All-in-one practice management applications provide the tools to take control. Your path to a more streamlined, profitable practice includes these basic steps: (1) choosing a practice management application; (2) converting clients, matters, and other data; and (3) learning the new system. This article can help you with the first step, making a choice from a bewildering variety of options. Or, if you already have a practice management application but are barely scratching the surface of what it can do for you, let this material illuminate its potential.
Defining Terms: Front Office and Back Office
Practice management software is a technology powerhouse that no law firm should be without. That said, many lawyers only have a vague understanding of what practice management software is and how instrumental it can be in the “care and feeding” of not only their clients but also their law firms.
Often referred to as “front office software,” practice management software organizes your practice. Everything related to a matter emanates from the matter information entered into the software system. Think of this software as red-rope expanding folders in a computer. Many lawyers house their matters in the popular red-rope folders containing manila folders that divide documents and pleadings by type. A practice management system provides digital access to all this information (and much more) from within one application in the blink of an eye.
Billing and accounting software is another “must have” law firm application. This software, often referred to as “back office software,” can provide numerous functions, including timekeeping, billing, and accounting functions. These applications are best coupled with front office software to produce a fully integrated end product. (For a discussion of these back office systems, see “Tasty Solutions for Timekeeping, Billing, and Accounting.”)
Front Office Features Explored
Matter management. The ability to centrally manage your matters is the “lifeblood” of your practice. Practice management software stores your matter information in a central location, and most of these applications provide the ability to customize the fields and content of the matter information being stored based on the information relevant to any matter type. The ability to access all relevant matter information by the click of a button is what makes these applications so crucial to a successful practice.
Calendaring and docketing management. Virtually everyone will agree that law firms are fraught with the need to capture dates, deadlines, and tasks; this is true regardless of the firm’s practice area. Practice management software enables the end user to capture relevant dates and relate them to a matter. User-defined or pre-defined rules can be enabled so that reminders can alert those affected that a deadline or event is approaching. Because the software is a shared database, one or any number of individuals can be put on alert about the approaching date. Further, if tasks are not marked as “done,” the date will continue to provide an alert to the users assigned that the task is past due and also alert them as to the number of days past due.
Another calendaring feature in most practice management software is the ability to apply rules-based docketing. If a certain “sequence” of dates applies to a particular type of matter, formulas can be entered into the application so that once a base date is entered, subsequent dates can be automatically generated and entered on the calendar with the mere click of a button.
People management. Another powerful feature of practice management software is the ability to capture all sorts of relevant information regarding a person or entity that may or may not be associated with a matter. As with the matter screen, many people management screens are customizable so that the information captured about a person or entity can be made relevant to the entry being made. By way of example, if you were capturing contact information about a person who served as an expert witness on a case, you might want to capture information on the type of expert witness this person was, if he or she was a credible expert, what his or her hourly rate was, and so on. These abilities, as well as the ability to link these contacts to a matter or numerous matters, help make practice management software stand out above Outlook and other personal information systems.
Conflict checking. Most law firms do not have a comprehensive automated system for checking conflicts. Best practices mandate that conflicts checking should go far beyond the firm’s client list and the parties to a matter. Enter practice management software that can conduct a “global” search. A global search finds anyone or any entity in the firm’s systems, from front office to back office. By bringing any potential conflicts to light, the software ensures you’ve done your due diligence before taking on a new matter.
Document management. Finding documents can waste many hours with unbillable time. When using document management functions built into practice management software, users can be forced into adopting a universal naming protocol so that naming subjectivity is a thing of the past. Records can be easily searched, and version control is built into many of these applications. The usefulness of this feature cannot be overstated.
Document automation. Many lawyers are familiar with the ever-constant “repurposing” of documents in law firms. It’s a far too common practice and one that is a disaster waiting to happen. Many practice management software applications not only have document automation functionality built into them, but many also synchronize with stand-alone applications such as HotDocs to produce a swift, time-saving end product. Templates and other means of automating the creation of documents are robust features available in most practice management applications.
Research management. Capturing, sharing, saving, and repurposing research is yet another helpful feature of practice management software. Lawyers have traditionally conducted research in “silos,” resulting in a continual need to reinvent the wheel because others in the firm cannot communicate, share, and build on past research. With practice management software, research can be saved, searched, and updated by firm members.
Traditional Versus Cloud Applications
Cloud practice management vendors are grabbing an increasing market share from traditional practice management software companies. Which type of application is better for you? Let’s consider the advantages and drawbacks of traditional versus cloud applications.
