Volume 18, Number 7
Software for the Family Law Practice
By Jeffrey Allen and Nikki Clark
Family law practice, like all areas of legal practice, can benefit from the appropriate use of computer technology. Software available to assist family law practitioners falls into two broad classifications: (1) programs that serve needs common to most lawyers, and (2) programs that serve needs primarily limited to family law practice, the rules for which vary from state to state.
Most areas of practice, including family law, use basic word processing and programs for trust and standard accounting, time and billing, personal information management, calendaring, and conflict management software. Many family law practitioners also find knowledge- or information-management software and common database management software helpful. Some programs are designed specifically for lawyers, while others are not. Program availability in Windows and Macintosh formats is indicated by W or M.
Word processing. Microsoft Word and Corel's WordPerfect control this market. Both have Macintosh and Windows versions, although Corel has not done much to upgrade its Macintosh version for several years. If you are looking for a word processor, this is the universe of choices. Both are available as a separate program and as part of an office software suite. Using Word or WordPerfect helps facilitate exchanging files with other lawyers or courts. It can also make it easier to find competent help for short- or long-term needs.
Personal information management/calendaring. Contact management and calendaring functions often come in the same package. Programs aimed at the law practitioner include Time Matters 4.0 (W) and Amicus (W/M) (the Mac version has not been updated for some time, and the Windows version is far superior).
A variety of good calendaring and contact programs not specifically designed for lawyers exists on both platforms. Examples include: Now-Up-to-Date & Contact (M) and Now Planner (W/M) (www.poweronsoftware.com), Entourage (M), Outlook (W) and Outlook Express (M, W), and Lotus Organizer (W) (www.lotus.com). Many of the legal programs offer automatic calendaring based on court rules. The generic programs require you to manually calculate and make the required calendaring entries. The programs mentioned in this section all integrate with Palm OS handhelds.
Accounting. Lawyers have relatively simple accounting software needs: tracking time and expenses for specific clients, generating bills, performing general bookkeeping for the office, and maintaining accurate trust records. Some also may need to calculate payroll deductions in house.
A number of legal billing program exist for the Windows platform. The PCLaw/PCLaw Pro/PCLaw Jr. (www.pclaw.com) family offers solutions for small, medium, and large firms in different packages and includes time and billing, accounting, and calendaring features. Tabs III (www.stilegal.com) provides time and billing for lawyers and links to other modules produced by the same company to handle general and trust accounting functions.
In the more general realm, Timeslips (M/W) (www.timeslips.com) may be the best known, best value, and simply the best time and billing program. Timeslips handles trust accounting, billing, and receipts and, although it does not include a complete bookkeeping system, interfaces with a variety of accounting programs. Unfortunately, interface users report mixed results; Timeslips may work best when run independent of your general accounting software, which involves some duplication. Timeslips maintains aged receivables records quite well. Peachtree (W) (www.peachtree.com) produces an excellent general accounting program and the family of Quicken/Quickbooks/Quickbooks Pro (M/W) (www.quicken.com) also offers excellent values.
Other programs. Many other programs can be useful to a family law practitioner. The possibilities include the following:
1. Information or knowledge management programs such as CaseMap (W) and its sibling TimeMap (W); outliners such as NoteMap (W) (www.casemap.com).
2. Database software such as Filemaker Pro 5.5 (M/W) (www.filemaker.com) or Microsoft Access (W).
3. Basic presentation software such as Corel Presentation (W) or PowerPoint (M/W).
4. A good backup program for at least critical files such as QuikSync (M/W) (www.iomega.com) (although a more comprehensive backup of your entire hard disk is recommended).
5. Disk utilities, such as Norton Utilities or System Works (M/W) (www.norton.com).
6. An anti-virus program such as McAfee (www.mcafee.com) (M/W) or Norton Anti-virus (M/W) is essential.
7. Document creation programs for forms, such as HotDocs (W) (www.capsoft.com).
8. Document management software, such as Worldox (W) (www.worldox.com).
We would be remiss if we failed to mention Virtual PC (M/W) (www.connectix.com), which enables your Mac to run PC software like DOS or Windows programs. It also lets PC users install an additional version of Windows to run programs not compatible with the main version. Be sure you have sufficient RAM in your system, because Virtual PC requires its own allocation of physical RAM; virtual memory will not work for the virtual computer.
Due to differences in state law, most family law-specific software will be state-specific as well, and major publishers sometimes tailor similar programs for different states. Generally, states with larger populations have a better selection of family law-specific software. By briefly describing the major software pieces available to California practitioners, we hope to convey a good idea of what to look for if you practice outside of California. These programs all require Windows.
DissoMaster (www.cflr.com) calculates child support and temporary spousal support, using state-mandated guidelines. Child support is based on net disposable incomes, the number of children involved, and the amount of time the children live with each of the parties. The program calculates alternate awards to minimize the parties' combined tax liability, enhancing the net combined spendable income available to each parent. Spousal support is calculated based on the parties' net disposable income. The program is locale-specific to comply with local court differences relating to income and expenses. Courts and lawyers regularly use this program.
Attorney's BriefCase (www.atybriefcase.com) provides a comprehensive legal research system for family law. The system is organized around issues and differentiates between facts and opinions related to applicable cases and statutes. It includes the Family Code, the Evidence Code, and parts of other codes, as well as the Rules of Court.
Matthew Bender (www.bender.com) offers CD-ROM versions of its texts California Family Law (2d ed.) and California Family Law Trial Guide, among others. California Family Law offers a comprehensive practice guide with procedural assistance and model forms commonly used for motions and orders. The Trial Guide facilitates preparation for and presentation of a family law trial. The search mechanism allows easy access to helpful sections.
West Group (www.westgroup.com) offers Legal Solutions, a system for completing mandatory court forms, which allows the user to complete all applicable California Judicial Council forms and local county forms. Judicial Council forms are also available from other vendors, including Continuing Education of the Bar (www.ceb.com), Martin Dean (www.essentialpublishers.com), and Hot Docs, which also allows in-computer form completion. Several vendors offer California Codes and cases both on CD-ROM and online with search engines at varying levels of sophistication.
Jeffrey Allen is a principal in the firm of Graves & Allen in Oakland, California. He has been in general practice since 1973 and is the special issue editor of GPSolo's Technology and Practice Guide issues. Nikki Clark is a family law practitioner. She is an associate in the Law Offices of Shirley D. Jacobs in Fremont, California.