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It matters how you define matters and files

Much management of in-house teams depends on the term “matter.” For instance, managing attorneys often assign work according to matters (the British “file”) and visualize workloads by numbers of matters on someone’s desk (See my post of March 26, 2007: “a material increase (44%) in the average number of Legal Requests completed each month.”).

Matters, however construed, are ubiquitous. They are the bedrock of time tracking. Matter management systems are aptly named. Benchmarks assume shared notions of what are matters (See my post of April 3, 2005: how to measure productivity.). Law firms bill for each matter they handle (See my post of Sept. 14, 2005.). We talk about the complexity of a matter, which presupposes we all know what one is (See my post of March 13, 2007: a complex issue to define a matter’s complexity.). Matter data informs RFPs (See my post of Nov. 9, 2006.).

How you define a matter doesn’t matter If your department eschews metrics. Everyone just handles their inbox. But if you want to track anything about what your department does, it’s important to have some shared parameters for what makes some set of tasks a “matter” (See my post of Sept. 14, 2005: when to put a matter into your matter management system;

It may be that finance insists that you separately identify and track “matters (See my post of April 17, 2006: accounting may dictate when to create some matters.). Insurance coverage might influence the creation of matters (See my post of Oct. 4, 2005: payments for insured litigated matters.). The deal you struck with the vendor of your matter management or e-billing system may influence what you call a matter (See my post of April 17, 2006: varied pricing models of e-billing vendors.) because there is a cost consequence.).

If left to your own devices to define matters, some activities at least appear to be discrete and sizeable and therefore easy to label as a matter (See my post of Jan. 25, 2006: number of lawsuits pending; May 15, 2005: NLRB matters; and Oct. 27, 2005: regulatory proceedings and arbitrations.).

Often, however, whether and how to classify related activities as a “matter” is far from clear. In fact, a “matter” might be the designated term for any of several segments of a flow of work (See my post of Nov. 2, 2006: notional cost of handling a matter and when it ends.).

To offer just one example, many lawyers in-house devote much of their time to contracts (See my post of June 19, 2006.). Does every agreement signed by the company deserve to be a “matter”? At what point do you open the “matter” (See my post of March 26, 2008: track first involvement in matters.). You might decree that a contract matter ends when all parties have executed the contract; or when the primary agreement is signed; or one year after either of those, since there are often post-contractual questions. It might be that only contracts with a minimum dollar value warrant being called “matters” (See my post of Sept. 17, 2005: $25,000 at Cargill.). It might be that you aggregate most or all contracts into a single large “matter” or create smaller “matters” by client group.

The point is that the application of the concept “matter” in law departments is socially constructed.