Volume 17, Number 8
Time & Billing
What Do Three of the Leading Packages Have to Offer?
By Alan Pearlman
The backbone of every successful law firm is, or at least should be, its time-and-billing software. After all, as Abe Lincoln said, "A lawyer's stock in trade are his time and his advice." That being the case, most lawyers still have to keep good time records and do their billing by time methodology. Many time-and-billing software packages have come and gone, but three have withstood the test of time and are still the leaders for most of today's law offices.
These three leaders are STI TABS III time and billing from Software Technology, Inc., of Lincoln, Nebraska; PCLawPro from Alumni Computer Group of Buffalo, New York; and, of course, the old standby Timeslips, from the Sage Corporation in Dallas, Texas.
(My apologies in advance to the programs not mentioned here, but in the short amount of space available, I could not possibly mention all of the good time-and-billing software in today's marketplace.)Timeslips Version 10
As you may recall from past reviews, Timeslips Version 9 was, to say the least, a letdown-and a disaster to all concerned, including the Sage Corporation. For whatever reason, Sage just didn't get it right in Version 9. Ah, but comes the dawn, and Version 10 makes up for the shortcomings! At last, a product that does what it's supposed to do! Keep in mind that although this product has been around for a long time, it is general in nature. It is not a legal-specific time-and-billing system, but rather a general, service-oriented, business timekeeping tool. However, it does come with templates for lawyers, accountants, consultants, etc., and the program is full-featured.
A Navigator section allows you to maneuver into several areas from one general command post. Guides walk you through each and every area of the system, allowing you to utilize your own data while learning how to do common, everyday tasks. A stopwatch timer tracks time spent while you perform each task. The program allows for flat fees, hourly rates, and contingent fees. You can set up default rates and change rates for specific tasks that you have preset, so you'll always have the right rate charged for the specific task.
A report designer lets you customize your bills and match the way you would like them to look. You can use the extensive accounts receivable feature that allows for payment tracking per invoice on hours, fees, costs, taxes, and interest, plus tracking of bank deposit slips to make your reconciliation of statements less of a chore. You also can view a listing of time and expenses entries for any given period with the slip list view, and print the listing out with one click of the mouse. A System Administration function allows applications and database-wide management in a network environment with audit trail tracking. You also have the ability to create automated tasks from basic to advanced in scope, so that the things you need to do everyday are kept to a minimum.
If you've ever had a hell of a time trying to track changing records, the audit trails in Timeslips may become a great advantage to you. This feature tracks the "who, what, where, and when" of changes to database records. Likewise, if you find that there are features in Timeslips that you don't need, with one click you can remove them; if your firm's needs later change, you can restore them just as easily. As for your aged balances, they are tracked into components of fees, costs, and interest with up to six periods, each of them defined by the user. Timeslips has a comprehensive security system that allows you to restrict access to almost any of its areas. It also allows you to print mailing labels and envelopes, and to import data from other time, billing, and management applications. In addition, Timeslips is fully networkable.
Finally, Timeslips offers the E-Center feature. As you might have guessed, this feature gives you the ability to utilize the Internet to enter time and expenses via the Timeslips E-Center, a web-based entry system. You can take a look at that at www.Timeslipsecenter. com. But keep in mind that Timeslips will charge you extra for this service based upon monthly usage and the number of timekeepers using the system. So, buyer beware-E-Center sounds and looks good as a box ad, but it may be too costly for a smaller size firm and for the amount of time you may wish to use it away from the office.PCLawPro Version 5
For those of you time-and-billing followers who may be thinking that I forgot the "Jr." at the end of the PCLaw name, never fear-the Jr. has been dropped by the company, and now the product line is known simply as PCLawPro, Version 5. This version of the popular time-and-billing program is a software item geared strictly to the legal marketplace.
With Version 5, product enhancements abound. More powerful and flexible split-billing features allow you to split invoices among multiple billing parties and track accounts receivable separately. You also can create a settlement statement or consolidated bill for matters that are billed on an interim basis. A new and rather nifty feature is the ability to send your clients their bills via e-mail, from within the program. Perhaps this will get you better results by getting the bills to the clients faster and saving the costs related to postage. Just be aware that your client may retort that his or her e-mail system was down, or that he or she never got the e-mail… you might run into a potential client-relations problem!
In PCLawPro, a minimum retainer feature allows you to set up minimum retainer amounts to be held in the trust account or general account, and a bill is automatically generated with a request to replenish the retainer account if it should fall below the balance. You also have the ability to print out a courtesy discount anywhere on the bill, either in a fixed amount or a percentage of the total fees. A template feature allows you to create a new template or modify any of the existing ones and to preview the templates from an extensive library prior to selecting the one you wish to use.
