We’re only a few weeks into the new year and continue to face uncertainty about the pandemic and the future.
The challenging times we face highlight the importance of ensuring your law firm is as fully functional as possible when working remotely. While a makeshift system may have served its purpose last March, times have changed.
As a result, now is a good time to consider investing in robust cloud-based law practice management software rather than continuing to rely on a jury-rigged, inefficient remote working process.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, law practice management software is a system that helps law firms run the business side of their law practice. With this software, lawyers can manage case and client records, track timekeeping and invoicing, accept online payments, schedule appointments and deadlines, manage documents, track and manage leads, and much more.
And when law practice management software is cloud-based, it is easy for law firms to operate remotely by providing 24/7 access to law firm data from any location via an internet-enabled device.
Do your homework
There are many different law practice management software providers to choose from. Many of the programs that have been around for a decade or more offer solutions for all law firms, regardless of practice area(s). Some of the most well-known software programs for law firms generally are MyCase, Rocket Matter, PracticePanther and Clio Manage.
There are also a few systems designed with specific practice areas in mind, such as CASEpeer and Filevine, both of which are targeted toward personal injury attorneys, and NextChapter, which is designed to handle bankruptcy matters.
When researching your options prior to choosing a law practice management software system for your firm, you’ll need to learn about, and thoroughly vet, the provider—and any integration partners—before signing up for a trial. Determine how long the company has been in existence, where it is located and whether it has recently received funding or has been acquired.
Note that over the past two years, there have been many legal technology acquisitions and rounds of funding (I discuss some of them in this article), so make sure you have a full understanding of the history of the companies you’re considering.
Another factor to keep in mind when choosing a cloud-based product is that the company you choose, along with any of its integration partners, will be hosting your law firm’s confidential data. Therefore, you have an ethical obligation to ensure you understand how the data will be handled by both the law practice management software company and all of the companies that provide a product that integrates with it.
That ethical duty includes knowing who will have access to it, how and when it will be backed up, and how you can export your firm’s data should you need to and in what format.
You’ll also need to thoroughly research the features offered by each program since different software platforms have different strengths and varying approaches to software development. Some build most features into the software, some offer many features through integrations with other software tools and others take a blended approach, with some built-in features and some integrations.
Carefully consider whether your firm needs a comprehensive software platform that has most of the features built into it or if your firm would prefer to add features to the primary system by integrating a number of different software tools into the program.
Which leads me to the next consideration when choosing a law practice management system: price. All software has a base price, but many companies offer tiered pricing, with increasingly more features included in the higher tiers. Integrations are often included in the higher tiers, and depending on the company’s pricing scheme and how integrations are set up and priced, you may have to pay subscription fees for both the integration tool and the practice management software.
Alternatively, you may be required to pay a higher subscription cost for the practice management software in order to access to the software integrations.
Choose the right features
Next, let’s take a look at the features typically offered by most law practice management software providers. Feature sets are key when choosing software for your firm, which is why it’s important to identify the top problems you’re trying to solve prior to researching your options. Once you’ve done so, look for a platform that excels at addressing those particular pain points.
With that goal in mind, let’s take a look at the features most commonly found in law practice management software. What follows is a description of many of those features, along with links to some of my recent articles that address each feature more fully.
One key feature you’ll rely on greatly when working remotely is document management, which provides a built-in organizational system for your firm’s documents and often includes document collaboration and sharing features that allow secure sharing with law firm employees, clients, co-counsel and experts.
This ability to remotely access documents and collaborate on them is essential when your law firm’s workforce is dispersed and working from home. You can learn more about document management and how these features are incorporated into law practice management software in my earlier column on that topic.
Another important element is time-tracking. With it, you can track and enter time contemporaneously no matter where you are using your computer or mobile device, thus ensuring you capture—and charge for—all of your billable time. You can learn more about time-tracking features and how they are incorporated into law practice management software here.
Next are legal billing features, which reduce the steps needed to send out invoices to clients by automatically generating digital editable invoices using the billable time entered via the time-tracking features. Other information, such as LEDES billing codes, is also often automatically included in the invoice.
Once it’s in final form, the digital invoice can then be instantaneously sent to clients for contactless payment. You can learn more about legal billing features and how they are incorporated into law practice management software here.
Another feature that is a particularly important part of the billing process when working remotely is online payment processing; contactless payment is a must-have in the age of social distancing. With this feature, clients can immediately pay via credit card or ACH payments upon receipt of an invoice. You can learn more about payment processing options and how they are incorporated into law practice management software in this column.
Similarly important when your law firm employees are working remotely is the ability to securely communicate with both clients and workplace colleagues. These features are all the more crucial in light of recent ethical guidance, including ABA Formal Opinion 477R, Pennsylvania Bar Association Formal Opinion 2020-300, and Michigan State Bar Opinion RI-381, wherein the ethics committees concluded that unencrypted email may not always be sufficient for client communication and advised lawyers to assess the sensitivity of information on a case-by-case basis, and then choose the most appropriate and sufficiently secure method of communicating and collaborating with clients.
One alternative to email recommended by the ethics committees that is inherently more secure is using the communication portals built into law practice management software. You can learn more about the benefits and features of client portals here. Additionally, some platforms have other communication features built into the software, such as two-way texting with clients, direct messages with other law firm employees and built-in instant chat capabilities.
Last, another newer feature set that has become increasingly commonplace in law practice management software over the past two years is what is referred to as lead management or CRM (customer relationship management) tools. These lead management and tracking features streamline the lead intake process by providing tools that manage communications and appointments with potential clients.
Features that are often included are the ability to run analytics and create reports that provide insight into lead sources and the overall lead management process. I wrote about these lead management tools in this column.
So as you take steps to ensure your law firm has a business resiliency plan in place that will allow it to operate throughout 2021 no matter what the circumstances, remote working software will play a big part in that process.
Choose tools such as cloud-based law practice management software that will make it possible for your firm to keep the lines of communication open between its employees and clients no matter what happens, while also ensuring firm employees have convenient and immediate access to important case-related information even if employees are displaced from the office.
There’s no better time than now to replace your firm’s outdated and impractical IT infrastructure with more modern and efficient cloud-based law practice management software in order to ensure essential business operations function uninterrupted throughout the pandemic and beyond, regardless of where your employees are.