Customizing the Cloud

Volume 38 Number 6

By

About the Author

Lee Rosen practices family law in North Carolina. He is the law practice management editor of the ABA Family Law Section’s Family Advocate magazine and recipient of the ABA’s James I. Keane Award for excellence in eLawyering. Rosen writes about legal marketing and technology at DivorceDiscourse.com.

Law Practice Magazine | November/December 2012 | The Client Service Issue
I knew I wanted to move my practice management system to the cloud. Why? I was desperate to get rid of the computer geeks lurking around the office taking care of our servers. I figured if I could get rid of them, I’d have one less thing to manage and one less source of aggravation.

As I did the research, I realized there would be more benefits than I had originally thought. Sure, I’d get rid of the geeks, but I’d also realize some savings, gain access to more-advanced technology and make it easier for my team to work remotely. It all sounded good to me—I was sold.

COMPARING PRACTICE MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS

I started comparing practice management systems to one another and doing free trials. Fortunately, lots of good options are available now, as briefly outlined in the box on the following page. Unfortunately, each required me to adapt my approach to practicing law to their models and terminology. I had my own way of thinking about managing our practice, and I was looking for a cloud I could modify and call my own.

Each of the major players offers some customizability. They allow you to change the terminology used, and some offer custom fields for storing data. Several of the leading vendors will, at additional cost, develop special features and applications for your practice. I wanted more, however, than they were offering. I wanted my cloud-based practice management system to work the way I worked; I wanted a system that would adapt to me rather than me adapting to the system. That’s how I ended up signing on with Salesforce and spending a bunch of money tailoring our system to our practice.

SALESFORCE AND CUSTOMIZATION

Salesforce is a massive system offering every imaginable option. It services many of the world’s largest companies and integrates features encompassing every aspect of marketing, sales and servicing, and collaborating with clients. The company is in the business of organizing data and making it useful to its customers. Everything it offers is customizable and can be adapted to the specific workflow of your practice. If anything, it offers more than we need. In fact, at times its feature set is overwhelming.

Salesforce isn’t for everyone. I’m not advocating it as a choice for most practices. The typical law firm is better off choosing one of the systems already designed for practicing law. We aren’t the typical users, however, and we’re willing to put up with some pain to get exactly what we want. I’m telling you my story so that you’ll know what’s possible. You shouldn’t, however, necessarily follow my lead.

We got started by purchasing a few accounts on Salesforce. We knew we’d need an account for testing, and we knew we’d need an account for a software developer to help us morph the stock Salesforce product into the application we were seeking. We went to work on finding the right developer to help. Salesforce has a huge developer base, and that’s important if you’re seeking to modify software. You want plenty of choices when it comes to finding the right person to help. Once we committed to Salesforce, we were challenged by narrowing down our options to find the right assistance.

We searched online for developers, and we asked our Salesforce representative for referrals. We interviewed several candidates, seeking someone who would serve as an independent contractor and invoice us on an hourly basis. The hunt was on. We’d hired developers in the past and learned that the biggest challenge in finding the right person isn’t technical expertise. The biggest challenge is finding someone with whom we can communicate. We needed someone who quickly grasps our business practices and processes and can translate those into a functional interface.

We started off with some small customizations to our system as a trial run with the developer. Our experience has been that we can’t fully evaluate a developer until we go to work and see what happens. Thankfully, we found someone with pertinent experience who was able to help. Our initial tweaking of Salesforce was successful, and we moved forward.

Then it was time for the big customizations and importing some old data. Our developer helped, and we introduced some users to the equation so we could test the system. All went well, and the user feedback gave us guidance as we continued to tweak the application. We had an old practice management system, and we used both systems, side-by-side, as we moved toward rolling Salesforce out to all of our users.

Moving forward also involved integrating additional applications to run alongside Salesforce. We immediately implemented and integrated NetDocuments as our document management system. The team at NetDocuments assisted from its end and worked with our Salesforce developer to tie the products together. Finally, we integrated a number of additional applications. Salesforce integrates well with many applications via its AppExchange, and these vendors make connecting the products as simple as signing up for the service. FedEx, for example, provides tight integration for package tracking so users can quickly determine the status of a delivery to their client or opposing counsel. There are hundreds of applications, ready for integration, in the AppExchange.

UP AND RUNNING

We’ve been using Salesforce for 18 months now, and it’s smooth sailing for us. We’re spending minimally on development at this point, and most expenditures involve integrating new applications and features. The core system is solid, and our users are satisfied.

Our Salesforce transition went so smoothly that we moved everything else to the cloud as well. We once had eight servers lining the racks in our building. Now we have none. We moved our email and calendar, document assembly, phone system and accounting to the cloud, and it’s all working like a charm. Our costs are down, our systems are up, and we’re focusing on practicing law rather than on computer issues.

Our typical users log in first thing in the morning, working from anywhere with an Internet connection, and have full access to all of their client data, documents and tools for communication. Their mobile devices give them access to everything they need to serve their clients entirely from the cloud.

Customizing the cloud is an option for every practice; we’ve demonstrated that it can be done. It is not, however, simple or easy. It’s for lawyers who insist on having things done their way. As cloud systems evolve, we’ll certainly see more options for customization in the products tailored for lawyers. That’s one of the huge benefits of the cloud: The technology gets better every day, and the users benefit from those changes immediately. You’ll see the customization options improve right before your eyes. So, rather than being overwhelmed by fear of the cloud, we suggest getting your feet wet and determining if the cloud will work for you as well as it has for us.

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OTHER CLOUD OPTIONS

Among the other software products we considered using for our cloud-based computing are those listed below. Each has its unique selling points that may work well for your firm. If you are going to make the jump to the cloud, it may well behoove you to investigate each of these products.
Rocket Matter
rocketmatter.com
A leader in the cloud-based, practice management arena. They’re adding new features at a rapid clip, and make it easy and affordable to implement practice management for a first-timer.
Clio
goclio.com
A well-funded company with a great product. They’re growing like a weed and leapfrogging their competitors with features galore. They’ve got the industry buzz for now.
HoudiniEsq
houdiniesq.com
A lesser-known cloud alternative that is easy to use and tightly integrated with other products, including Microsoft Office and Quickbooks.
Advologix
advologix.com
Built on the force.com platform, which provides reliability and stability. It’s more customizable than its competitors and is focused on large as well as smaller firms.