Start-up Tech Your Law Firm Really Needs

Law Practice Management Systems

By Tom Caffrey

The theme of this issue is “How to Start and Build a Law Practice.” I’ve been active with legal technology for 40 years, and what follows is advice to help you save future time, money, and aggravation. The system you elect today will be a determining factor for how well you can manage growth and respond to change and whether you will struggle or thrive.

Principles of good management are timeless. Each generation of lawyers discovers the need for good management systems. Roberta Ramo long ago published How to Create a System for the Law Office (1975), one of the most popular books ever published by the ABA. She was a sole practitioner who 20 years later became the first woman president of the ABA.

The types of problems being solved haven’t changed; the technology to solve them has. Defining your goals, objectives, process, and strategy is the key to success with practice management. Selecting and implementing systems requires T-I-M-E: Time, Interest, a systems Mentality, and Experience. Your first attempt will not be your best. Consider enlisting the guidance of an experienced peer or legal systems specialist.

Get started by answering a few basic questions. Have you defined your ideal process and know exactly what you need? Are you willing to customize, or will you simply use something “off the rack”? Who is to be responsible to make it all happen? Your answers will help clarify and simplify your choice of system.

What Are the Popular Systems?

Leading legal systems include Amicus Attorney (abacusnext.com), Actionstep (actionstep.com), Centerbase (legal.centerbase.com), Clio (clio.com), Cosmolex (cosmolex.com), PracticePanther (practicepanther.com), Time Matters/Billing Matters (lexisnexis.com), Tabs3/PracticeMaster (tabs3.com), and Zola Suite (zolasuite.com). Depending on your requirements, one of these systems is likely the best available tool for your firm. (The ABA offers a buyers’ guide resource at tinyurl.com/yblzb83b.)

Systems are either browser-based (cloud) or server-based (on-premise or hosted). All systems may be configured for access from anywhere at any time. Don’t confuse the delivery method (cloud vs. on-premise) with the actual system features. That’s like conflating the quality of the food served at a restaurant with the option to dine in vs. take out. When it comes to practice management systems, the presence and quality of features matching your requirements are what matters.

Consider ancillary digital tools. I like customized Adobe PDFs for fillable and dynamic intake forms; ShareFile (sharefile.com) for secure file sharing; web services such as Birdeye (birdeye.com) to generate and market online for reviews and Yext (yext.com) to fix your online business listings; and Zoom (zoom.us) to support virtual meetings.

Read business software reviews at G2 Crowd (tinyurl.com/y99gldb4) and Capterra (tinyurl.com/yccr4z73) to learn the pros and cons based on actual user experience. You can find both positive and negative reviews on any system. One reviewer’s minor shortcoming might be a deal breaker for you.

Learn how the system is backed up, what happens if it becomes unavailable, and if you later migrate how difficult it would be to extract all your data in a usable format. Proliferating ransomware means you need to actively plan for disaster recovery (DR).

Subscriptions can become expensive. Be sure to calculate costs over three, five, and ten years. The total investment might surprise you. Every $225 of monthly subscription is the same as buying a $10,000 system on a five-year lease.

A Better Question: What’s the Best System for Your Practice?

Your goals include three E’s: operating Efficiently and managing Effectively while providing the best client Experience. You need customer relationship management (CRM) to manage relationships with people and matter management to move matters to completion. Both should relate all records for calendar, documents, e-mail, notes, phone, and billing. Basic table stakes are organization and easy access to all these records by contact or matter. Ease of customization plus any number of differentiating features will likely be the determining factors in your system selection. Real productivity comes from a streamlined client process with document assembly, automated work flow, and useful reports.

It may help to visualize a 3-D “Practice Management Box” for case management, client billing, and firm accounting. Ideally, an all-in-one system is a single 3-D box. Separate systems may be viewed as independent but hopefully integrated boxes.

The width of the 3-D box is a baseline of record types, including contacts, matters, events, tasks, documents, notes, e-mail, and phone records; along with client time and expense, trust, invoices, and payments; and income, expenses, and other accounting entries.

The depth of the 3-D box involves customization. This includes necessary information fields, frequently used document and billing templates, work flows of automatic records, and finally a full set of management reports. Designed well, these customized elements become the sheet music for scripting your ideal client process, the secret to true productivity.

Examples of a simple custom work flow may include a required field for referral source and then a work flow for a referral thank-you; or a work flow to confirm by document or e-mail each new appointment event. An advanced work flow would apply a set of many tasks and documents and capture the statute and other deadlines for each new litigation matter.

The height of the 3-D box is a combination of differentiating factors, including the user interface, productivity features, and special functions. How intuitive, fast, and easy does the system feel? Which system offers the best functionality for repetitive tasks such as document assembly, scanned documents, e-mail, and attachments. Other important functions could include a firm-branded client portal, e-billing, e-filing, online payments, advanced billing features, built-in e-mail, mobile apps, online web forms, advanced work flows, and integrations with other programs.

Your 3-D system image defines your ideal system and serves as a rubric to judge which system earns the title as Best for Your Practice.

Problems, What Problems?

Too often the two main problems with practice management are that users don’t practice and managers don’t manage. It is important to allocate sufficient time to implement and train. Well-trained staff are proficient, productive, and can handle a larger workload. Look for training resources such as in-context help, a step-by-step training guide, videos, and live online classes. Have a specialist on call for tactical, quick answers and periodic lunch-and-learn sessions for more strategic planning.

Use the system to manage by objective and by exception. If the objective is 150 hours per month, a report listing one line per timekeeper with total hours this month billable, non-billable, and total will let you know if you are on track to meet your objective. A missing time report showing dates with low or missing time is an example of management by exception.

Use Lists to Manage and Monetize

Lists help manage mailings, deadlines, follow-ups, referral thank-yous, discovery, and marketing to professionals. Any good system will list tasks by staff, by category, and by matter along the guidelines of Getting Things Done (GTD). Delegate work to others and then focus first on what’s important, urgent, and that only you can do. Track exceptions such as past due to-dos.

The Value of Experience

A lawyer tells his client, “all these documents are free, we only charge for our experience.” My theory of everything states, “unless you have ready access to a subject matter expert, you are destined to attain a small fraction of the potential benefits.” Just as your clients are better served when guided by an experienced attorney, lawyers at times are better served by an advisor with experience in your type of practice.

I recall a young lawyer in South Carolina making a greater-than-average system investment as she started her new practice. I told her I was impressed with her investment in systems. She said, “Tom, I want to make sure that my capacity to do the work always stays ahead of the amount of work I have.” She was wise for her age by planning for growth. Perhaps she will become a future ABA president!

Tom Caffrey

Tom Caffrey is a practice management advisor, president of Premier Software (premiersoftware.com), and developer of practice system templates for estates, elder law, and civil litigation. He has supported firms in all 50 states and is authorized in Actionstep, Centerbase, Time Matters, and ZolaSuite.