Managing your matters is easier now with the ability to place any matter in an inactive status-even if it has a balance in it-and to prevent any further posting to that matter. With the new closed client list, you can track and locate any of your closed files. In the quick summary feature, you have fast access to clients, the ability to drill down by clicking on the balance to display the underlying details, and a faster method of recording case notes or collection notes for a follow-up. With the bank reconciliation module you can read your electronically downloaded file and then automatically match cleared items, an end-of-the-month time-saver!
If the computer era has taught us anything, it's that we should stop doing repetitive tasks, if at all possible. With PCLawPro's repetitive-task feature, you can ensure accuracy by having the program memorize the details of repetitive entries (like rent paid or phone bill) and then allow for payment on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual basis. Password security is available now at all levels, including the matter level, and you have more flexibility when entering amounts for client costs. Another new item is that when timekeepers leave the firm, they can be deactivated, opening spots for new timekeepers. The diary schedule has more expanded details, and explanation codes have unlimited text capabilities so that your longest standard billing description can finally be shown on the bill in proper form. You can use the pop-up calculator with all data entry screens. Lastly, in keeping with the multidisciplinary practice (MDP) idea that has been rearing its head lately, Alumni Computer Group has fashioned PCLawPro with the ability to accommodate MDP, should it become a factor in the near future. In this new version, you can change the terminology found within the program to handle other professionals. So the word "lawyer" can become "accountant." And this change affects only the workstations you choose, not the entire PCLawPro system.STI TABS III Version 9
As the old adage goes, I've saved the best for last. Let's take a look at what has become my favorite program in the time-and-billing category: the time-tested program TABS III. Software Technology, Inc., has been around since 1979, almost as long as many of us have been in practice, and with each iteration the program seems to get better and better! As with PCLaw, TABS III is a fully featured, for-lawyers-only time-and-billing system. Not only are these two programs time-and-billing oriented but also they have accounting functions and features, thereby making them more robust in all areas of application.
TABS III Version 9 has been updated recently to bring on more useful items, and I extol the virtues of this product with its intuitive design features that make the chore of billing move along at a better pace in my office.
TABS III has always had a straight-to-the-point approach to getting things done with time and billing, and Version 9 is no exception. In the Client Manager window you can open up a client file, enter fees and costs, record payments, create a work-in-progress report, and print a statement, all in one central location. You also can customize your main task folder in the Client Manager, as well as that of each and every person in your firm, with the functions you deem most useful.
You or your staff can manage multiple projects using fee timers to time events, and each data entry window can have its own timer, allowing multiple timers to work all at once. The program also has the ability to show a specific date recap on the screen of billable and nonbillable hours for all and separate timekeepers. And, with the capabilities of drilling down, all individual entries can be viewed so you can make sure that no entries on a particular client or matter have been lost.
For years as a sole practitioner I've used TABS III. Its form and function are well suited to small firms, as well as to large legal entities. You have the ability to open a matter, put together a retainer for a client, record all your time, and print out any and all bills in a relatively short period of time. The program is also robust enough to contain a more advanced set of features that enable you to manage individual matters using hourly, flat-fee, split-fee, contingent-fee, or even task-based billing. The program makes it a breeze simply to write up or down fees or costs, and you can even track pre-bills and their status at any time. Also, don't worry about the mistakes you make in TABS III-your statement can be unbilled with a few mouse clicks, a function that I found harder to use in the other two programs. Likewise, if you make a mistake while billing to a particular account, an easy click makes it all better! You also can adjust productivity figures that were changed in the reversal so that you have an accurate reflection of the situation.
You get detailed reminder statements, and the ability to include finance charges combined with features such as write-offs, refunds, and payment reversals. These features, combined with extensive reporting capabilities, have made the program an exceptional value for the money. TABS III has its own general ledger system, accounts payable, check-writing capabilities, trust accounting, and a case management system. Purchase only the modules that you need for your practice and you will have true integration, all without going to a third-party vendor. The program integrates with ease to other outside vendor products. And, if you should have a problem with the product, Software Technology, Inc., has a reliable and capable support staff and help team that will have you up and running again in a matter of minutes.
Version 9 of TABS III is clearly the best version yet of a tried-and-true product and, although all of the software programs mentioned in this article are fine products, I must give my vote to TABS III. I have found it to be a successful solution to time-and-billing problems at my office.Alan Pearlman is an attorney, computer consultant, nationally syndicated columnist, and author of the best-selling book, The Busy Lawyer's Guide to Microsoft Word for Windows '95, published by the West Group.