Docketing support is basically structured in two different ways: centralized and decentralized. A third approach is a hybrid solution which is a mix of centralized and decentralized. For practical purposes, this article will consider a hybrid solution as decentralized in nature.
In a centralized approach, firms rely on one individual to make decisions and provide direction for the department. All docketing staff report to one manager and are either located in the same office or dispersed geographically. In a decentralized structure, firms often have different types of roles responsible for calendaring. Staff are located in different offices, report to different managers, and include administrative or legal assistants calendaring deadlines in smaller offices with multiple specialists located in the larger offices, and solo specialists located yet in other offices. They all report to different people and typically use different calendaring software.
This article will concentrate on the advantages, disadvantages, and costs of each approach. There is no right or wrong method as firms have to decide how to structure their docketing support, but there is one approach that is mostly preferred, especially by the larger firms.
A centralized docketing structure can be extremely efficient for the firm. The manager makes most of the critical decisions that will affect the support provided firm wide and leads the department’s vision. With fewer people involved in discussing and deciding on strategy and action, centralized departments typically react more quickly. When only one person or a small group makes important decisions, firms experience less conflict and dissent. Additionally, little question exists over who is accountable for the results of those decisions. This is the preferred structure to most mid to large firms.
Sometimes in a centralized approach, especially where all staff are located in one office, there is a disconnect with the rest of the firm and resistance to change. Centralization can lead to delays in decisions that impact other offices. A cultural difference is also prevalent and can be perceived as a bias. Lastly, loyalty toward the centralized location is commonplace and can cause issues with other offices.
The cost to a centralized structure, where all staff are located in one office, is typically lower for several reasons including real estate, greater efficiencies, less staffing, and perhaps a lower threshold with salaries. The cost to a centralized reporting structure where staff are dispersed geographically but report to one manager is typically higher but the advantages compared to the former are greater.
Staff can be empowered by having more autonomy to make their own decisions. It gives them a sense of importance. It also allows them to make better use of their local knowledge and experience as it relates to the docketing function.
Less control is one of the disadvantages to a decentralized approach. A firm will find it difficult to makes changes to the software and workflow processes. Training and adherence to policies becomes problematic. It is even likely that the firm uses multiple docketing solutions which creates confusion and a greater risk to deadline errors and omissions. Fragmentation is another concern for decentralization. Individuals that docket for their own office may look out for their own interests first before the greater good of the firm. Morale can also suffer.
A decentralized approach may cost more money to manage, both with software and personnel. If the firm is using different docketing systems, the total cost with all systems is undoubtedly more than if one system was used firm wide. In addition, there are most likely more staff performing docketing duties compared to a centralized structure.
In the modern world of legal practice, the delegation of repetitive legal tasks to [specialists] has become a necessary fixture. Such delegation has become an integral part of the struggle to keep down the costs of legal representation. Moreover, the delegation of such tasks to specialized, well-educated non-lawyers may well ensure greater accuracy in meeting deadlines than having each lawyer in a large law firm calculate each filing deadline anew.¹
The key to creating effective docketing support is to properly assess the needs of the firm. Should the docketing staff be centralized, decentralized, or a hybrid of both? The answer to this question depends on the size of the firm, the number of offices that need support, and the firm’s workflow (or a lack thereof).
¹Pincay and McCarron v. Andrews Management Corp, 389 F 3d 853, at 856.