Selecting Practice Management Software, a Daunting Task
This column has not included recommendations for software since I started writing it in 2002. The basic reason is that I do not have the time to thoroughly test software packages in any particular category. Although I use a variety of software, I generally do not have the need to take advantage of all of the features of any software product.
For one software category, document automation, for which I became thoroughly familiar with almost all of the features of one software package, I did write two columns. In the first, I outlined the benefits of using document automation, and in the second I surveyed the market for document automation software. Because I used only two of the available packages, I did not recommend any particular product. Rather, I presented an outline of specifications that I thought a good document automation software package ought to have. Then, I reported on the information I obtained from a survey that I sent to all the companies that I could determine with software available in the marketplace (and I think my recollection is correct that every company to which I sent a survey furnished at least a substantially completed survey to me).
Since then, I have thought from time to time that I should cover other software categories, but I have never written such a column because I felt I could not adequately compare the competing products.
I have been particularly interested in covering practice management software, systems that help lawyers manage their practices. There is probably no complete agreement on what constitutes practice management software. The available packages have many features, and the number of features necessary for a particular firm will depend on the size of the firm and the nature of the practices within the firm.
On a number of occasions, including my column in the May/June 2008 issue, I have mentioned the wonderful asset that ABA members have in the knowledge available from the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center (the “LTRC”). The LTRC does not make brand recommendations, but it does advise inquiring members about considerations to keep in mind when selecting a software package of a particular kind and pitfalls to avoid in the context of the member’s circumstances. It became apparent to me that I could convey some important information about practice management software selection to the readers of this column by taking advantage of a free consultation with the LTRC.
I contacted Catherine Sanders Reach, director of the LTRC, and she concurred that it would be useful for me to interview an LTRC staff member to assist me in writing this column on practice management software. In fact, Ms. Reach volunteered to be the person I would interview. The interview took longer than I expected and resulted in this column covering a couple of basic principles relating to the acquisition of legal software in general. Ms. Reach was very generous with her time and very open with her thoughts. She provided useful links to articles on the LTRC’s web site that provide more detailed discussions of facets of the selection process. Rather than repeat those articles here, I have included their links below where appropriate.
After reading this column, I think you will be in a better position to consider acquiring practice management software. Many, if not all, legal practices have unique elements, and this column and the related articles for which links are provided herein may not cover all issues necessary to consider in making a purchase decision for your practice. In that case, use this column and the LTRC articles as basic information; you may follow up by contacting the LTRC by e-mail or phone directly.
For anyone considering purchasing practice management software, the first question to ask is whether the software is necessary or efficient for the particular firm. For example, some lawyers use Outlook or another e-mail program with an address book for their client database and e-mail manager. That may be effective for some solo practitioners with very limited practices. But if rule-based calendaring, time entry, or billing are important to your firm, features that are available in practice management software, then Outlook and similar programs will not be satisfactory solutions.
At the commencement of your search to purchase any law office software, not merely practice management software, it would make sense to review the Checklist for Purchasing Software for the Law Officeat www.abanet.org/tech/ltrc/fyidocs/
techselectcheckfyi.html. Using the checklist will help you determine if it makes sense to acquire the software and will help you consider the total costs of acquisition.
The following are brief descriptions of the practice management software elements to consider when making a decision. (Please note that certain categories and the ultimate solutions in the categories are not appropriate for every firm and practice; the simplest or the most robust package may or may not be what makes sense for you.)
- Calendar—This ranges from a simple calendar function to remind users of important deadlines to rule-based calendaring to reduce the possibility of missing important court deadlines. Some systems are updated as court rules change. This will not only reduce the chances for exposure to liability and promote client satisfaction, but use of a rule-based system also can qualify you for reduced malpractice insurance premiums.
- Client Database for Contact Management—This can be a simple address book that can store limited information about each client or a more sophisticated system that enables the user to add and customize additional fields of data for each person in the address book or database. Some systems allow all or certain fields to be subject to validation requirements to reduce the possibility of nonsense data being entered. This may relate to certain dates, quantities, or text data that generally should be within certain ranges or fit certain patterns.
- Case Management—This feature can store key information about any matter or transaction in a centralized database and enables quick access to such information when needed without having to pull paper folders and documents (assuming you have not yet converted to a paperless environment). Functionality may include conflict checking, statute of limitations checking, and managing to-do lists.
- Time Keeping—Ideally, this feature should be so easy to use that it becomes natural for a lawyer to (1) capture all of her or his billable time and (2) enter it directly into the system rather than create the possibility that an assistant or secretary will mis-key a handwritten, typed, e-mailed, or verbal note (which can easily occur even with very skilled personnel) when he or she has to duplicate the lawyer’s entry.
