With so many choices (and new features being added constantly), shopping for practice management software can be overwhelming. So, we asked the practice management technology experts for a little perspective. First, what’s their best advice on making the decision, especially for smaller firms considering switching programs or investing for the first time? Then, what’s the “next big thing” for practice management software?
Heidi Alexander: Make a List
With now countless options for practice management programs, the search for the right fit can be daunting. Start by making a list of all the features you’d like from your ideal practice management program. Next, prioritize those features. By using your feature list, along with your budget, you can home in on programs that might work in your practice. Look for the programs that excel in the features you need most, whether that is document management and automation, online payment processing, client collaboration tools, or financial management and accounting.
Before you make a decision, also consider the company’s reputation, how long they have been in business, security and service policies, support and training resources, user interface and ease of use, and integrations with other products.
What’s next? Somewhat due to competition in the legal marketplace among lawyers and law firms, we’re starting to see practice management programs incorporating more “sales” type features, which are typical of customer relationship management (CRM) systems (still not yet common in the legal industry). These features — lead tracking and analytics, intake automation and online engagement letters — help attorneys to efficiently and effectively convert more potential clients into clients. For an example of one such program, take a look at Lexicata, a cloud-based CRM program for lawyers.
Heidi S. Alexander (@HeidiAlexander) is a law practice management advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (MassLOMAP), where she advises lawyers on practice management matters and in implementing new technologies. She frequently makes presentations to the legal community and contributes to publications on law practice management and technology.
Sharon Nelson: Cloud or On-Premise?
The first decision is whether to use a cloud or on-premise system. After that, you need to decide on features. Do you need a full-blown (accounts receivable, accounts payable, trust accounting) billing implementation? What about the ability to have custom fields? Integration with a document management system? Remote-access capability? Access via a mobile device? Document automation? Client portal access? Basically, deciding your feature requirements will help narrow your choices.
What’s next? The next big thing is user-controlled encryption. Allowing the end-user to control encryption keys prevents unauthorized access to confidential client information by the cloud provider if you are using a cloud-based system. As we say a lot, when it comes to user-controlled encryption, the time is now.
Sharon D. Nelson (@SharonNelsonEsq) is President of Sensei Enterprises, Inc., a digital forensics, legal technology and information security firm. She has written or co-authored a number of books, including “The Solo and Small Firm Legal Technology Guides.” She blogs at Ride the Lightning and co-produces the podcast The Digital Edge: Lawyers and Technology.
Diane Ebersole: Pros and Cons of SaaS and Proprietary Apps
Deciding which practice management software to bring into your firm is a big decision. Invest the time and energy in the shopping process that it deserves.
Determine the importance of mobile access. If you’re one of the many solo or small firm attorneys who work 24/7, mobility may be the key factor in making your decision. A cloud-based application might be best for the mobile attorney. However, proprietary applications are changing and providing accessibility options that were formerly only available in SaaS programs. (Check out the Tabs 3 Connect option as an example.)
Learn about the differences between SaaS and proprietary applications. Be sure you understand the pros and cons to make the best decision for your firm.
Do a thoughtful, honest assessment of what you really need and what you are likely to use. If you have staff, garner their input and incorporate it into the decision. Lawyers are often reticent to do their own due diligence when making software decisions. Invest the time to test each application’s user interface and ask for demonstrations from each provider.
Call your practice management advisor if your state has one. We love to talk technology.
What’s next? Recently, practice management software offerings have focused on doing everything: time, billing, email, calendaring, documents, portals. Many small firms have very good systems in place and have no interest in changing everything. Watch for applications that provide secure document-centric services for mobile lawyers and their clients without total practice management features.
Diane Ebersole (@DianeEbersole) is Assistant Division Director, Member & Communications Services Division, Practice Management Advisor for the State Bar of Michigan.
Catherine Sanders Reach: Demo Office-Wide
Even before you install a trial version, get a demo of the software and make sure everyone in the firm sits in on the demo. If they can’t make it, get a separate demo for them. Your office manager, accountant, receptionist, paralegal and lawyers all have different jobs to do and they all need to develop questions and provide input. By getting feedback from everyone, you will eliminate the need for a trial version in many cases because the software does not meet your needs. That said, do not skip the trial even if the person doing the demo seems to have a good answer for everyone’s questions.
