Bento and the Zen of Client File Management

When we opened our firm, I had no idea how to run a law office; they don’t teach that in law school. Early on, my girlfriend gave me Jay Foonberg’s How to Start & Build a Law Practice. And while some of the information in it is painfully outdated (first edition © 1976), it was a good starting point.

But I put off setting up a formal file management system. Why bother? It was easy to keep track of three files with nothing in them. After a while, it got harder. Did I send a disengagement letter for that case? When you asked for the Smith file, did you mean his divorce file or his estate plan? Is that case open or closed? What’s the next step in that case over there?

So I broke out the Foon’s book and turned to the chapter entitled “Simple Hard-Copy Filing Systems for the New Lawyer.” I like simple, and the Foon was serious about the simple part.

When you open a file, take the two digit year number. Stick a separator—e.g., a slash or a dash—behind that. Then give each file its own number after the year. So you end up with files numbered like this: 11/1, 11/2, etc. The Foon also endorses fibbing: “About February 1 of each year simply add 200 or 300 to the last number so that in February your numbering system would start with 04/202, 203, etc. Other lawyers will think you’re doing a lot of business.” That’s inflation I can appreciate.

Then my heart stopped. Next step? “Make an alphabetical cross-index system, putting the client names on index cards cross-referenced to the file number.”

I don’t even think I own index cards. And after spending hundreds of dollars on scanning equipment, cloud-based backup solutions and the rest, there was absolutely no way I was putting my file management system on 3×5 cards.

But what could I use? I considered a flat list in a text file, flat spreadsheets, and some online services like Rocket Matter. But none of them satisfied me. The flat files presented data in an inconvenient format and were clunky to use. And I didn’t want to pay another monthly bill for Rocket Matter. Besides, I already had systems set up for most of its functionality (e.g., calendaring, billing, time tracking), so I didn’t need the whole suite of tools.

What I wanted was a database with a pretty front end, like Microsoft Access with its (admittedly ugly) forms, but with less Visual Basic programming nonsense. What I found was Bento.

Bento is Filemaker Pro‘s little brother and provides database functionality through user-defined templates. It also integrates system-wide data sources like  iCal and Address Book, allowing you to use the data you already have without duplication.

After a little bit of playing, I worked up this template for my files:

Bento Client File Management Screen
It provides much more information and functionality than an index card would. And it’s certainly much more convenient both to search and to update.

In the first area of the form, there’s all the fixed information for the matter: file number, client’s name, a description of the matter, its court and docket number, and any notes.

On my form, the status field can have one of four settings: open, closed, prospective, and declined. Open and closed are for uncompleted and completed matters, respectively. But I also use Bento to store information about cases that I’m hoping to get or that I have refused. For example, if a potential client comes in for a consultation but hasn’t retained me yet, I’ll make a prospective record for him to keep track of my notes from the meeting and any files I’ve generated (e.g., copies of contracts he brought with him to the meeting). On the other hand, if I’ve declined to take a matter, I’ll create a record for it to keep my notes and to appear in subsequent conflict checks.

The next group lets me keep track of when files were opened and closed, what side I was on, how I got paid, and how the matter turned out. I also note whether I’ve sent engagement or disengagement letters and whether we’ve executed a written fee agreement.

The right column is where the magic happens. Up top is a list of digital files and folders associated with the matter. I scan all the documents that pass through my office, so every document concerning any given matter is available directly from its file management record. Need the fee agreement in hurry? It’s in that box. If you want to use an old letter as a pre-addressed template, that’s in there too.

The next box contains the Address Book information for every person related to the matter. In my real forms, usually have the client, opposing counsel, and anyone important to the case (appraisers, adjusters, etc.) listed in the Related Parties box. So, at a glance, I can call someone or address a letter without digging through my address book. And the integration with the system Address Book works both ways. If I enter a person onto the Bento form who isn’t already in my Address Book, Bento puts that information in my Address Book automatically.

And, finally, the last box lists upcoming events related to the matter. On the example screenshot above you can see that a summary judgment hearing is coming up soon and the trial starts soon after. Again, those dates are taken directly from iCal, so you don’t have to input your dates a second time. They’re already on your calendar. You just have to link them to your Bento record.

So far, the system has been totally satisfactory. If there are multiple mac users in your office, Bento allows you to share databases. Unfortunately, there’s no PC version of Bento, so they can’t play. On the other hand, if they have an iPhone or an iPad, there are Bento apps that will sync with your mac. I haven’t tried them yet.

As a postscript, I also use Bento as part of my conflicts-checking routine. Since every matter (including declined or prospective matters) has a record, and each record contains either an address book entry for or text note of relevant people, a search across the Bento database turns up potential conflicts. It’s icing on the cake.

Verdict: Bento is worth every penny of its $49 price tag.

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