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Managing

The Long Nine: Essential Software for the Modern Law Practice

By | Feb.02.16 | Daily Dispatch, Law Practice Management, Legal Technology, Managing

Managing

You know when formerly avant-garde concepts begin to worm their way into the lawyers’ ethics canon, that it’s finally time to pay attention. So it is that technology has been awarded its moment, as the American Bar Association Model Rules have (relatively) recently been revised, in large part to reflect changes wrought by technology. More importantly, a number of states have followed suit.

It has been clear for quite some time that technology is essential to the modern practice of law — but now, the application of technology directly and formally implicates the more general question of a lawyer’s competence. Lawyers who have traditionally prided themselves on buying a local software application with a single log-in and using it until the wheels fell off now have to be at least thinking about upgrading their technology platforms. In addition to the dictates of the ethics rules, the majority of states also have a data protection law, ostensibly applicable to attorneys.

I know, right? Here, take this cold compress.

Fortunately, options for law practice technology have proliferated. Driven chiefly by cloud-based options (with a growing consensus among states that cloud-based is cool), the present-day state of law firm technology is robust, to say the least. In fact, the sheer magnitude of choice is probably overwhelming.

To add to the mix, lawyers can choose between lawyer-specific and general business tools — to put flesh to that bone, consider that you could purchase a legal-specific case management system, like Clio, or a general business management program, like Daylite, that is nevertheless used by lots of lawyers. (To complicate matters further, you should watch out for the upsell with lawyer-focused products. For some reason, providers unfocused on this industry still think most lawyers have a lot of money. Suckers.)

All of this combines to mean that one of the chief reasons law firms do not update their technology more consistently is because they’re simply paralyzed by the magnitude of the decision. If you have to choose among 100-plus options for document management, how do you effectively arrive at a decision — when you have a different full-time job? Hell, this is my full-time job, and I can’t even keep track of it all.

It’s true, the array is staggering.

The Breakdown: Law Practice Management Software

Now, I’m not the sharpest tool in the machine shed, but even I’m not brave enough to try to build a buyer’s guide for law firm technology. In large part, that’s because such a guide would be outdated as soon as it’s written down, a paper book being worth less than the paper it’s printed on. As it stands, I’m bound to receive urgent emails from each vendor I leave out of this post.

Yes, to the subject of this post: Rather than dream that impossible dream, I will instead attempt a list of the types of products you should acquire for your modern law firm. Below, I’ve identified the nine categories of software firms should use to take best advantage of the wide array of programs available for streamlining law practice management.

1. Productivity software. If there is one thing lawyers universally understand, it’s that they need productivity software to do all the basic things required of desk jockeys: emailing, drafting, creating presentations, building spreadsheets and databases. (Wherefore art thou, Access?) The archetypal example is the Microsoft Office suite, now gone online. But everybody knows that what you really need is (say it with me): Corel’s Word Perfect Suite! (I kid, because I care.) In real time, Microsoft Office is not the standalone version it had once been. The main challenger to the Office arrangement is Google Apps for Work, which features its own productivity suite, in league with Gmail. (Office 365 is Microsoft’s answer to the cloud.) A number of freeware alternatives exist, for those stout of heart, and light of wallet.

2. PDF conversion software. If you want to be paperless — and who doesn’t these days, let’s face it — a PDF conversion program is a must-have, since most law firms still, at least, receive paper documents. PDF conversion software allows you to scan paper to PDF and, where necessary, you can then apply OCR to your scanned images — that renders the text, so you can edit it. Among other general features, you’ll be able to package PDFs; add encryption, remove metadata and build forms. Adobe Acrobat continues to be the leader in the clubhouse, but Nuance’s Power PDF is a lower-cost alternative. Free conversion tools, with enterprise-level options, include PDFCreator and CutePDF. Any scanner you purchase is likely to include at least some level of built-in software. The Fujitsu ScanSnap is bundled with Adobe Acrobat.

3. Document automation/document assembly software. I shudder to think that there are not insignificant pockets of lawyers out there still dedicated to mail merge, or worse yet, typewriters. But clearly, there are better ways to build documents in this bright future. A document automation program allows you to customize existing templates in a number of ways, including by adding client information. Clause libraries let you insert non-generic/non-boilerplate clauses into documents requiring specialization. Many document automation tools feature plug-ins to Microsoft Word — so you can draft within a native interface. Some document assembly software offers a Q&A interface, which can be particularly helpful for training new associates. Some vendors will add your templates to their system at no cost, or at some cost.

