Is ActionStep For You?
When choosing a practice management application, you need to make two important choices:
- Cloud versus desktop program
- Simplicity versus power
“Cloud” software refers to services that work within web browsers to access information across the Internet on secure, professionally managed servers. Cloud-based systems, in contrast to classic, desktop practice management software, free you from time-consuming installations and upgrades. Desktop programs limit you to either Windows or Mac OS computers. Cloud-based systems let you choose Macs, Windows machines, or both.
Cloud services run on redundant, enterprise-grade servers. With desktop software you rely on a single server in your office that you must buy and pay to maintain. Cloud-based programs allow you to continue working on a laptop through any number of emergencies as long as you find an Internet connection. Desktop systems typically require that your server be powered up and accessible.
Some lawyers don’t want to trust their confidential client information to the Internet, so they prefer desktop software. Yet with today’s ultra-strong encryption, you need not worry about the interception of client information as it traverses the Internet. Your focus should be on the security of your stored information and the people responsible for it. Cloud companies take much greater precautions to protect your data than you can afford for protecting your own server.
Another concern may be getting your data and documents back from the cloud if you want to switch to a different system. ActionStep allows you to download all your data and documents in standard, non-proprietary formats from Amazon servers in the United States.
Desktop software annual support contracts are less expensive than the annual subscription costs of cloud-based systems. If you already have a good server and a good desktop practice management system, switching to a cloud-based system will increase your costs significantly. However, when it comes time to replace your server and upgrade your desktop software, your savings may be erased.
Your second choice is between simplicity and power, although the dividing line between the two may be fuzzy. The established cloud-based practice management systems tend to favor clean, more limited interfaces and shorter learning curves over powerful features and deep customization options.
ActionStep is a powerful, comprehensive system, so it departs from its simpler cloud-based competitors. It gives you the tools to squeeze busywork out of the practice of law. Its high level of customizability and deep, broad set of features make for a bigger up-front investment of your time and consulting dollars.
At $59.95 per month per user, the cost of ActionStep is comparable or slightly higher than other cloud-based products. ActionStep is a good choice if you value power and options over simplicity and limitations.
How ActionStep Is Different
Each practice management system has its own characteristics that distinguish it from other options in the marketplace. Four aspects of ActionStep are especially impressive:
- Fast interface
- Workflow built in
- Everything in one system
- Powerful automation
A fast, efficient user interface was hard to find when cloud-based practice management systems first began to appear. They required too many clicks and too much waiting for the screen to refresh. ActionStep takes advantage of current browser technology to speed up the interface. It uses dynamic menus that reveal choices when you hover over a menu item and also provides multiple choices from a single click on an icon.
A key differentiating feature for ActionStep is workflow. None of the leading cloud-based practice management systems offers the workflow features of ActionStep.
In ActionStep, a workflow for a particular practice area has multiple steps. Each step is a major stage of the work that needs to be performed for a particular type of matter. For example, an estate planning matter can be divided into these steps:
- Initial consultation
- Information collection
- Document drafting
- Signature meeting
- Estate plan finalization
Each step in an ActionStep workflow may have multiple tasks, document templates, e-mail templates, dates, and custom fields. Each of these components of a step is customized to fit the particular area of law. In organizing the workflows, you may require the completion of particular tasks before a matter can progress from one step to the next. The workflow feature also presents the user with all the information that currently needs to be collected and what needs to be done at the current step.
Finding everything in one place is one of the most attractive aspects of ActionStep. So many practice management applications provide most but not all the features needed to run a law office. ActionStep delivers all the components of practice management systems. There is no need to use imports, exports, or links that can prove to be problematic in order to run both the front-office and back-office functions of a law practice. The inclusion of full-featured accounting, for example, spares you from the hassles of linking to an accounting application and reduces your costs because you do not need a separate accounting product.
Document assembly is available in most competing products but may be limited. ActionStep strikes a good balance between ease of use and power in its document assembly features.
E-mail assembly does not appear in other cloud-based systems. ActionStep allows you to create standard e-mails that automatically insert the first name of the recipient, the subject line, the name of the matter, and any other variables from the standard fields or custom data fields that you have entered into ActionStep. Because of the heavy use of e-mail in the practice of law, e-mail assembly stands out as a popular ActionStep feature.
Powerful customization also sets ActionStep apart from its competitors. It can be tailored to multiple practice areas using combinations of custom data fields for different types of matters. ActionStep also allows customization of contact records, record lists, the main menu, and many other aspects of the system.
Client portal capabilities are built into ActionStep. You may create restricted log-ins that, for example, allow your clients restricted access to particular document folders for their matters. Your clients may securely upload and download documents using these folders. They may also be given limited access to status information in ActionStep. There is no extra charge and no limit on the number of clients that may use your ActionStep system.
Mac and Windows, Law and Business
ActionStep works equally well on Macs and Windows systems, both in the practice of law and in the management of a business. Because ActionStep has everything in one place, you do not need to be concerned about finding compatible applications to manage accounting information or to automatically assemble documents. ActionStep works with documents in the formats .doc, .docx, and .rtf.
Originally designed for businesses with heavy compliance requirements, ActionStep is at home serving the needs of both lawyers and business people. This is an advantage for lawyers who practice law but are also involved in various aspects of running other businesses.
Areas for Improvement
No program is perfect, of course. The following are areas where ActionStep could be improved.
- More matter templates. Referred to as “Action Types” or “Matter Types,” these templates streamline the process of automating your law office. You can create your own and some are included, but more ready-to-use templates would be better.
- Better standard configurations. To make it easier for new users to begin using ActionStep, better standard configurations are needed. The ActionStep team is working on a new, easier standard setup.
- Task management options. Tasks should be enhanced with options for codes, custom fields, and more than one link to a single contact.
- Integration with more products. Despite the fact that such integrations can cause headaches, some new links would be useful. Offline apps for iPhones, Android phones, and desktops would be welcome additions.
To learn more about ActionStep, visit www.actionstep.com and view the videos and screen shots. Detailed documentation is available at help.actionstep.com.