Power versus simplicity. Traditional practice management software tends to be more powerful and feature-rich than the current crop of cloud services. But with their power comes complexity. If you are focused on fully automating your law practice in depth, then a traditional application may be the best option. But be aware that to take advantage of powerful features, you need to devote time and money to a longer customization and learning process.
Cloud applications offer simplicity. You are typically able to learn their functions rapidly. Relearning time is minimized. Practice management applications have lots of different features. You will likely need to relearn some features that you do not use every day. The intuitive nature of cloud applications makes that easier.
Two biggest cloud concerns. Lawyers identify the security and accessibility of their information as their biggest concerns about cloud applications.
The Internet is seen as a dangerous place, the realm of black hat hackers and security breaches. The threats are real, but there are highly effective protective measures that counter these threats. Cloud vendors that serve the legal profession understand that security is absolutely critical to their customers. They know that a significant security breach could lead to massive customer defections and put them out of business overnight. So professionally managed cloud-based practice management applications incorporate state-of-the-art security technology and precautions.
A second frequent concern lawyers express about cloud applications is: “How do we get our records back if we want to end our contract and switch to another service?” The ease of data retrieval and compatibility of the data downloads are legitimate concerns. Be sure to get a specific description of the method and the lag time for obtaining a download of all your information.
Biggest traditional software hassles. Traditional software typically requires more variable expenditures of money and time. The costs are front loaded. You need to pay for software, data conversion, customization, and perhaps a new server before your system is up and running. With a cloud service, the cost of the application and technical support is spread out in the form of monthly payments.
After the initial purchase of traditional software, you also have annual maintenance costs and the burden of periodically upgrading your application to add new features and eliminate bugs.
Cloud application advantages. Mobility and ease of use draw many lawyers to cloud practice management applications. With just a username and strong password, a user can log in securely anywhere using a variety of devices, including desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. The simplicity and geographical independence afforded by cloud applications are ideal for virtual law firms, mobile lawyers, and teleworkers.
The predictable monthly cost of a cloud application makes it easy to budget for the expense and makes for more predictable cash flow. To keep related training and customization costs down, cloud vendors typically provide comprehensive, clear online documentation, questions and answers, and videos.
Although their feature sets fall behind their traditional rivals, cloud practice management applications add new capabilities at a rapid pace. Plus they are increasing their connections to such popular cloud services as Gmail, Microsoft Office 365, Dropbox, and Box.
The costs of replacing and configuring computers and servers can be less with cloud applications. A firm can get more life out of its current server and computers when switching to cloud applications because processing and storage take place on the vendors’ secure servers. But hardware savings may be modest. Most law practices cannot do away completely with a local network and server.
Traditional software advantages. Most traditional practice management products offer more features, more customization, and more links to other programs than cloud applications. These deep capabilities can deliver big jumps in efficiency.
A common refrain among lawyers using practice management software is that they are barely scratching the surface of what it offers. But you do not need to use all or even most of the available features. A shrewd approach is to find the particular features that have especially high payoffs for the type of work that you do.
For example, a practice that involves many small matters spread across a variety of specialties can focus on the task management, communications, and calendaring features. In contrast, firms that handle a smaller number of larger matters can organize each one extensively. They can focus on features that more efficiently manage large numbers of documents, rapidly generate standard documents, and link dozens of people to each complex matter.
Traditional software supports more links to third-party programs and often can import and export records more easily. Links in Microsoft Word, Outlook, Excel, Adobe Acrobat, WordPerfect, HotDocs, QuickBooks, and legal accounting programs are more common and comprehensive in many traditional practice management applications.
Hosted traditional software. A growing trend is to rent access to traditional software, virtual computer desktops, and virtual servers in the cloud. These hosting options offer a blend of the advantages of cloud and traditional applications.
When a law firm subscribes to hosted services, users have all their familiar programs and the advantages of traditional practice management software. In addition, the firm has more predictable costs paid on a monthly basis and gets out of the business of maintaining its own expensive server and server programs.
Although hosted computing spreads the costs out over time, these monthly costs can be showstoppers. Hosted computing is not yet a mature market segment, so costs and quality can vary widely.
Too Many Options?
There are literally hundreds of law practice management applications to choose from. A few websites provide feature comparison tables. Two examples are:
If you find it challenging to select the one practice management system that will best fit your practice, you may want to work with a consultant. A false start with the wrong application can waste your valuable time and cause aggravation. An expert can assist you in making the right choice and a successful transition to a better system.
Choosing a practice management application is the first step in getting more done and getting your law practice under better control. Although there are many options, take the time to determine which practice management features will be most beneficial for your practice. The right tools will help you move forward with greater confidence that you are managing your practice efficiently and profitably.