It starts to sound like a broken record.
Year in and year out, the most frequent source of claims at Lawyers Mutual is missed statutes of limitations and other deadlines.
The claims are frustrating because there is often no defense. Either the action was done on time or it wasn’t. Equally frustrating is the reality that the problem could have been easily avoided by (a) having a simple office calendaring system or (b) using the system already in place.
Remember: the goal is not to create additional headaches for your office. It is to create a simple, reliable and efficient system that will make sure work is done smoothly and on time.
A good system provides peace of mind. A promise to a client to have a status report completed by a certain date will no longer turn into a last-minute rush. Another benefit is improved client relations, which reduces the malpractice risk.
Ticklers and Dockets
Historically, lawyers have used two systems to track important dates: (1) a diary or tickling system for files and (2) a docket for court dates and legal deadlines. Sometimes these are supplemented with an appointments calendar for client appointments.
The tickler prompts the lawyer to pull files that need attention. A docketing function forewarns the lawyer of impending dates and deadlines. The terms “calendar,” “docket” and “tickler” are sometimes used interchangeably. The word is less important than the idea of keeping track of important dates.
Your system should be suited to your practice. At a minimum it should provide for:
- Immediate and automatic entry of dates;
- Double checking of entries;
- Allowance for sufficient lead time to complete tasks;
- Follow-up checking;
- Backup or duplication of the main calendaring system.
Systems for reminding the lawyer about work on files are called file tickling or diary systems. File tickling systems are used to retrieve files in anticipation of future deadlines, to plan work and to prevent files from being neglected. Both self-imposed work management deadlines and critical deadlines such as court appearances and statutes of limitation are tracked in the system. This way, the system maintains a steady work flow and backs up the lawyer’s regular calendar.
Index Card Tickler. A file tickling system is not kept on a calendar at all. Instead, each file is given an index card. The file name and other identifying information appear on the top of the card. A card for every file is kept in a file box. The box is organized with dividers for years, months and days. Usually, one set of year and month dividers and two sets of date dividers are adequate.
At the beginning of each day, the file box is checked to see whether any cards appear behind the date divider for that day. All files corresponding to those indicated on the divider are pulled for activity and distributed to the proper lawyer. The cards for the checked-out files are either placed in alphabetical order in front of the card box or in a separate box. If a separate box is used, dividers should be labeled with the name of the lawyer working on the files.
When a file is checked out, the index card is placed behind the name of the person receiving the file. If the file is not in the cabinet, the front of the card box or the “lawyer name” box can be checked to find out who has the file.
When a file is returned for placement in the file drawer, the lawyer indicates a tickle date for future retrieval of the file on the file jacket or on a log sheet inside the file. The date is entered on the index card for that file, and the file is then placed behind the date divider in the file card box.
Main Calendar and Case List Tickler. For sole practitioners and small firms, there is a simpler alternative to the index card system. The lawyer can simply note the names of files to be tickled on each day’s section on the lawyer’s main calendar. First thing each day, the lawyer or secretary pulls those files listed for that day. After the task is completed for a particular file, but before it is returned to the cabinet, the lawyer notes the next tickle date on the calendar. To prevent files from falling through the cracks, the lawyer or secretary maintains a list of all active cases. Weekly or monthly, a list of all cases is printed. All files on the list are checked for currency. When a file is closed it is struck from the list.
Computer Ticklers. Computerized calendars work well for file tickling. There are specific programs for file control, or you can design your own using whatever software programs you are familiar with. Be sure to digitally back up data regularly or keep a hard copy backup.
Jay Reeves is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He survived the seventies. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 919-619-2441.