- Billing—This feature automatically generates invoices for you to review and correct or adjust, as necessary, before remitting to the client, to reduce the time and effort to remit bills to clients and to help reduce billing errors. Ideally, invoices are generated based on time entries and according to rules entered into the system about firm policies and special requirements relating to a particular matter or client.
- E-mail Manager—Some systems allow each e-mail to be related easily to a particular client, contact, or matter so that at any time a list of all e-mails related to a specific client, contact, or matter can be readily listed and retrieved.
- Document Automation Integration—This feature allows documents to be assembled while automatically pulling data from databases maintained by the system so that the user does not have to search for or reenter such stored information. Certain software packages are designed to integrate with specific document assembly software.
- Document Management—Some systems allow each document to be easily related to a particular client, contact, or matter, so that all documents relating to the client, contact, or matter can be easily listed and retrieved.
The following list of practice management software packages is primarily from a chart of practice and case management software available on the LTRC web site at www.abanet.org/tech/ltrc/charts/PracticeCase Management-TimeBilling-Integrated SoftwareChart.pdf. The parenthetical comments were provided by Ms. Reach, and the references below to “small firm” and “medium firm” are intended to mean firms of 2–9 users and 10–50 users, respectively.
- Abacus Law (appropriate for solos and up; Classic has practice management features and Gold adds time/billing/accounting features). See www.abacuslaw.com/products/compare.html.
- Amicus Organizer (for one user), Small Firm Edition (for up to 10 users), Accounting (for up to 100 users), and Premium Edition (for an unlimited number of users). See www.amicusattorney.com/products/prod_edition_ comparison.html.
- Client Profiles (optimal in a server environment; will run on a single workstation).
- Juris Law Practice Management Suite (medium firms and up).
- Legal Files (server and database (Oracle, Sybase, SQL) required; small firm and up).
- Needles (requires SQL server; solo, small firm, and up).
- Practice Master (appropriate for solos and up; provided in its basic form with Tabs3 Billing, below).
- Lexis Front Office, powered by Time Matters (appropriate for solos and up).
- Lexis Back Office, powered by Billing Matters (appropriate for solos and up).
- Lexis Back Office, powered by PCLaw or PCLawPro (appropriate for solos and up).
- ProLaw (requires SQL server; solo, small firm, and up).
- Timeslips (time/billing only).
- TimeSolv Legal (time/billing only).
- Trial Works (requires SQL server; solo, small firm, and up).
- Bill4Time (time/billing only).
- Tabs3 Billing (time/billing only, but includes basic Practice Master).
As you can see, there are many software solutions to choose from. Although the chart on the LTRC site will guide you, considering all of the packages is quite intimidating. The chart provides a quick glance at some important facets of the packages to compare. In addition, the chart contains links to more detailed information primarily provided by the software package vendors. Although the chart and the linked web sites should help you eliminate the packages that are clearly inappropriate for your circumstances, most likely more work will be needed to make a selection.
A free consultation with a member of the LTRC may be what you need to make that decision. You may find, however, that there is still too much information for you or the designated person in your firm to consider. You may not have the time with your busy practice to take the steps outlined in the Checklist for Purchasing Software referred to above.
An additional approach that you can take is to hire a consultant who has helped other firms make similar decisions. Once again, the LTRC has a valuable resource of things to do and consider in connection with selecting and hiring a consultant. See the LTRC article at www.abanet.org/tech/ltrc/fyidocs/consultants.html. Hiring a consultant is obviously an additional expense, but if you take the proper steps to select a consultant experienced with practice management software for firms like yours, there is little doubt that you will be saving money in the end by making the purchase that is most suitable for your firm.
Another facet of software acquisition that was a main theme running through my interview with Ms. Reach is the importance of training. Except for some very simple solutions, training is necessary if you are to obtain the advantages of the software you acquire. Without training, you may very well find that you have made a substantial investment without realizing any productivity gains or other improvements in your operations. At one time I considered training to be not very important. It seemed to me that a well-designed software package should be intuitive to use, but I have learned important lessons from experience. Basic features may be intuitive, but without proper training you will miss opportunities to use valuable features, and you may be wasting time by not using the software in the most efficient way. Training does not mean that you need to attend a course for one or more days (although with some packages that might be desirable for you or another person in your firm). Training might be provided by easy-to-follow books, videos, or web-based instruction. Some training may be available without any additional fee, and some training may command substantial fees. In comparing the software most suitable for your circumstances, you should consider the cost of training and installation as part of your acquisition costs. Such consideration may make packages with higher purchase prices more economical than those whose sticker prices appear more reasonable.