GPSolo Magazine - December 2003

Practice Management

A lot rides on what practice management software you select and how you implement it in your practice. Your choice can accelerate most operations or it can fall well short of expectations. Either way, lawyers and staff in your office will invest significant amounts of time learning how to use the software. Before deciding on one of the many practice management products, it pays for you to consider carefully what they do and how they differ.

Before looking at the strengths, weaknesses, and costs of practice management software, first consider what they offer your business. The products go beyond personal information managers and case management aids that handle calendars, contacts, to-do lists, and cases. Practice management software adds important—some would say vital—missing functions: timekeeping, document assembly, document search, e-mail, file management, messaging, scanning, and more.

What used to be called “case management software” has evolved and now works for all kinds of law practices. Practice management software stores and manages information about most of the documents and data that you come across in a day:

  • Clients, referral sources, attorneys, companies and organizations, opposing parties, experts, witnesses, and other parties
  • Facts about transactions, contracts, chronologies, and accounting
  • Deadlines, personal calendars, docket entries, and reminders
  • Due dates, assignment dates, follow-ups, and delegated work

In addition to these basic address book and calendaring functions, practice management programs now also help with the following:

  • Automatic document generation: assembling documents, merging case information into forms
  • Document management: automatic naming and saving, full-text search, and versions
  • E-mail: creation, automatic linking to people and cases, and attachments
  • Intra-office messaging and telephone messages
  • Checking for conflicts of interest
  • Timekeeping and billing within the program or via links to other software
  • Legal research tracking, with links to cases and Internet sources
  • Two-way synchronization of information with branch offices, laptops, and PDAs

Law practice management software extends well beyond the limits of similar products designed for general business use. Microsoft Outlook’s features overlap with practice management software; Outlook’s various versions can handle contacts, calendars, tasks, notes, ande-mail—but Outlook cannot track legal matters. Developers of the best practice management software have honed their products specifically for law offices, incorporating years of feedback. You can get by with general business products, but you will miss out on efficiencies that only practice management programs deliver.

Leading Products Differ

Though practice management products do not fall neatly into categories, three broad groupings can be discerned: (1) all-purpose, reasonably priced customizable software; (2) specialized, more expensive software; and (3) web-based practice management services. Implementing a program and its features in any of these categories requires time and effort. How much you devote to customization, data conversion, and training will make or break your project. When comparing products, keep in mind that actual software costs may be a relatively small part of your total investment—be sure to budget time and money for adapting the software to your firm’s particular needs, converting existing data on clients and matters, and training attorneys and staff.

1. All-purpose products deliver basic functions to any law office right out of the box. Experienced users or consultants can help customize them to meet the specific needs of your law practice. Time Matters (www.timematters.com), ProLaw Ready (www.prolaw.com), Amicus Attorney (www.amicusattorney.com), and Abacus Law (www.abacuslaw.com) fall within this category. Software costs range between $99 and $500 per user (and, although they are suitable for sole practitioners and small firms, some of these products can work with hundreds of users and offer significant price breaks for multiple licenses).

In addition to all the usual practice management features, each of the following products has some unique advantages. Amicus Attorney is easy to use and delivers natural work flow through a beautiful desktop. It provides intelligent assistance for the many tasks that lawyers and staff perform. ProLaw Ready is long on integration, tying together all the usual features with billing, accounting, legal research, and WestWorks Practice Libraries. Time Matters easily adapts to a wide variety of practice specialties. It automatically creates and manages documents with features such as formattable clipboards and simplified document assembly; adding Billing Matters builds in timekeeping and invoicing.

2. Specialized products address particular practice areas in depth and may include hundreds of boilerplate forms designed for particular jurisdictions and/or practice specialties. They often are sold as packages that include on-site services for initial setup and customization. (Although they allow for significant customization, each tends to reflect a particular approach to whatever specialties it covers, and this approach may or may not fit with yours.) The Prevail System (www.prevail.net) and Saga Practice Manager (www.sagasys.com) are in this category, specializing in areas such as personal injury, workers’ compensation, and medical malpractice. Costs run between $1,000 and $5,000 and up per user.

3. Web-based practice management services differ sharply from competing software products while delivering similar functions. You pay the application service provider (ASP) monthly subscription fees based on the number of users and options. Over a year, the fees add up to a good deal more than the cost of software—$3,000 per user and up—but the ASP covers services that software does not. ASPs handle installation, upgrades, maintenance, backup, support, and servicing for the application and computers that store your firm’s practice management data. A number of lawyers shy away from ASPs because they don’t want to transmit vital client data to a company via the Internet. RealLegal (www.reallegal.com) and Case Manager Pro (www.casemanagerpro.com) offer web-based practice management protected by industrial-strength security.

Whether you investigate the products yourself or work with a consultant, don’t become overly focused on the feature wars among competing companies. The leaders all have more than enough features. Concentrate on aspects of your practice and the processes you follow in order to make the best choice. These tips may help focus your review:

  • Identify the low-hanging fruit for your firm. What are the most important, cost-cutting, profit-building changes you need to implement?
  • Understand the details of how each product will perform the functions most vital to your practice areas.
  • Assess how well the components of the product work together and with other systems or products your firm requires.

Wells Anderson practiced law and created in-house legal systems for 18 years before founding Active Practice, a Minneapolis-based company devoted to practice management software projects and training materials. He can be reached at info@activepractice.com.

 

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