September 01, 2015

Advice from an IT Consultant on Choosing the Right Software

Jeff Stouse

Understanding the nuances of language is a skill honed by legal professionals because it often can determine the success of cases. However, this skill does not always translate to an understanding of the nuances of information technology (IT) language, which often can determine the success of case management. If you and your IT consultant or vendor perceive these nuances differently—if expectations are not discussed thoroughly and the right questions are not asked before decisions are made—you may discover too late that your perceptions of these nuances have led you to the wrong choices when selecting software.

For example, the choices software developers make in how programs interact with each other (e.g., how practice management software interacts with billing, document management, word processing, spreadsheets, and PDF programs) sometimes can be “deal breakers” with regard to their effects on how you run your office. Nuances affecting compatibility, work flow, start-up protocols, and even appearance of screens must be considered before your final decisions are made.

Five significant aspects of software that involve the most important nuances for you to consider have been grouped here into “The Big Three” (items that will affect all law firms) and “The Specialized Two” (items that will affect those firms not using industry-standard software such as Microsoft products and those firms that wish to import data from existing programs into new ones):

The Big Three

  • Which location
  • Which software
  • Which features

The Specialized Two

  • Ease of integration
  • Ease of data import

When choosing new software, not enough law firms undertake the necessary due diligence by asking vendors about these five aspects and the nuances they present. Although all law firms essentially perform the same general tasks, each firm runs differently. This is what makes these nuances so important.

Which Location

Will you support the IT infrastructure yourself on premises? Will you use some software that is web-based so that the manufacturer hosts this software (also known as Software as a Service, or SaaS) and it is accessed through a browser? Or will you subscribe to a hosted platform where all your software “lives” in the cloud so that you can access it from the office, your home, on the road, or anywhere you have an Internet connection?

When choosing among these location/environment options, consider your management style.

If you are an “I need a reliable program, without the fuss of updates, backups, and support” person, then you should consider some form of hosted environment where all your software is installed and runs from a hosted server. Each user would access a “virtual desktop” that connects to that server. An Internet connection (and a monthly payment) is all that you need to make this happen. Depending on the vendor, your data could be housed only on a server that is not in your office, which creates the nuance of whether your data can be backed up to a local server in your office (your security blanket). The inability to do so, or to do so without incurring additional costs from outside companies, could be a deal breaker. It usually can be done, however—for a fee, of course. This option also creates another nuance: the issue of data security, given the requirement imposed on all attorneys to preserve all privileges and confidentiality (including work-product protection) of the data with which they work. You must ensure that access to your data is absolutely limited to those persons to whom you grant specific permission and that the security of your data is inviolate.

If you prefer a mixture of “I don’t want to be responsible for certain programs, while others I want to manage completely,” then perhaps a SaaS approach is the best to use. Most of your main programs would be on-premises, but perhaps your practice management or your document management programs would live in the cloud. The main nuances involved here are how your on-premises software can/will interact with the SaaS software. You should not assume that the programs will interact well, even if the vendors say they will, especially if one program is a cloud version and the other is on-site. It is always best to verify. Another nuance is how you access your online environment—do you need a specific program to “connect” or can you just open a browser and log in? If you need a specific program to connect, then how easy is it to get to that program if you are not using your regular computer/laptop? Finally, if the SaaS application is processing or caching your data in the cloud, you again must ensure that access to your data is absolutely limited to those persons to whom you grant specific permission and that the security of your data is inviolate.

If your style is hands-on and “I want to be involved in decisions regarding when and what to upgrade, how each upgrade affects other software I use, when the backups run, and where the off-site storage is located,” then an on-premises choice is probably the way to go. A key nuance here is that “pure” cloud solutions—those that only run in the cloud—are omitted from this option. A small number of practice management programs offer both cloud and on-premises options; HoudiniEsq and Amicus Attorney are two examples.

Should you choose environment/location first, or should you choose the program first? That answer should be determined by what is most important to you. If you choose a cloud environment for your practice management environment, will you be happy with the choices of software available? If you choose to access your practice management program from the cloud, but it is not a SaaS product, then will you be happy to move your IT environment to a hosted situation so that you can use the software you want, even if you can’t necessarily access it in the way you want? If you choose a SaaS practice management program, can it connect to a cloud-based version of your accounting software—and do you even want it to? Would you rather run the accounting software separately on-site because you don’t want your accounting information in the cloud and/or connected to the practice management program owing to security concerns? These are some of the significant nuances you will have to explore before choosing.

