar and ignore the firm's centralized legal calendar, chaos is sure to ensue, especially if they go on vacation or leave the firm.
Full participation requires staff members' buy-in. Training can help here too. To vividly remind everyone what's at stake, training sessions can begin by recounting missed-deadline horror stories, such as an attorney who was sued for millions of dollars for allegedly responding to a settlement offer 41 minutes after it expired, leading to a "ruinous" jury verdict.
3. Put Someone in Charge of Maintaining It
Because accountability is important, it's helpful if an attorney is put in charge of risk management and another staff member is appointed as the calendar clerk. Together, they will have responsibility for ensuring that everyone else in the office maintains and uses the calendaring system correctly.
4. Implement a Reminder/Tickler System.
The calendar clerk's role is central. One task should be to prepare and distribute a weekly (or daily) calendar listing all of the upcoming deadlines and milestone dates. The calendar can be circulated on Friday for the upcoming week. While some software packages will perform a similar function automatically, it's often better if a human is responsible for overseeing the process.
5. Have Fail-Safe Features
Military and electric utility grid systems are designed with redundancies and other features to help assure there are no mishaps -- and this is a valuable concept to keep in mind for legal calendaring systems too. For instance, if you're a solo practitioner who has an assistant, both you and your assistant can maintain a separate but identical calendar, and each can flag upcoming deadlines. The odds that both of you will make a data entry goof or other mistake are lower than if only one of you maintains the calendar.
6. Back up the Data
As with all computer files, it almost goes without saying that it's highly advisable to create a daily backup of your digital calendar, preferably offsite. This protects against system crashes.
7. Benefit from Technology
Specialized legal calendaring systems are continually evolving. While some are pricy, arguably the expense pales in comparison with the cost of missing a court deadline and being sued for malpractice.
Software programs known as "rules-based calendaring systems" calculate deadlines using computer algorithms based on federal, state and local court rules. So, for example, just entering in a motion hearing date will automatically generate the deadlines for the moving, opposition and reply briefs. The capability to compute deadlines is built in to some legal case management systems too. Features of this type can save valuable time in researching applicable time limits.
Some law firms use products that aren't specifically designed for the legal market, such as Microsoft's or Google's calendaring application, and these can be reasonable choices in some cases. Your bar association may even provide reviews of these or other software options.
Whatever technology you choose, remember that the weakest link in any system for calendaring court deadlines is generally the human element, so ease of use, staff commitment and appropriate training are paramount. After all, when a train derails, it's usually not the fault of either the train or the tracks.
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