It finally happened. Your trusty old server has given up the ghost. There’s a DNR order, and your IT guy has called the time of death. After a respectful moment of silence for the dearly departed, it’s time to move on.
If you find yourself in this position, before you automatically replace the server, take a moment and consider whether you can—as one managing partner recently said to me—“get your law firm out of the dang server business.”
Picture that for a moment: no server to buy, no software to patch and update, no IT guy to pay to maintain the server. It’s a compelling vision for lawyers who get stuck dealing with their firm technology when all they really want to do is to practice law.
Getting your firm out of the server business has a lot of ramifications. More, in fact, than I can cover in one column. Rather, I want to focus solely on one aspect of that process: choosing the right practice or case management software (CMS).
First, a word about CMS: As you likely know, it’s designed to help lawyers manage their client information, including everything from calendars to dockets to conflicts and all points in between. If it is a piece of information worthy of sticking in an expandable folder, a CMS product can help you manage it digitally.
PROCRASTINATION FINALLY PAYS OFF
For some reason, law firm adoption rates of CMS have been slow, however. The most recent survey by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center showed that only 51 percent of lawyers use a CMS. In other words, about half of all lawyers are still not on board.
However, choosing the right CMS the first time is much simpler than trying to get out of a previous purchase and into a new one. Today, the legal technology world is replete with cloud-based CMS options for lawyers. If we had reached close to full adoption of CMS 10 or 15 years ago, we’d all have the thornier logistical issue of figuring out how to switch from our previous-generation software to a cloud-based option. Instead, we get to make the decision de novo without having our decision process constricted by our prior choices (or suffer from, as the geeks might say, “lock up from legacy software”).
Choosing the right CMS is a big decision. Your new CMS will become your practice’s digital headquarters and will serve as a touchstone for all succeeding decisions about getting out of the server business. So, how do you choose the right cloud-based CMS?
There is no one right CMS for every firm, but there are several important decision points that any lawyer selecting a cloud-based CMS will want to consider:
Cost is the first and most important question lawyers will usually ask about a CMS because, after all, if you can’t afford it, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the software is. When considering the expense of a cloud-based CMS, try to make a full accounting of the costs involved. Don’t just compare the price of the software. Factor in whether a cloud-based choice can help you avoid purchasing, maintaining, patching and updating a new server, and paying for staff or IT consultant time to make all that happen.
For many firms, choosing a CMS is the gateway to becoming paperless. Most firms not using CMS employ a hybrid paper-digital client file system, where some parts of a client file (e.g., email and draft documents) are digital while others (e.g., incoming mail) remain paper-bound. To really get the most out of your CMS, however, you want it to become your entire client file, with all key components digitized.
Investigate how a CMS product handles documents. Is it easy to attach scanned PDFs of incoming correspondence and executed agreements? How easy is it to edit a draft document stored in a given client file? Does it integrate with a document management software program?
TIME & BILLING
Most cloud-based CMS contain a built-in time and billing component. This can be a great cost-saver for your firm. But if you are already used to using a stand-alone time and billing application, you may find the built-in version to lack some features you have come to expect. Investigate the integration with general ledger and, if you use it, trust accounting software. Does it seamlessly sync? How manual or automatic is that process? This is when you should get your timekeepers involved with kicking the tires. Get their honest assessments before you commit to a new product.
Extranets, or client portals, are terrific ways to leverage your new technology. Instead of mailing copies of incoming documents to your clients, a CMS with a client portal allows you to share portions of the file directly with the client. Your client can log in to a secure website to see her entire file at her convenience, while your firm saves money on mail. Ask whether the CMS product you are vetting contains a client portal. How easy is it for a client to log in? Is there a setting so a client can be notified by email any time a new document is added to his portal?
If you purchase a CMS on your first day in law practice, you may be perfectly content to use the software exactly as delivered out of the box. If, however, you have been practicing for some time, you probably already have ways you like to do things. To the extent your CMS conforms to your workflow, you will find it intuitive and easy to use. To the extent your CMS conflicts with that workflow, you will find it similar to rubbing a cheese grater across your forehead. Some cloud-based CMS products are fairly customizable (though, on the balance, less so than their locally installed CMS brethren). If you have ways you like to do things in your practice, find a CMS that fits—rather than trying to fit your practice to the CMS.
Choosing a CMS product (whether cloud-based or locally installed) is similar to checking in to the Eagles’ Hotel California: You can sign up any time you want, but you can never leave. More precisely, you can leave—but it is a shocking pain in the neck to export your data. (Can’t understand why Don Henley didn’t go with that as a lyric…)
All CMS products will tout their simple and easy processes for exporting your data, should you decide to move to another CMS. Assume it is less simple and easy by a factor of three. Commit to understanding the process of exporting data before you jump in with both feet.
If your state has an ethics opinion on the use of cloud computing, make a list of the requirements and be sure your chosen CMS product complies. In states such as North Carolina, where the standard is reasonable care, you’ll want to have a thorough and documented process for decision-making. Read the terms of service and service level agreement. Know where your client data will reside and where it will be backed up (i.e., colocated). Learn how you will be guaranteed access to your data should your vendor suddenly go out of business. A well-executed, well-conceived and well-documented decision process for choosing a CMS will be your ally should you ever have to explain that choice to an ethics tribunal.
It is hard to make apples to apples comparisons among CMS products because they tend to have different strengths and weaknesses. It’s likely that Product A will have features one, two and three, while Product B has features four, five and six. You’ll find yourself constructing imaginary Frankensteinian hybrids—for example, “If I could just take the document assembly piece from X and add it to the extranet from Y, then I’d really have something.” When this occurs, decide which features are must-haves and which are nice-to-haves, and compare. Talk to current users and find out how fast new features are being rolled out and how responsive the product vendor is to customer input.
OPPORTUNITY FROM CRISIS
My executive director is fond of reminding his staff that in a crisis there is often also an opportunity. If your firm is one of the 49 percent that has been putting off exploring CMS, take a moment in your next technology crisis to see if cloud-based CMS is your next opportunity.