Docketing is a critical process for any law firm, from the solo proprietor who only handles real estate closings, to the mega-firm with a broad range of complex areas of practice. The docket function does not produce billable hours; it is invisible to clients. Nevertheless, an incomplete process or failure to follow established protocols can result in claims that harm your firm's reputation and bottom line.
A claim for a missed filing date is virtually impossible to defend—either the action was done on time or it wasn't. As such, it is important for your firm to maintain a centralized, firm-wide docket and calendar system. The system should be computerized and perform the following functions:
- Record and track all matters that will appear before a court or administrative agency.
- Maintain an action history and send reminders when an action is required (including non-litigation events).
- Record and track documents to be filed in courts and with other agencies.
- Record and track information to be obtained from courts and administrative agencies.
When creating your docket system, consider the helpful tips listed below.
Create a User-Friendly Process
The docket process must be user-friendly, or your staff will develop personal shortcuts or find excuses not to use it. Plus, steps will be missed if the process is too complicated or cumbersome.
Establish Written Procedures
Including written procedures in your employee manual will bring consistency to the docket process and ease the transition when new staff is hired. The rules should apply to all attorney and support staff without exception.
The docketing procedure should be committed to writing and disseminated to all staff in the firm. To ensure staff is adequately trained, conduct an annual review of the process.
Generate a Redundant System
Maintain a redundant docket system in which your office’s central calendar is backed up by the attorneys’ individually maintained calendars. Lawyers’ individual calendars should be maintained at least in duplicate.
When multiple entries can be compared to each other, accuracy increases. Having more than one docket platform also provides a backup if a computer is hacked, stolen, or lost, or if a fire destroys a paper calendar. Your firm’s backup data should be stored off-site in the event a disaster disables the on-site data storage.
Uploading a computer desktop calendar to a smartphone allows the attorney to always have the docket information at-hand, but does not allow for cross-checking; the calendar on the phone is simply a copy of the calendar on the computer.
Supervise the Process
Your firm's attorneys must be responsible for the overall planning and execution of the docketing process. The attorneys don't have to physically enter each docketed item. However, once they establish the rules, they must pay attention to the docketing of their files and supervise their staff's procedures. Periodic reviews are also a good idea.
Choose a Docket System
Choosing a docket system is an individual choice based on the make-up and areas of practice of your firm. A computerized system is preferred, in combination with one or more of the following options:
- Single calendar: One paper desk calendar or a master listing for the entire firm that is circulated to all attorneys.
- Dual calendar: A manual calendar for the attorney and a separate manual calendar for the secretary or legal assistant.
The computerized platform may be a generic calendar such as Outlook, or a more sophisticated case management program designed for law firms. The latter may allow for automatic setting of dates based on programmed logic in the system, and may also draw orders from the court system.
Give one individual the responsibility of inputting dates and deadlines into the system and assuring compliance with critical time limitations. Designate another individual as the backup docket controller with secondary responsibility for inputting dates and deadlines into the system.
Finally, designate someone as the "calendar person" with responsibility for scrutinizing incoming mail, faxes, and/or overnight or hand deliveries for dates and deadlines. Those dates should be recorded in the docket and calendar of the firm and the individual lawyer. Your firm should take steps to assure the person(s) responsible for the docket and calendar system follow your firm's docket and calendar policy.
Use a New Client/Matter Form
Use a new client/matter intake form containing the basic information needed from a potential client to determine whether to accept or decline the representation. The new client/matter intake form should include specific questions to elicit initial deadlines for actions.
However, do not rely on the client's representations alone. Do an independent investigation of the matter. Is there a police report? Do any out-of-state rules apply? Is a government agency involved, invoking statute of limitations rules?
Every completed new client/matter form for every matter accepted should be promptly delivered to the designated controllers of the docket control system so they can record the dates of initial deadlines.
Consider the Needs of Your Specific Practice
Your system should be suited to your practice. Follow the guidelines listed for your specific area(s) of practice below:
- If your firm has a litigation practice, the docket/calendar system should include all pleading deadlines, court filings, court dates and appearances, discovery dates, and opposing party deadlines.
- If your firm has a tax, trust, or estate practice, the docket/calendar system should include all tax return filing dates and litigation deadlines.
- If your firm has a real estate practice, the docket/calendar system should include all contract deadlines, loan and documentation deadlines, inspection and due diligence deadlines, closing dates, lien notification dates, and recording deadlines.
- If your firm has a corporate/commercial practice, the docket/calendar system should include all annual meetings, tax return and financial statement deadlines, and regulatory filing deadlines.
- If your firm has a regulatory practice, the docket/calendar system should include all filing and recording deadlines.
- If your firm has a patent/copyright/trademark practice, the docket/calendar system should include all deadlines for filing applications (domestic and foreign) and dates of annuity or maintenance payments.
Generate Weekly Calendar Reminders
Written calendar reminders for individual lawyers should be generated at least weekly. There should be at least three reminders prior to the arrival of any given deadline date. One person at the firm should be responsible for assuring compliance with critical time limitations.
Develop Peace of Mind
A good docketing system provides peace of mind. Implementing the above tips will help your firm establish a well-planned and consistently executed procedure. Doing so will help your law practice run smoothly and avoid claims for missed deadlines.
Share Your Thoughts
What are your go-to docket system tips? Share your knowledge in the comments below.
This article was provided by Swiss Re, and it was written for informational purposes only.