Which Software

These choices start when the decision is made to move from a multipurpose program such as Outlook to a dedicated practice and/or document management program that supports the concept of a matter. The nuances involve how the new software supports the matter paradigm.

Very few law offices function at their best if they are not able to track what they do (e-mails, documents, phone calls, events, to-dos, etc.) in the context of a matter/case/engagement. Tracking information in this manner follows the ways attorneys work the majority of the time, so it is best to choose a program that offers a “matter-centric” view of your data.

We often assume that all firms need a practice management system to view their data, but this is not necessarily so. For some firms, a document management system is the most important tool to track data, and a document management system that offers a matter-centric view of the documents and e-mails saved to a particular matter may be the best choice.

If there is more than one person who handles scheduling responsibilities (two or more calendars or separate lists of tasks or billable hours), then practice management software generally is required in order for all involved to easily see the necessary information.

Which Features

Does the billing program you are considering support LEDES (Legal Electronic Data Exchange Standard) for electronic billing, if necessary? Does the document management program provide a “work space” layout, as opposed to the traditional folder view of documents? Can billing occur from a mobile device, whether it be an iPhone, iPad, or Android device? The flexibility of how the features work may make one program vastly superior to another.

Most law firms use Microsoft Outlook as their e-mail program of choice. Initially, larger firms may have used an Exchange server that offered more functionality, while smaller firms and solos could not or did not want to assume the cost. Now, the cost is less of an issue, and there are many providers (such as Google hosted exchange server or Office 365) that can provide a hosted Exchange server to take advantage of these extra features at a cost that competes with similar offerings from other e-mail products (Google Mail, for example).

Ease of Integration

Does the practice management software you want interface with your document management software as you want or need it to? Is there an easy way to save e-mails into your practice management or document management system? Does your practice management or document management system interface with your PDF program of choice?

Most attorneys would be able to come up with a short list of programs they use each day, such as e-mail, word processing, practice management, billing/accounting, Internet browser, and PDF reader/creator. Unfortunately, although there are relatively few categories, there are often many different program choices within each. (An exception is word processing, which has two main choices: Word and WordPerfect.)

This means that the software developer must examine what its product is supposed to offer and then decide how that product will interact (if at all) with programs that attorneys use all the time. For example, word processors should interact seamlessly with document management and practice management systems—and given that there are only two main choices in that category, it is expected that the software will integrate.

But given the many choices that exist in the e-mail or PDF reader/creator categories, it is possible that the program you want to use is not an integration partner with the practice management or document management system you want to purchase, especially with the options of on-premises or SaaS thrown into the mix. You should ask (rather than assume) whether the product you are considering will integrate with the software you already use, and whether it will do so at the same level of functionality as it does with a different software option. For example, NetDocuments is currently one of two major document management system programs, and it works much better with Internet Explorer than with other browsers. The program is being revised with an improved interface with other browsers, including Chrome and Firefox, but the new version has not yet been delivered. How the software will interface with the new Microsoft browser likely is an open question.

Ease of Data Import

Every developer wants to keep its clients, so very few developers make it easy for clients to export data stored in its software for import into a competitor’s product. Although the process can be done, it is often difficult, time consuming, and costly. Moving data from one program to another is never simple.

Any consultant asked to move data from one program to another will tell you that the process can be a black hole—a mystery until time has been spent to analyze the condition of the data to be exported. Is it in the right field? Is it spelled/formatted properly? What about duplicates? It will take time and effort (which translate to cost) to move any but the simplest blocks of information (such as name, address, city, state, and zip code). Moving custom data from fields in one practice management system to another or moving documents from one document management system to another is often complicated and costly because the programs generally are designed not to integrate easily. This fact encourages a firm to continue using software that no longer meets its needs, simply because changing is too complicated or expensive. Understanding the nuances of data-importing constraints can save a lot of time and money when the time comes to upgrade or change systems.

Nuances Matter

It’s your job to know what you are comfortable with, what you need versus what you want, and how your choices will scale in three years or five years. Only by asking vendors questions about “How does it work?” will you know if the products you choose will coordinate in the manner you expect. Ask for a demonstration of each process you will use. And ask what the software would not do well given your practice specialties and the functionality you require. That way, you will understand the nuances before they become problems too big to overcome.

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Jeff Stouse

Jeff Stouse (jeff@excedere.com) has been a solo practice management consultant for 16 years. He uses his consulting experiences and teaching background when he explains the nuances of practice and document management systems.