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Technology—Probate Editor: Jason E. Havens, 4400 East Highway 20, Suite 211, Niceville, FL 32578, email@example.com.
Technology—Probate provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the probate and estate planning areas. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.
Organizing an Estate Planning (or Other) Law Practice
Would you describe your estate planning law practice as organized and efficient? Can you see every activity for a particular matter at a glance? Would you like the ability to use instant messaging (IM) within your law office? Are your e-mail messages attached to a client’s matter or contact file? Would you enjoy the ability to generate legal documents from your practice management system? Would you like to input data once and use it throughout your practice?
Practice (or “Case”) Management Systems: An Overview
Much has changed since this column’s last discussion of practice (or “case”) management systems in 1997 (specifically the July/August 1997 issue). Without the ability to track an estate planning law practice and “do the business of law,” any combination of technological tools is worthless. Practice management systems can, as some vendors advertise, make the practice of law enjoyable—or make it enjoyable again for those who are frustrated with disorganization, inefficiency, and the lack of technological integration. In addition, practice management systems can minimize the risks of malpractice claims and even result in discounts on professional liability insurance (depending on the insurance carrier and other factors).
Several options exist in the practice management arena. The most attractive systems, such as AbacusLaw, PC Law, and Time Matters and Billing Matters Plus, now integrate most aspects of the law business. These systems offer modules for a law practice’s calendaring, contact management, task lists or “to do” items, time/billing, and even accounting with accounts receivable and payable (including payroll and trust accounting). Other systems, such as Amicus Attorney, offer solutions to address “front-office” aspects of the law business, but are compatible with other programs that address “back-office” aspects.
As several authors and commentators have discussed, the key to any practice management system solution is the law firm’s commitment to that solution. If some members of an estate planning law practice are not committed to the practice management system, no amount of training and technical support can prevail in tracking and systematizing the practice. If the members of the practice make the commitment to implement a practice management system solution, numerous resources can inform the specific decisions regarding which software programs to purchase.
Resources on Practice Management Systems
One of the most helpful resources on practice management systems, TechnoLawyer (www.technolawyer.com), is available as a discussion list. TechnoLawyer highlights products and approaches to legal software. The list itself is free, although a subscription is required to search the discussion’s archives.
The University of Florida College of Law established the Legal Technology Institute (www.law.ufl.edu/lti), which is directed by Professor Andrew Z. Adkins III. Professor Adkins has posted many of his articles reviewing legal software. He has focused on practice management systems for a number of years. As a result, the Legal Technology Institute’s web site includes a “vendors” area that provides vendor-supplied details on most available practice management systems.
In addition, the ABA Law Practice Management Section (www.abanet.org/lpm) has published some of the most helpful resources on legal software and law office automation, including several “In One Hour” books that are intended to educate a user quickly on a particular software application.
Finally, as mentioned in the November/December 2004 column, the Section of Real Property, Probate, and Trust Law hosts a free discussion list called the Estate Planner’s and Administrator’s Discussion List (the ABA-PTL list at http://mail.abanet.org/archives/aba-ptl.html or http://home.ease.lsoft.com/archives/aba-ptl-pub.html). The ABA-PTL list often highlights “off-topic” items such as useful software and technology for an estate planning practice. Some of the best practitioners in the country participate in the ABA-PTL list, which is one of the most practical research and practice tools on the Internet. In addition, practitioners and several practice management consultants post reviews and tips on practice management systems, which can be located by searching the freely accessible archives of the ABA-PTL list.
Reviews of Particular Practice Management Systems
Following are several practice management systems that the editor of this column has reviewed. This list is certainly not comprehensive. This selection of systems is intended only to provide a helpful list, which should be reviewed carefully and supplemented based on the needs of the particular estate planning practice. Demonstration versions are usually available that allow a user to “test-drive” a practice management system before actually committing to it.
As one of the premier and original practice management systems, AbacusLaw (www.abacuslaw.com) is for many users the ultimate “front-office” and “back-office” solution. AbacusLaw recently released its 2005 version, which offers even more features than its previous fifteen versions. A helpful comparison chart of the various AbacusLaw versions is available on its web site at www.abacuslaw.com/compare2005.html.
AbacusLaw is similar to a well-integrated combination of Amicus Attorney and PC Law, a combination that a number of practitioners use. Each is reviewed separately below. In other words, AbacusLaw effectively combines “front-office” and “back-office” functions with a user-friendly graphical interface. The added benefits of AbacusLaw—beyond Amicus Attorney and PC Law—include(1) its integrated, graphical design/interface, which is similar to Amicus Attorney; (2) its integrated e-mail agent/application known as The Bat!, which avoids integration problems with Microsoft ® Outlook ®; and (3) its direct integration with the HotDocs ® drafting system platform, which was discussed in detail in the November/December column. Consequently, using AbacusLaw Gold, an estate planning lawyer’s entire practice can truly be integrated, allowing single data entry of a client’s information and exporting to his or her drafting system.