If you start by using Microsoft’s QuickParts and Outlook Signatures, you’ll get a freeview of what document automation can do for you. If you wish to step up to the pay-for-play leagues, The Form Tool is an inexpensive product that integrates with Microsoft Word. HotDocs is probably the granddaddy of them all. Pathagoras is a rising entrant in the marketplace. Smokeball is primarily a case management system; but, its integration with Microsoft Outlook and Word allows users to build and maintain documents, too. LEAP, a new entrant in the United States, but already a big player for case management in Australia, offers practice-area specific forms and document assembly features, to boot.  XpressDox, Draft Once, Turner and FileMaker Pro are popular, not only but especially, in certain tight circles of Mac users.

4. Document management software. Although most document automation tools feature some level of document management control, generally speaking, standalone document management tools offer more robust versions of those features, or different features altogether. Major features common to a number of these applications include version control, check-in/check-out features (an additional level of access control), integration with existing folder systems (Google Drive, your server), integration with related software (Microsoft Word, Outlook), offline access/briefcase, matter management, labeling/tagging and global search capability (with in-depth search functionality) — alright, that’ll do. Law firms capture and reference documents more than any other sort of data — so, especially if you’re working with a team, it may be that a document management system is a requirement for proper organization and ultimate efficiency.

Some major systems in this field include NetDocuments (reviewed here, and very price-competitive), Worldox and iManage. At this point, many case management companies are building out better document management tools, so some law firms choose to utilize those features rather than buy a separate standalone package. In some cases, integration between case management and document management software already exists (for example, a pairing of Clio and Net Documents).

5. Time and billing/accounting software. My intention was to break out time and billing software from accounting software. The truth of the matter is, that’s a crooked road upon which to try to draw a straight line. Pretty much every accounting program has time and billing features, and many time and billing applications feature at least some semblance of accounting features. For the majority of solo and small law firms, a time and billing/accounting program needs to do four things: offer a convenient time-capture method, include an invoice construction feature, provide robust reporting tools and allow for trust account reconciliation management — or, at least, be customizable to that end. Obviously, having the ability to track time, and to export that time log to an invoice template that can then be finalized is a good thing. Reporting tools I speak of broadly; but the thrust of the matter is that you should be able to filter for certain information, review accounts receivable, determine billings for individual attorneys, manage collection status, etc. The tools you choose will, in large part, depend on your tolerance for the DIY lifestyle. The fallback position of the proverbial Luddite lawyer is to use paper timeslips, a notebook and paper invoices — don’t do that.

The next rung on the ladder would be a computerized spreadsheet tool of some kind. Quicken is a personal account management tool that many businesspersons use, and QuickBooks is Intuit’s enterprise version software. (Xero is a QuickBooks competitor based out of New Zealand.) In between are business accounting programs like GnuCash (which is free) and Sage 50 (formerly Peachtree) (which is not). This is before one even arrives at the doorstep of legal-specific time, billing and accounting tools. Tabs3/PracticeMaster continues to provide some of the best focused trust accounting features around, and RTG Bills is a basic, Windows-based product that a number of small firms use. PCLaw is sticking around. Most case management software systems include some level of accounting functionality, whether built into the systems or integrated with them, potentially through the fulcrum of an API. The ABA Legal Technology Resource Center maintains a list of time and billing products, which includes some of the traditional standard-bearers. And, if you like your time tracking separate from your billing, there are a number of standalone time capture applications available to lawyers, including those that automatically monitor device time.

6. Case management software. Case management software (sometimes referred to as practice management software) purports to be a holistic solution, in that it will wrap the majority of common features for law firm management into a single, accessible package. Generally speaking, case management software includes:

  • Contact management (with global search for conflicts checks)
  • Email archive
  • Document management
  • Calendar management (with sync options for your existing email/calendar system)
  • Time, billing and accounting

Some of the major vendors have built APIs allowing third parties to write applications for their programs — so, if you want to use QuickBooks, for example, you can use it within your case management system. Some vendors eschew the use of APIs on the theory that a case management system should provide (internally, natively) whatever features the law firm will need, such that there is no need to purchase any additional software.

Many of the primary case management vendors operate cloud-based systems, and those running local applications are adding cloud-based features or access options. There is a clear and ongoing shift to the cloud when it comes to case management. In fact, some providers, including Abacus Data Systems and Legal Workspace, already offer remote desktop technology infrastructures, including case management.

