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A law practice management software system can be the principal organizing feature of your law firm, a full-scale repository and collaboration tool and a hedge against malpractice. But, with so many options available, how do you choose the one that’s right for you?
There are a number of law practice management software options available to attorneys. Most of these systems share some common features, including:
- Contact management and conflict checking (via global search)
- Calendar and task management
- Email archive
- Document management
- Time and billing, sometimes including IOLTA/trust accounting functionality
Law practice management software systems work by “tagging” each input/archived segment of information to a client’s file. In this way, these systems create for you a master client list, in the form of a holistic practice dashboard, from which you can drill down to specific client files and specific client file matter. These tools are extremely powerful—if information is input appropriately and reminders are scheduled accordingly.
Sifting through the Options
Some of the most popular law practice management software systems break down across these categories:
1. Traditional software systems. These are applications that reside on your local machine, and that are added to your system by CD/DVD or download. These systems are usually charged off at a base purchase rate plus a yearly update fee. Representative programs include Amicus Attorney and Time Matters.
2. SaaS or cloud-based systems. These, essentially, are secured web portals (usually password-protected and encrypted) where your practice information is stored and accessed. These systems do not reside on your local machine, and so are accessible anywhere you have an Internet connection. These systems are usually charged off on a monthly subscription basis; there is no up-front fee, or additional update fee, as updates are made automatically. Representative programs include Clio, LexisNexis Firm Manager (read my full review of Firm Manager here), MyCase and RocketMatter.
3. Hybrid systems. Some systems feature both local and cloud-based components. The pricing for these systems varies, because of the commingled components. Representative programs include Abacus Sky (a cloud-based practice management system with desktop applications from AbacusLaw) and Needles with eCase.
4. An Outlook plug-in. There is also an email add-on system that operates within Microsoft Outlook, as a plug-in, and that offers a mix of local and cloud-based features. It’s called Credenza and it grafts practice management functionality onto Outlook. For Outlook users, Credenza can reduce the learning curve for getting into a practice management tool. It is offered free to solos and the per-user cost for the enterprise version is $24.95. (You can read my review of Credenza here, with an update here.)
5. Variations on a theme. Other interesting practice management systems include: RealPractice, a free platform with a focus on marketing; Livia, a program that offers real-time human assistants as part of its package; and HoudiniESQ for a more traditional approach.
This is, perhaps not surprisingly, not an exhaustive list of law practice management software systems or providers. The American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center maintains a comparison chart of certain such products. Also, at my office we maintain a list of dozens of law practice management software systems, which we are willing to pass along as well.
Tryin’ Before Your Buy In
When purchasing a law practice management software system, it’s important to do your research. Keep in mind that while it’s very easy to put all of your firm’s information in one of these systems, it can be onerous to get all of that information out again, if you decide to move on. And, while it’s certainly becoming easier to draw all of your “stuff” out, once you’re out, it’s impossible to maintain the connections for your information—connections that the system has uniquely created for you. The switch, then, remains painful, if the switch needs to be made; so, it is highly important that, to the extent possible, you understand just what you’re getting into before you select a platform.
To that end, test-drive any system that you’re considering, so you learn how it works in your environment. To help you out, each of these programs offers a free trial period, usually of 30 days. You should also make sure that you otherwise extensively vet each of the providers on your list, and that you understand the terms of service for the program you choose, before you buy in.
For vetting SaaS products, there is a proposed North Carolina Bar Association ethics opinion that offers a number of questions you should ask to help get to the bottom of what you need to know before you dive into a cloud-based product. That proposed opinion is available here, along with some of my further thoughts related to vetting.
Jared D. Correia is the law practice advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program. Prior to joining LOMAP, he was the publications attorney for the Massachusetts Bar Association. Before that, he worked as a private practice lawyer. Jared is a graduate of Suffolk University Law School and of Saint Anselm College, where he was a captain of the debate squad that finished as national runner-up in 2000. He loves James Taylor.
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