Beyond the rhetoric: the practical challenges of implementation of a new case management system

Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) is familiar with change. It has been around for over a century. Despite now receiving no federal Legal Services Corporation funding, it has around 120 employees, more than half of which are lawyers. So, this is a big organisation with a lot of history. For over 20 years, it has used Lotus Notes, now part of IBM, as a case management system. In 2015, it decided to upgrade to LegalServer. This is a product (described in an explanatory video on its website) aimed particularly at civil legal aid and public defender organisations. So, how did the transfer work for GBLS and what might we all learn from the exercise?

‘An early, and very practical, challenge was to design a new intake system,’ reports Dan Manning who found himself in charge of implementation. Lotus Notes had allowed this on just one screen. But the new system had half a dozen or more covering information under a number of headings – including basic, conflict, demographic, financial, case and choice of further action. LegalServer gave more flexibility but was correspondingly much more complicated – from time to time leading the user through branch logic down predetermined paths. This turned out to be so complex that a consultant was hired to help, Just-Tech. Complicating the issues on intake was the fact that GBLS contracts intake to an independent pro bono organisation EARLI – (Eastern Region Legal Intake). It had to migrate to the same system. 

Having solved intake, GBLS’s concern was to be sure that all staff were using the new system and that it was working properly in terms of opening cases. Satisfied with that, attention shifted to closing them – on which an accurate record is needed for reporting to funders. The next objective was to ensure that case notes were working properly and that case handlers and managers could track them adequately. A benefit of LegalServer is that it has a capacity to track activity other than casework such as large test cases, public legal education, outreach and lobbying to ensure that they can be monitored and reported upon. So reporting reflects the full range of the organisation’s work.

The interesting lessons come with the difficulties. There were a number of issues. The current position is that some staff have totally digital files; some have paper ones in the old way; and some have a mix. That is partly the result of institutional resistance to digitalisation but it also reflects some difficulties with the system. It has proved not that easy to file emails, for example. GBLS’s assessment is that LegalServer actually has quite a good way of doing this but staff are being a bit resistant to the effort required. The system is more problematic when it comes to document management. It is, for example, hard to ‘tag’ a document which seems particularly difficult if you are within the document at the time. A group of ‘power users’ is being deployed to drive change and test for problems. 

Because this is American legal services, there has not been the legal aid reporting imperative that would be required in any comparable deployment in England and Wales. Some equivalent may be to come – as may the generation of a common calendar with a work management component. There are also specialist needs to integrate into the system. GBLS regularly uses interpreters. It wants to incorporate evaluations of their performance into the system. There is even subversive talk of evaluating judges in the same way.

And the current evaluation? Dan Manning says: ‘It has undoubtedly been successful though it has taken more time than we anticipated. It will take even more time to realise its full potential but we can already see that it can meet our needs. We did need to move to electronically based system. It has been worth it. Absolutely. We made a good choice. You never know if you chose the best but it will be a good two way process with LegalServer. We will have good feedback for them. Our partnership should allow them to come up with an even better system.’

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