What’s next? I am seeing more products that either tailor a product toward one or two practice areas or try to anticipate the needs for fields based on the matter type entered — for instance, choose “personal injury” as matter type and new fields are automatically added. Many attorneys feel the practice-specific products are too narrow or expensive, but general practice management products require a significant time commitment to customize for each practice area. By leveraging intelligence gathered from other users and anticipating custom fields based on practice area, the product can be responsive “out of the box” and may get more firms up and running and satisfied with the experience.
Catherine Sanders Reach (@CatherineReach) is Director, Law Practice Management and Technology, for the Chicago Bar Association. She was previously Director of the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center for over 10 years.
Jim Calloway: Put in the Time – Now!
“What practice management software package should I choose?” is my least favorite question to receive; but also my most favorite. It is also by equal measures the easiest and the hardest to answer. How can that all be?
It is among the most common because lawyers are increasingly recognizing that using today’s powerful data management tools to run their law practice is no longer optional. The client file is really client data. You should not be wasting time looking for lost files or lost documents when practice management software, powered by enforced law firm policies about the new way of doing things, can virtually eliminate lost files or lost documents. I’m thrilled the lawyer is asking this most important question, but also feel a bit of apprehension because the lawyer is not going to love my answer. I’m also very pleased that the lawyer is contacting me directly instead of delegating this incredibly important decision to staff.
The short answer is that lawyers have to do the research themselves. There are many online reviews, websites, legal technology conferences, local consultants and other sources of information to help. In many states, you can call on your bar’s practice management advisor for advice. But the lawyers who will be using this tool every day, and using the interface for hours on end, must be directly involved in the decision-making process or there could be disappointment. And, generally, the smaller the law firm, the more important it is that the lawyers personally make the decision.
I recall one solo who absolutely loved a practice management tool that few “experts” believed to be appropriate in a sole practitioner setting. The bottom line, as she explained to me, was that this software worked the way her brain worked and that the many powerful tools were all located just where she thought they should be and functioned as she assumed they would. One cannot discover that without a hands-on trial.
The good news (and the bad news for those wanting a simple decision) is that we have seen many new practice management solutions emerge recently, with different focuses and strengths.
- Reports on lawyer productivity may be your most important concern. That will eliminate some products and elevate others.
- Automated document assembly from the information contained in the PMS may be very important to you or perhaps integrated accounting or trust accounting tools may be what you seek. Again, this informs your decision-making.
- An attractive dashboard that is visually appealing to you may be high on your list.
- The method by which you would do remote billing on your mobile device may be your guiding star.
- Cost may be a significant concern. But this is an important tool you will be using daily. So this is not the time to become overly thrifty.
All of the tools are evolving works in progress and will continue to be so for several years. They will add new features. But you cannot let this fact justify further procrastination. You must transform your paper client files into digital client files that contain scanned copies of all of the documents. You must train your lawyers to enter their time or other billing information digitally (even if they are a two fingered typist) to reduce the delays associated with proofreading and correcting pre-bills.
There will be improvements in these tools in the future, but you need to become more effective and more productive now.
Put in the time. Do the research. Ask informed questions of your IT support team and outside experts who are familiar with these tools. But make a decision soon! Do not let the possibility of a hypothetical perfect product emerging be the enemy of a “good enough” choice for your firm. All of these tools are superior to paper client files.
What’s next? The next big thing is available in most of the tools already. You can now share documents and other information with your clients via secured, password-protected client portals. Whether you do this within your practice management software or by using standalone software, it is time to stop sending out important client documents with confidential information as email attachments. You can provide better security and your client can receive a better service if the client has a place to log into and review all of their documents associated with their file. Practice management software means that you can have access to a complete client file even when you are geographically remote from your office. Isn’t it a great idea to provide the same convenience to your clients?”
Jim Calloway (@JimCalloway) is Director of the Management Assistance Program for the Oklahoma Bar Association and author of several ABA books. He blogs at Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips and co-produces the podcast The Digital Edge: Lawyers and Technology.