Your livelihood depends on attracting new clients, referrals, and repeat business. A client relationship management (CRM) application may be your technological key to financial survival in changing times for the legal profession.
Learning about Legal CRM
New attitudes. In our small law firm consulting practice, we are often asked how to manage information with software. But it is unusual for lawyers to inquire about implementing a well-organized approach to marketing themselves and maintaining client relationships. That needs to change.
Your clients and potential clients are changing their attitudes about how to get answers to legal questions. To gain their attention and new business, you need to connect with them. CRM software and web services go beyond simply storing contact information. They give you the tools you need to stay in touch through scheduled phone calls, correspondence, meetings, and other activities.
CRM programs give you a systematic approach and accessible, comprehensive information. You produce superior results with your CRM-directed marketing efforts.
You need to become more effective at reaching clients because of the strong trend toward seeking self-help on legal issues. Individuals and business people are more frequently using freely available legal resources instead of consulting lawyers.
Frederic Ury, president-elect of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, observed: “The development of artificial intelligence along with increased Internet search capabilities is making access to answers for legal questions easier and cheaper.”
LegalZoom, Nolo, and Rocket Lawyer are among the leading websites where consumers and businesses can purchase and complete legal forms in a broad range of practice areas. Google Scholar supports free searches of case law for all federal and state jurisdictions.
There is a growing awareness that both basic legal services and some more advanced services can be delivered inexpensively through websites. Strong relationships with your existing clients may partially buffer you from these changes. Yet to thrive and continue to attract and retain new clients, you need to change with the times.
Strengthening relationships. A CRM application can be the foundation for maintaining relationships with existing and past clients. It can be a key to attracting new business.
What does an application actually do for you? At its core, a CRM application maintains categorized lists of clients, prospects, and other important contacts. For each one it stores addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, legal needs, and interactions with you, plus a wealth of biographical information. The application tracks your interactions with clients and prospects, allowing you to engage with them on a personal level about subjects that interest them in your conversations, e-mails, and other communications.
A CRM application produces communications, merging information from your contact records into e-mails, letters, postcards, and social media. It brings automation to the process of scheduling meetings, letters, e-mails, and phone calls designed to forge and maintain your role as a trusted advisor. In order to focus your efforts on the approaches that are most effective, a CRM application reports on the success rates, efficiency, and trends over time in your marketing and relationship-building efforts.
Most importantly, a CRM application motivates you and reminds you to act on your plan for maintaining existing relationships and building new ones.
Desktop/Server CRM Software
If you want to stick with traditionally installed software when creating a CRM system for your firm (as opposed to one of the web-based solutions described below), you face two different approaches, each with its own advantages and limitations.
The first approach is to use your existing contact management or practice management software. Out of the box, such programs are not optimized for managing client relationship activities, but consultants can help tailor the software for these purposes. With their customizations and counsel, you achieve excellent results.
A second approach is to use a dedicated CRM application. This approach typically requires consulting in order to effectively tailor the application to your target clients and to integrate the CRM application with your existing software. Because specialized CRM applications are specifically designed for maintaining client relationships, they tend to provide superior interfaces and feature sets for producing and managing communications. They also tend to be more expensive.
As you weigh your options, remember that you can avoid wasted time and a potentially bad decision by obtaining expert advice.
Customizing existing software. If you are currently using a robust practice management program that can be customized to perform the CRM functions you need (see under "CRM Feature Checklist," below), you may be better off going this route, rather than buying an additional CRM application. You avoid duplicating features and requiring users to learn the techniques of two different programs. The leading practice management software products for small law firms are Time Matters, Amicus Attorney, and PracticeMaster. Each of these programs, with varying flexibility, can produce e-mail communications and letters to prospects and clients. They all track activities and communications related to people and to matters. To track the results of marketing activities using these programs, you typically need to create customized views and reports.
The CRM features of contact management programs designed for general business use, such as Microsoft Outlook, Commence, and GoldMine, are often superior to those found in specialized legal software. Unfortunately, none of these business programs is designed to manage matter information. They are not tailored to the needs of law practices.
Purchasing dedicated software. If your existing software cannot be customized to perform the functions you need, and you don’t want to go with a web-based solution, it’s time to purchase a dedicated CRM application. Here are some questions to keep in mind as you begin shopping:
- How effectively can the CRM application link to your existing client data and your other applications?
- How much effort will be required to keep the information in your existing systems and your CRM application up-to-date?
- From the standpoint of the user, how much effort and learning is required to use the system well?
The legal CRM product category is relatively young. Only a few legal-specific applications have emerged. LexisNexis InterAction is the most prominent. Unfortunately, it is designed and priced for larger law firms. CRM4Legal is an application that works in Microsoft Outlook and is a collaboration between ClientProfiles and Microsoft. It is built on Microsoft Dynamics CRM and integrates tightly with MS Outlook, MS Exchange, and other Microsoft technologies. Like InterAction, CRM4Legal is targeted at larger law firms.
Remote access. Because relationship building often occurs outside the law office, you may want remote access to key information in your CRM system. You can be more effective and also free up more time back at the office if you can review and update client information remotely.
Using a computer at home or a laptop anywhere with an Internet connection, you can access any CRM software program using a remote control program such as GoToMyPC from Citrix Online. This service allows you to connect rapidly and securely to a computer back at the office without requiring a lot of setup and maintenance.
