The best way to think about the difference between Microsoft Outlook and practice management software is the old expression, “jack-of-all-trades and master of none.” Microsoft designs Outlook to be general enough that absolutely anyone can use it. Most likely your doctor, accountant, and the owner of your favorite restaurant all use Outlook. It is the jack-of-all-trades. Conversely, legal practice management software focuses on one set of users—attorneys. Every feature of the software is designed for law firms. Those features will save you time, make it easier to organize your practice, and help you capture more of your billable time. Here are some key differences.
Business Card vs. Client File
Contacts in Outlook are basically designed to keep track of personal information—like the information you find on a business card. In contrast, practice management software is designed to track all client and matter information, including all contacts associated with the client and matter. That means, out of the box, Outlook is ready to track information such as nicknames, birthdays and spouses, while practice management software has client- and matter-specific files that are ready to organize information such as jurisdiction, area of practice, documents related to a case, meeting notes, research, and e-mail.
Conflict of Interest Search
Outlook can search your computer for e-mails, appointments, and contact information for signs of a conflict. Practice management software can search the records for everyone in your firm for potential conflicts in e-mails, appointments, contacts, meeting notes, notes on fee and cost entries, research, and other client and matter file information. In practice management software, your conflict search includes the entire office, no matter who is out of the office that day, and the search generally only takes a few seconds.
Because practice management products were designed for law firms, most are designed to work with billing software. That means you can easily turn your appointments, e-mails, research, and time spent writing documents into billing entries. Tracking your time becomes much more efficient when you can easily turn any appointment on your calendar into a billing entry.
Outlook and Word integrate through “mail merge” functionality. This lets you insert fields from a contact into a standard letter, but your options are limited to the standard fields tracked in Outlook (e.g., name, address, etc.). In practice management software you can do the same thing, and much more with document assembly functionality. You can insert into a document any information from a case file (e.g., insurance carrier, opposing counsel, etc.). The document assembly process can also automatically create a billing entry for the time you spend on the document. It can automatically schedule a follow-up task for you X number of days after you create the document. For example, the creation of a document can also set up a calendar reminder to follow up with opposing counsel regarding the letter you are sending them. You can even have the document assembly process prompt you to fill in a few blanks for information that you may not have in the practice management software matter file—for example the date that a document was signed.
Practice management software makes it easier to work with a team of people in your law firm. You can view appointments for your team members to see when someone is free for a meeting. When you pull up a client file, you can see all of the information for a matter—that means every e-mail that anyone has sent or received, as well as all documents, research, and notes that anyone has for the matter. This helps you save time that you would otherwise spend keeping track of the work other people in the office have or have not done.
Chain of Events and Court Rules
Outlook lets you create recurring events. For example, you can schedule a regular staff meeting each Tuesday at 9:00 am. Practice management software can do that, but it also can automatically create a series of appointments, reminders, and tasks that you can reuse—these are generally referred to as Calendar Plans. This can be helpful if, for example, there are a series of things you need to do each time you open a new matter file. It can also be helpful to track court rules or the tasks that you need to complete prior to a trial. The items in your calendar plan can be automatically created and scheduled based on a reference date, for example the date of the trial. Once created, each task will appear on your calendar or task list based on the time frame calculated from the trial date. Then, if the reference or trial date changes, the practice management software will automatically recalculate and adjust the dates of items not yet completed.
Square Peg/Round Hole
You can get around some of Outlook’s limitations through customization (which can be expensive). However, for a law firm, Outlook cannot approach the level of usefulness that legal practice management software can offer. You would not want to stuff all your matter information into a single folder, so why would you want to try to do the same using Outlook? If you want software that helps you manage your practice, you should be using practice management software designed specifically for attorneys.
Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 5, December 2019. © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.