Tech Support: Litigation support tool helps DOJ cope with caseloads

When the largest law department in the country — with some 2,500 lawyers in a dozen offices — decides to implement litigation support software across the organization, it is decidedly a non-trivial undertaking. Largest in the country? Justice Canada, a.k.a. the federal Department of Justice (DOJ).

The department handles thousands of litigation cases a year, mostly citizens or companies suing the government, but also judicial reviews and tax litigation cases. Before it implemented Ringtail software from Annapolis, Md.-based firm FTI Consulting Inc., department lawyers did what many litigators still do. They relied on paper-based processes, word processors, spreadsheets, and a mishmash of other litigation support tools.

Now more than 900 Justice Canada lawyers and paralegals use Ringtail and that number is expected to climb closer to 1,300 by the end of 2007, says DOJ national litigation support manager Steven Accette. Ringtail has been used in high-profile cases, including class action suits around the withdrawn anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx, and in major judicial reviews such as the Arar and Air India inquiries.

Department lawyers use Ringtail mainly in files with big document collections — the largest to date included about 1.5 million documents — but also in cases with as few as 150 documents.

Before Ringtail, with every new file they opened, lawyers would start from scratch looking for appropriate tools, methods, and services to use, Accette says. “They were muddling their way through, reinventing the wheel each time.” Whatever skills or expertise they acquired went out the window with the next new file. “We wanted to bring the technology expertise in-house and share it,” he says.

The basic business case for litigation support software was never in question. The department didn’t even attempt to quantify its expected return on investment. There are plenty of studies showing how valuable the technology is, Accette says, especially in files with huge document collections. Finding scanned and indexed documents using computer search tools takes seconds, versus hours or days for paralegals to find paper documents using traditional methods.

Christopher Leafloor, legal counsel in the public law section of the DOJ’s Ontario regional office, has already used Ringtail in two cases and other litigation support tools earlier in his career. Leafloor has no doubts about the benefits at virtually every phase of the process.

Leafloor uses the technology from the very first meeting with clients to start making lists of key case elements, and throughout the process as documents are scanned or added to the database, to cross reference documents to issues, events, and witnesses.

This makes it easy to generate lists, for example, of documents to be disclosed or documents related to a witness when preparing for a meeting with the witness.

The tool becomes critically important during cross examination or re-examination in a trial. The lawyer may have only minutes to find a document to use in challenging a witness.

With litigation support software running on a laptop, he can find documents in seconds, as Leafloor has demonstrated in cases where he used Ringtail.

“There was never anything that was a eureka moment,” he says. “But there were certainly instances in the midst of cross-examination when I was frantically reviewing documents that I then used when it was my turn to stand up.”

How crucial can this be? “You don’t ever want to be in situation where you might have lost the case because you failed to cross-examine the witness on a document that you knew was there but couldn’t find at the moment,” Leafloor says.

Introducing litigation support software to Justice Canada began over six years ago. The department hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to manage the selection process. And it formed a committee of lawyers and paralegals to figure out what the tool should be able to do. The process was finished last summer, when it installed Ringtail in Montreal, the last of the major offices to get the software.

FTI won decisively over other bidders, including industry heavyweights, Accette says. One key selection criteria was that the software had to be web-based. Given that department lawyers may be spread across the country, it’s essential they be able to collaborate easily. With Ringtail, team members can log on using a browser and find all the documents and case notes in one place. Ringtail was the only web-based litigation support product available.

Another crucial consideration: the tool had to be easy to use. “The number one comment we heard from lawyers when we started talking to them about this was, ‘I want to be a lawyer, not a techie,’” Accette says. Today, many senior lawyers use Ringtail. One early testimonial came from a litigator who at the time wasn’t even opening his own e-mail — he had his assistant do it. “He said, ‘If I can figure this out, anybody can,’” Accette recalls.

Leafloor likes Ringtail and found it easy to learn when he came to the department four years ago, but he notes that for most of the ways he uses the product, other litigation support tools would likely work as well.

Justice Canada decided not just to adopt a litigation support tool but to standardize it and to standardize the way lawyers would use it. Litigators don’t have to use the software, but if they use any software, it has to be Ringtail. Leafloor, for example, would have liked to use two litigation support programs from CaseSoft — CaseMap and TimeMap — that he had used before and liked, but they’re not approved by the department.

A committee developed a standard look and feel for the product. Ringtail allows users to extensively customize it. Justice Canada established six elements of the program — FTI calls them ringlets — that must be on the home page for each file. Lawyers can add others they find useful, but must use those six. The object was to make it easy for any lawyer to come into a file, Accette says.

The department also standardized on which database fields to use and even built into the program a standard set of descriptors to use in fields — “letter” as a document type is always spelled out, for example, and never given as “ltr” or “letr” or “let.” The standardization effort was almost as important as the tool itself, Accette believes. “Without having those standards in place, no tool will ever live up to its potential,” he says.

To help smooth the rollout and foster best practices around Ringtail, Justice Canada set up litigation support centres in each major office with paralegal and IT experts to assist lawyers.

And what did all of this cost Canadian taxpayers? Roughly $1 million for hardware and software, and about $150,000 a year in maintenance. The return? “We just know that lawyers can work faster and smarter because they now have a better handle on these huge document collections,” Accette says.

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