Practice Tips, by Dave Bilinsky, Practice Management Advisor

The criminal law advantage: basic tools get the job done

Ah, the simple life! It has many virtues. Fortunately, criminal law can come closer to technological simplicity than perhaps any other area of practice. The systems needed are straightforward and easily implemented. Moreover, they are easily integrated into the busy criminal lawyer's day and way of work.

The heart of any criminal lawyer's practice is the calendar. The office needs to know a lawyer's schedule to make appointments with potential and existing clients. In court, the lawyer needs to know the appointment schedule to maximize court bookings. Avoiding conflicting appointments is equally important

.All client, witness and associated names and the contact information for each file must beeasily accessible,

both in the office and out. If conversations need to be reduced to writing, that should be done while they are still fresh. As well, the criminal lawyer needs to record all time spent on files, for billing purposes.

Mobile communication is a necessity since the criminal lawyer is constantly on the road and may receive calls from potential clients at all hours of the day and night. The system should provide notification of upcoming appointments, both in and out of the office. Office bring-forward or cour call-forward dates should be incorporated into an office tickler system that prompts the firm to take action well in advance of court dates or other critical events. This is especially important when the firm is dependent on having funds in trust well prior to court dates - as failure to monitor and replenish retainers in advance of trial can lead to hurried applications to be taken off the record or, worse yet, being unpaid for work following completion of the trial (when the chances of being paid are near zero).

In the office, the criminal law secretary needs a basic word processing and document assembly capability, as criminal lawyers typically do not draft documents as complicated as in other areas of practice. A well-organized document precedent system increases workflow and efficiency. If possible, client, witness and expert contact information should be merged from the practice management system directly into letters, pleadings and other documents to reduce errors and increase efficiency (enter-it-once, reuse-it- many-times technology).

The accounting system should accumulate WIP and track all disbursements incurred on a file for ease of billing. Since the Legal Services Society prefers e-billing, the office accounting system should be able to easily create and transmit e-bills to increase cash flow, particularly since e-billing results in easier and faster payments to lawyers. About 1,200 lawyers in BC currently take LSS referrals and could register to bill LSS using e-billing (only about half take advantage of this option). Accordingly, it would be desirable for the practice management system to collect time and billing data concurrent with task completion and to transmit that information directly to the accounting system, to avoid duplicate keystrokes, to increase workflow and cash flow and to allow for quick rendering of accounts.

Conflicts should surface quickly and easily, particularly for a lawyer who does ad-hoc Crown work as well as defence work .Accordingly, the lawyer should be able to carry acomplete listing of  

SCC updates

In addition to having technologies that complement a criminal law practice, a criminal lawyer needs to know what is happening in the courts. As a quick reference, consider the Supreme Court of Canada L@wLetter, published by Eugene Meehan, QC, which includes an email summary of:

  • leaves to appeal granted
  • leaves to appeal dismissed
  • reconsideration of leaves to appeal
  • current court session
  • next court session
  • next motion day.

This free resource is very helpful for those in the criminal law area (as well as other practice areas). To subscribe, send an email to

the contacts of the firm, including all clients, witnesses and other people incidentally involved with other files, both active and closed.

So what are the technologies a criminal lawyer can look to for support? While a paper calendar is easy to carry, it must be updated and checked manually against the master calendar in the office. This is a tedious process at best and one potentially fraught with error. A PDA (personal digital assistant), interfacing with the office electronic practice management system, should allow automatic synchronization of both calendars (PDA and office master) upon a lawyer's return to the office. It should also be able to display warnings if any conflicts have occurred between the two systems. Systems that meet this need are:

1. Amicus Attorney and any PDA with a Palm operating system, such as:

  • Palm Zire or Palm Tungsten W (which is both a PDA and a cell phone)
  • Sony Clie
  • Kyocera 7135 smartphone (which combines a cell phone with a Palm PDA)
  • Treo 600 (which is also a cell phone and a Palm PDA).

All of these systems allow a lawyer to synchronize directly with the Amicus Attorney practice management system and therefore carry a lawyer's full calendar, contact list and to-do's. Furthermore, since there is a notepad feature in all of these devices, the lawyer can write down billable time or acquire a Palm application that will track time and transfer it to the accounting system.

2. Amicus Attorney or Time Matters and any Pocket PC device, such as:

  • PDAs from Toshiba, Dell and Hewlett Packard
  • Audiovox Thera (which combines a cell phone and Pocket PC)

These devices would synchronize the practice management calendar, contact information and task data via Microsoft Outlook.

3. Amicus Attorney or Time Matters and a Blackberry.

The Blackberry can synchronize with Amicus Attorney or Time Matters via Microsoft Outlook (you need the client-server version of Amicus Attorney V or the Premier Edition of Amicus Attorney X). The Blackberry allows for a travelling criminal lawyer to communicate via email with the office by virtue of its "always on" email capability.

A word of warning - no device equipped with a digital camera is permitted in BC courthouses as recording devices are prohibited. So while lawyers may use their regular cell phones, pagers and beepers in public areas of a courthouse and carry them into a courtroom (provided the devices are turned off), camera phones are prohibited.

Amicus Attorney or Time Matters, as well as other legal practice management systems, can perform the back-end office organization for the practice by associating all relevant parties with their appropriate files and by keeping witness and contact information and to-do lists. They allow the office to keep all files up to date by automatically generating BF reminders, either based on individually created BFs or, better yet, based on a "linked event" precedent. For example, a lawyer would wish to have one global linked-event criminal trial precedent that generates reminders for each of the following events, based on the trial date:

  • automatically checking for a full retainer X number of days before trial
  • sending letters to the client to advise of the upcoming court date
  • reminding the lawyer to serve all subpoenas on witnesses X days before trial
  • checking to see that all subpoenas were in fact served
  • checking for the production of all Crown evidence before trial.

Both Amicus Attorney and Time Matters allow for the creation of linked precedents that incorporate all relevant events - and these can be reused on any criminal file once the trial date is known. Creating such a reminder precedent and using it over and over again allows a lawyer to concentrate on meaningful work and not on file tickler and preparation minutia.

An advantage of having all dates in the office master electronic calendar (such as that in Amicus Attorney or Time Matters) is that, if a lawyer is ever absent due to illness or other cause, anyone in the firm can open up the lawyer's calendar, see the upcoming appointments and take appropriate action to prevent any court dates, appointments or limitation dates from being missed.

The firm's accounting system should be able to handle both trust and general accounting, since trust retainers figure so prominently in a criminal practice. As noted, it should also be compatible with the practice management system to maximize workflow and reduce duplicate keystrokes in collecting billable hour data. Both Amicus Attorney and Time Matters work with many legal accounting systems.

Another approach is to acquire an integrated practice management and accounting product, such as LawStream (formerly Integra Office System) or ProLaw. LawStream and some legal accounting systems now incorporate case management features. In some cases, a legal accounting system (such as PCLaw) may be sufficient for both practice management and accounting functions.

All legal case management systems allow for the set-up of document generation precedents - trial notification letters, retainer replenishment reminders and the like - which can pull data from the contact list and merge it into a Word (and in some cases, WordPerfect) document.

To be sure, there are additional applications that a criminal lawyer can add to this core system, such as high-powered evidence analysis and courtroom presentation tools. The beauty of having a well-functioning, simple core system is that you can concentrate on doing what you do best - acting to release those clients that find themselves close confined.