- Most law practice management applications are built on a database structure. Fields and inputs are shared across the platform.
Microsoft rolled out Office 365 in 2011, a subscription plan instead of the traditional installed Office suite of products. In 2020 the name of the subscription became Microsoft 365. There are different plans for home and work. The Business Standard and Premium versions come with the installed software constantly synchronized through the cloud to browser and app versions. Microsoft 365 comes with cloud file storage, the powerful Exchange and SharePoint hosted servers, Teams for group communications including videoconferencing, and many more apps and tools to keep a business humming. The question is inevitable: Does a firm need a purpose-built law practice management system, or will the powerful Microsoft 365 suite suffice?
Most small and medium firms buy the MS 365 Business Standard or Premium versions. Out of the box, these subscription plans lack essential tools that are standard in modern law practice management applications that law firms rely on to run the business of a law practice.
To name a few missing features, Microsoft 365 (Business Standard or Premium) does not have business reporting, time tracking and billing, court rules–based calendaring with ticklers, general ledger and trust accounting, conflicts checking, client portals, credit card processing and e-signatures.
You can try to replicate some features that are mostly standard in practice management applications. Much can be done with Excel spreadsheets, which are powerful if you have the skills and training to use them for tracking tasks, conflicts, time tracking and accounting. Teams can serve as a hub for internal and some external communications and collaboration, and the workspaces can be set up to include client files, communication, project plans through MS Planner and more. SharePoint can act as a document management system and an intranet, and can house apps and custom-built workflows. Microsoft Lists, once part of SharePoint and now offered as an app, is a combination of database and spreadsheet and is versatile for tracking litigation, matters and tasks. Microsoft Word has long had the ability to merge data from spreadsheets and other data sources, create templates and provide some document assembly.
In addition to all the products that come bundled with the MS 365 Business Standard or Premium versions, there are more products from Microsoft that can help provide a business platform. With Windows 365 you can have a virtual desktop on any device. Business Voice adds full-featured Voice over Internet Protocol. Other tools like Dynamics 365 Business Central provide accounting, project costing, financial reporting, customer relationship management and more. Microsoft Power Platform supplies data analysis and reporting, custom-built apps and automations by bundling Power BI, Power Apps and Power Automate. Yet, for all these sophisticated tools and features, to meet the needs of a law firm there would need to be a tremendous amount of customization and expense.
There are many flavors of Microsoft 365, which can get confusing. There are personal and family plans, work plans for small and large businesses, and plans for education. Law firms in the small business category (up to 300 users) will focus on business plans, which are:
Most law firms will want to choose Business Standard or Business Premium to get the full complement of hosted servers, installed Office applications, videoconferencing and collaboration tools.
If your firm has a Microsoft 365 Business Standard or Premium account, the list of tools available through the subscription is not limited to what is listed on the Microsoft sales website. If you go to Office.com (soon to be the Microsoft 365 app) and log in with your work account, you can click on the “square of squares” in the upper left corner. Then choose “All Apps.” You may see unfamiliar names like Bookings, Delve, Lists, Power Automate, Stream, Sway and To Do. Depending on your subscription, you may have full access to these other products, limited use or they may require an additional subscription. Some of these lesser-known applications can be useful for law firms.
There are so many apps in MS 365 Business Standard and Premium beyond Office, Teams and OneDrive. And many communicate with each other, sharing information so you have more context and connections to flow through the products.
A major differentiator between MS 365 and law practice management systems is the underlying design. MS 365 is a suite of software and apps, tied with server products. Unless you have done some extensive customization or create a database using the Access application (PC only), MS 365 is a suite of applications that share information between the products. For example, you can see an Outlook email thread if you share a link to a Word document through OneDrive. Or, if you flag an email for follow-up, it will appear as a suggested task in To Do. You can create Power Automate connections to automatically move attachments from email to SharePoint or Teams or email to Teams based on select criteria.
Most law practice management applications are built on a database structure. Fields and inputs are shared across the platform. You can see all your client/matter information through dashboards that pull all the fields into view. If you change the name of a client, that change persists across the database. You can run reports, drill down, add custom fields and integrate with other applications like QuickBooks to share common fields through synchronization.
One major distinction between MS 365 Business Standard or Premium and a law practice management system (LPMS) is organization and out-of-the-box functionality. An LPMS assumes an organizational structure focused on clients and matters. From pre-intake and intake to billing and matter close, the systems meet the needs of most law practices. They corral all the information pertinent to a matter—documents, communications, deadlines, time and billing, trust account management and workflows. Effectively used, a lawyer can call up a client or matter in an LPMS and see the progress in a matter life cycle.
For example, a search across an LPMS will reveal documents, financials, communications and more. Search in MS 365 is significantly weaker. You may have to run multiple searches in multiple ways to find all the information you need to assess progress on a matter or prepare for a client status meeting. Without creating a purpose-built, conflict-checking app in MS 365 with a tool like MS Lists, a spreadsheet, a database or by customizing Outlook contacts, a firm’s conflict checking may not be extensive or sophisticated enough to satisfy the needs of conflicts checks that include D/B/A, fuzzy search, name variations, associated parties, etc. Plus, this information is typically entered into an LPMS for potential, current and former clients as a part of the workflow. In MS 365, a firm would have to create the workflow to input the information needed to do a conflict check.
While a firm can create a spreadsheet to track time and billing information and use a mail merge to generate invoices, without using an additional sales tracking tool, MS 365 simply doesn’t provide what an LPMS usually has as core functionality. This includes establishing for each client how they will be billed (flat fee, tracked time, subscriptions, etc.); origination and responsible attorneys and staff; trust account balances; invoice generation; PCI-compliant credit card processing; accounting or accounting integration tied to a bank account; and more.
Another major difference between MS 365 and most browser-based LPMS is a client portal. While a firm can set up a SharePoint portal or Teams workspace to communicate, meet, share files and brainstorm with a client, the functionality is limited and requires creation and organization of these shared spaces. It also assumes that the client has an MS 365 account and the sophistication to use it. Client portals in browser-based LPMS are set up to collaborate and share with clients, using information already resident in the system. This can include secure communications, upload and download of documents, appointments and deadlines, bills and payment, and tasks. The client creates a username and password unique to their legal representation, not one that might be shared or accessible to their family or work.
If you have rejected a full LPMS in the past, a few tools on the market use your existing business applications to add functionality and a client/matter organizational structure. One is Matter 365, an overlay that leverages the power of MS 365 and QuickBooks Online to create a client/matter structure. Create a new matter and Matter 365 provisions Planner, Teams, OneNote, OneDrive, Outlook Groups and SharePoint along with QuickBooks Online. The product itself then gives you a client/ matter dashboard, instead of having to go into each app for an overall perspective. It adds time and expense tracking, plus a conflict check. It also integrates with Gravity Legal for payment processing. All data lives in your Microsoft tenant, not stored in Matter 365, and you log in with your MS 365 account. This product is new in the scheme of things and costs $30 per user, per month, when billed yearly.
Another product that uses MS products is Curo365. Curo365 customizes Microsoft Dynamics 365 Sales Enterprises for law firms. Leveraging the tools in MS 365 Business and Power BI for analytics, plus Business Central for finance, this is a sophisticated all-in-one product. The cost is based on Microsoft licensing, $95 per user, per month for legal professionals and $40 per user, per month, for administrative staff. Curo365 requires at least 10 legal professional licenses.
If your firm has found that Microsoft 365 is sufficient for most tasks but lacks a few necessary features, you can take advantage of third-party tools that provide integrations to add what is missing for firms.