The Life Cycle of a Matter - The Importance of Closing

By Alexander Campbell posted 02-28-2017 10:59


We don’t pay enough attention to closing a matter.  Often a matter ends and we immediately pick up a new matter to keep the economic engine revving.  

What happens to the old matter?  What happens to the knowledge we’ve gained, lessons learned, accumulated data, and outstanding bills?

Closing is equally important as all other phases of a matter because it defines, terminates and improves the life cycle of the overall process.  It prevents cascade failure from dead weight.  It completes the life cycle of the existing matter to breathe life into the new matter.  Just a few hours with the right people will pay dividends downstream.  It’s time to dedicate resources to case closure and capitalize on the following benefits:

  1. Risk Management - limit liability of unnecessary or outdated information
  2. Information Governance - compliance with existing firm or department policies lends to increased defensibility of project management and workflows
  3. Auditing and Regulatory Compliance - clients and government bodies ask questions related to matter closing; be prepared with defensible, proven workflows
  4. Resource Management and Utilization - clearing the pipeline for new matters equates to cost savings and sound economic policy for law firm/department management
  5. Accounts Receivable - collecting account receivables increases realization ratio, maximizes value, and lends to a comprehensive financial landscape
  6. Client Satisfaction - appease stakeholders (both internal and external) by managing their data and work product with the highest degree of care
  7. Policy Improvements - a post mortem helps analyze existing policy and addresses changes in the legal landscape
  8. Business Process Improvement (BPI) - a post mortem sheds light on areas where you can eliminate waste, tighten operations, and improve processes
  9. Business Intelligence (BI) - analysis of trends and metrics provides valuable insight into areas of focus, opportunities for growth and development, and overall strategy

Considering the above, let’s explore who’s involved, when to initiate case closure, and how to execute it.

Closing of matters is a cross departmental effort where each department must know their role and execute accordingly.  In a law firm setting, the departments that may be included in the matter closing are: Records & Conflicts, Accounting, Attorneys and Paralegals, Information Technology, Practice/Litigation Support, Human Resources and Docket, as well as any outside vendors that perform work on behalf of said departments.  In a corporate setting, members of the legal department including the Chief Legal Officer or General Counsel, outside counsel and vendors, and impacted business units (Marketing, R&D, Sales, Finance) and operational units (IT, Records Management, and Privacy/Security) are important figures in the case closure workflow.  In both settings, having buy-in from the key stakeholders is critical to the success of your closed matter initiative.

So how do you go from buy-in to sustained commitment of your stakeholders?  One word: accountability.  The easiest route to accountability is to form a committee that reports to an executive (Partner) on a regular basis.  This committee can be called a “Retention Committee” or an “Information Governance Steering Committee.”  The point of your committee is to coordinate review efforts for closed matters and foster the proper disposition of records at the end of the document lifecycle.

There are many different decision points around when to close a matter.  Far and away the most logical point to close a matter is when a case settles or a judgment is handed down.  Many matters, however, stay open for long periods of time without a defined conclusion.  Firms now look to shared collaboration repositories (commonly known as document management systems or DMs) for key decisions about when to close inactive/dormant matters.  A common technique is to examine the last edit date of a document to determine how long a matter has been dormant and then decide whether to prompt closing.

The “how” of matter closing should always be determined by the document retention policy.  Your document retention policy is a GPS for content and will vary by industry.  Typically, a matter is determined to be closed by the supervising partner who, in turn, informs accounting, prompting billing suspension.  At that point, anyone responsible for storing content (electronic and physical) should be notified, records should be gathered for review, and anything that can be culled per the policy should be returned to the client or disposed.

Proper closing of matters is just as important as the opening of matters.  At its core, it is a strategic initiative supporting client services, cost savings, risk mitigation and, most importantly, certainty about matter status.  It is the closing of matters that ensures your business pipeline is clear and, if done correctly, leads to repeat business, client referrals, heightened legal compliance, reduced risk exposure, and sound knowledge acquisition and transfer.

The key to this process, as with anything, is to plan your work and work your plan.  Below is a checklist outlining some key areas and questions to consider for your next case closure.  Once you have a case closure workflow in place, constantly tweak and fine-tune it to keep up with developments in technology and changes in the legal landscape.  Now go forth and prosper in the realm of case closure!


Authors: Ricky Brooman, CEDS with Saul Ewing and Alexander Campbell with Cohen & Gresser