A two-user license with one year of support costs approximately $1,200 (as of December 2004). For this or any other practice management system mentioned in this column, a potential user should confirm any pricing information directly with the vendor, as this information changes from time to time.
The primary advantage of Amicus Attorney (www.amicusattorney.com), from Gavel & Gown Software, Inc., is its graphical interface, which simplifies data entry for even a severe “technophobe.” Amicus Attorney manages client files and allows integrated organization of telephone calls, calendaring, contacts, and tasks. Amicus Attorney also synchronizes with a handheld personal digital assistant (PDA), and the newest version can be configured for browser-based remote access of the Amicus Attorney database.
Unfortunately, Amicus Attorney users must use separate time/billing, accounting, and e-mail programs because Amicus Attorney does not produce an integrated product with those available features. For example, as mentioned in the review of AbacusLaw, a number of practitioners choose to run Amicus Attorney with PC Law. Most other programs have “add-on” links between Amicus Attorney and the respective program. As a result of purchasing additional programs and links, a comprehensive package for Amicus Attorney would generally cost at least $1,500 for a two-user setup of their current version X (actually the sixth version) (as of December 2004).
PC Law (www.pclaw.com), produced by Alumni Computer Group, also offers a “comprehensive” practice management solution that allows information management, time/billing, and accounting (including payroll and trust accounting). One of the most refreshing aspects of PC Law is the single customer support telephone number. One disadvantage of PC Law is its “accounting” design, meaning that PC Law evidently began as an accounting program and then added other features. As a result, PC Law has more of an accounting “feel.” Some components of the program also do not communicate as efficiently with other components. For example, at present, a user cannot easily create a matter within and based on an existing contact’s record. Another disadvantage of PC Law is its lack of an e-mail application, which requires use of an “external” program such as Microsoft Outlook. In this editor’s experience, the integration between PC Law and Microsoft Outlook is somewhat unstable and cumbersome, particularly when using Microsoft Outlook version 2003.
When considering pricing for PC Law, additional modules to the basic version of PC Law are needed to add functionality such as payroll and PC Law TE, or “Travel Edition,” which allows synchronization with a PDA. Nevertheless, the total PC Law package typically costs approximately $1,000 for a two-user configuration of the current version seven (as of December 2004). Larger law firms should consider PC Law Pro, which costs more but includes all of the features that are additional modules if the basic version is purchased.
Time Matters and Billing Matters
Time Matters ® (www.timematters.com), created by Data.TXT Corporation and acquired by LexisNexis ®, offers another comprehensive practice management program that can be expanded to include the new Billing Matters ™ program (www.timematters.com/products/billingmatters). Like AbacusLaw, Amicus Attorney, and PC Law, Time Matters allows integrated coordination of calendars, contacts, matter information, telephone messages, and task lists (“to do” items). Time Matters includes its own e-mail application, synchronizes with a handheld PDA, and can be upgraded to an Internet-based version as well. Time Matters can be used as a complete solution or linked with other leading software programs. Finally, Time Matters integrates with HotDocs, which is also a LexisNexis program.
Time Matters includes a basic billing system by default. The new Billing Matters program, however, offers advanced billing options, allowing an attorney to generate a bill and post payment in one step. Billing Matters Plus expands the capabilities of Time Matters to include “back-office” features, such as payroll and trust accounting.
Like AbacusLaw and PC Law, pricing for Time Matters and Billing Matters Plus is attractive compared to other comprehensive practice management offerings. Of course, pricing depends on the number of user licenses, as is true with most computer programs. For a combined Time Matters/Billing Matters Plus professional package, the cost would be approximately $1,100 for a two-user office of their current version six (as of December 2004).
Practice management systems have significantly progressed since 1997, when this column last discussed them in detail. Several practice management systems offer “front-office” and “back-office” functionality, which allows for systematic estate planning practice. As with any technology, a lawyer must commit to the practice management system solution to use and especially to optimize it within a law practice. A practitioner might want to engage a consultant to properly set up the system from the beginning and avoid numerous time-consuming mistakes. The right practice management system can make practicing law enjoyable, more profitable, and less vulnerable to malpractice.
5230 Carroll Canyon RoadSuite 306San Diego, CA 92121(800) 726–firstname.lastname@example.org
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Gavel & Gown Software, Inc.
Re: Amicus Attorney365 Bay StreetSuite 700Toronto, ONCanada M5H 2V1(800) 472–firstname.lastname@example.org
Re: Time Matters/Billing Matters Plus215 Commonwealth CourtCary, NC 27511(800) 328–email@example.com