CRM access on the go may also be available via an app on your mobile device or phone. Some may synchronize with your main CRM program over the air whereas others must be synchronized back at the office.
In the future we hope to see better web-based capabilities added to traditional practice management software. LexisNexis has made a start in this direction with Time Matters Mobility, a limited web interface suitable for mobile devices. This service gives mobile, real-time access to contacts, cases, calendars, and time record entry. Expect to see more capabilities across the board as Time Matters and other products are updated.
One way to guarantee easy web access is to choose a web-based application. These programs can free you from some of the hassles characteristic of desktop/server-based software. Web applications don’t require time-consuming installation, updating, and new version upgrades. They are not prone to the crashes and conflicts with other programs that occasionally interfere with the use of desktop software. Web applications are available anywhere you have access to the Internet.
On the downside, the interfaces of web-based applications may respond more slowly than those of desktop programs. In addition, almost all web-based applications are entirely dependent on a live connection to the Internet.
Many lawyers express concerns about the security of web-based applications. Security consciousness makes sense in view of the special obligation owed by lawyers to their clients to protect confidential information. However, the sophisticated technologies used to secure the transmission and storage of information by web-based services makes them less vulnerable than information stored on most small office networks.
The most important vulnerabilities to confidential information arise from people: users who are careless with their passwords and service provider employees who make mistakes. As with desktop software, problems can be minimized by selecting reputable companies, by training users, and by enforcing good security practices.
Dedicated web-based legal CRM. Only two web-based CRM applications specifically address the small and medium law firm marketplace. Salesboom, priced at $45 per user per month, offers a complete set of CRM features plus document management, law firm timekeeping, billing, and accounting. The features of Salesboom are broader and deeper than those offered by competing CRM applications. But Salesboom has not drawn much attention in the legal technology circles. It may well be an excellent application, but check references and make sure that knowledgeable support is available for the law-specific features. This is good advice in evaluating any service provider.
Empower CRM from iEnterprises is designed for access both by web browsers and a variety of smart phones. The company touts more than a decade of experience offering the web-based CRM to the legal profession. Unlike many web-based CRM services for general business, Empower CRM incorporates matters tightly with clients, contacts, tasks, and calendaring. The program tracks all interactions with clients and contacts, offering custom fields and custom business logic together with management of electronic documents and integration with Microsoft Word. A subscription to Empower CRM has a five-user minimum and a one-year term. Assistance with initial setup and customization is included. At under $30 per user per month, Empower CRM is significantly less expensive than competing web-based applications and offers a broader set of features.
Law practice management web apps. A number of web applications specifically designed for managing law practices have appeared. Some may be tailored to perform CRM functions, but others allow little customization. Unlike dedicated CRM applications, law practice management web applications include billing features and manage matters.
Advologix PM has CRM at its heart. It is based on Salesforce.com, the leading web-based CRM application for general business. Advologix PM adds a full suite of law practice management features, including matter management, document management, timekeeping, and billing.
HoudiniESQ is available in both web-based and network-based versions; its feature set also compares favorably with desktop practice management applications. Supported by a small company, HoudiniESQ has a more attractive user interface than Advologix PM but is not so customizable and does not have the extensive selection of add-ins and large user community available to Advologix PM customers.
The next three web-based applications are simpler and more limited.
Firm Manager from LexisNexis centralizes cases, appointments, meetings, tasks, messages, and more. You may set reminders, search for conflicts, and track time and expenses.
Clio was one of the first legal web-based applications to appear on the Internet. It offers basic law practice management and, like Firm Manager, does not allow much customization. Priced at $49 per attorney per month and $25 per support staff per month, Clio is less expensive than other similar services. Clio offers a client extranet that can be an excellent tool for cementing relationships with clients.
Rocket Matter supports the standard law practice management functions and offers flexible features for billing clients. The program includes intelligent global search that allows quick access to information when you are unsure where you may have saved it.
CRM Feature Checklist
Whichever CRM system you decide to implement—customizing your existing practice management software, purchasing a dedicated CRM software package, or signing up for a web-based solution—you first will want to develop a checklist of the CRM features that are most important to your law practice. Some to consider:
- Activity scheduling
- Campaign management
- Contact management
- Custom fields
- Document management
- Lead management
- Legal marketing automation
- Mail merge into MS Word
- Mass e-mail
- Microsoft Outlook integration
- Mobile features
- Results reporting
- Shared calendar
- Task management
Connecting with clients and others via Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter may seem unimportant or even odd to some seasoned lawyers. But relating with each other through the Internet is an experience shared by most professionals who have entered the workforce in the last ten to 15 years.
The Internet generation is used to interacting frequently via instant messages, Facebook posts, and Twitter. LinkedIn has become the website of choice for professionals, allowing them to exchange information about work experience, expertise, employers, contacts, and updates.
So far, none of the applications mentioned here have touted their ability to work with social media. Expect to see significant changes as developers of products for the legal market get the message.
In addition to implementing an effective CRM program, attorneys seeking to secure their futures would be well advised to consider the use of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for particular practice areas. Although these social media may not be appropriate for all clients, they have an important role to play in maintaining relationships with a growing range of individuals.
As the delivery of legal services and attorney-client relationships evolve, CRM applications give you the tools to create and cement relationships with clients. The financial success or decline of your firm depends on how effectively you adapt in changing times. Proactive attorneys who initiate conversations, spot legal problems, and propose solutions will do well.