Now, since I have had a great deal of trouble keeping track of all of the case management systems, I’m going to try to crowdsource this bad boy. These are providers of which I am aware: Clio, MyCase, Rocket Matter, Firm Manager, Firm Central, SmokeballCosmo Lex, Amicus Attorney, Abacus Law, Practice Panther, Houdini ESQ, Time Matters, Tabs3/PracticeMaster, Case Fox, Zola Suite, Merus Case, Needles, Action Step, Legal Files, Pro Law, Legal Trek … and, I’m spent. I told you there are a lot of these. Now, onto the crowdsourcing.

Here is my challenge:

  • If you are a vendor I’ve listed, post your very brief product pitch in the comments section at the end of this post.
  • If you are a vendor I have not listed, heavily curse me under your breath for several minutes, then place your very brief product pitch in the comments section, and I will add you to the above list.
  • If your name is Rita? Sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you, Rita. You should know better by now.

7. Data backup tools. Data management is the holy grail of law firm management. Since that’s the case, it makes good sense to back up the data you already have. Because no one system is fail-safe, though, you may set your mind far more at ease by using two systems in conjunction — and it probably makes sense to pair a local backup with a cloud version. I’ve written on the strategy involved, as well as the providers in play, previously for this website.

8. Customer relationship management (CRM) software. Using data to drive marketing decisions is next-level law firm management. CRM tools allow you to better render the data you take in — assuming you take it in effectively in the first place. If you do, a CRM will provide basic contact management tools, including the ability to add notes to files, and more robust features that will walk you through the many pathways from leads to conversions. Gaining a better understanding of how you close business will help you to close more of it, when you learn what tactics are successful, and which ones are not. Default and custom reporting features facilitate running reports across the collection of your data. This reporting functionality (including, potentially, charts and graphs) gives you a visual window into your progress. Integration with information from web and social tools, as well as phone call-tracking functionality, combine to make a CRM your one-stop shop for analysis of your marketing platform. Avvo’s Ignite (reviewed here and here), Lexicata and Practice Pipeline are the only legal-specific, standalone CRM products of which I am aware. (Again, source me crowd!) Some case management systems feature CRM tools as well, but those are in the most nascent of development stages.

While there may be a lack of legal-specific programs, a number of general CRM apps can easily be converted to law firm use, including free products like Zoho, Insightly and StreakSalesforce is the big kid on the playground, in terms of a general service CRM. Other paid programs of note include PipeDrive and NetSuite.

9. Internal communication platform. The problem with email is that literally anybody can send you one. (Even David Duchovny? Yeah, I suppose.) That’s what’s so vexing about unfiltered spam — you don’t have to reply, but you still have to delete it. Many law firms are turning to restricted-access, internal communication systems, sometimes referred to as enterprise social networks. Programs with calendaring features allow you to assign tasks and make notes on those items. (Of course, full-scale project management tools are available — Asana is a free one — and a reasonable argument can be made for including project management as a separate category here. At the moment, though, I don’t know that there is a lot of adoption or even realization of a need for adoption in solo and small firms.) The staggering rate of adoption of Slack, an internal conversation engine, underscores businesspeople’s perceived need for products like this. (These are kind of like the spiritual, less perverse descendants of chat rooms — memba them?!) With the success of Slack, competitors abound, including Yammer, HipChat and Pie. Filevine is an internal communications platform, with additional case management features, that is focused on the legal vertical.

What Did I Miss?

Is there is a big (top) 10 of law practice management applications? Let us know what you think!

Jared Correia is CEO of Red Cave Law Firm Consulting, which offers subscription-based law firm business management consulting and technology services for solo and small law firms. Red Cave also works with legal institutions and legal-facing corporations to develop programming and content. A former practicing attorney, Jared is a regular presenter at local, regional and national events. He contributes regularly to legal publications, including his column, Managing, for Attorney at Work and an advice column for Lawyerist. Jared is the author of the ABA publication "Twitter in One Hour for Lawyers." He hosts the Legal Toolkit podcast on Legal Talk Network and teaches for Concord Law School, Suffolk University Law School and Solo Practice University. He loves James Taylor, but respects Ron Swanson; and, he tries to sneak Rolos when no one is looking.

Corrected Feb. 3, 2016.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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21 Responses to “The Long Nine: Essential Software for the Modern Law Practice”

  1. Gyi
    2 February 2016 at 9:39 am #

    10. Marketing Automation Software – Track marketing and advertising from source to fees. Might be able to accomplish with some sophisticated CRMs (i.e. Salesforce). Capterra has a pretty good list going: http://www.capterra.com/marketing-automation-software/

  2. Bob Christensen
    2 February 2016 at 4:27 pm #

    The four criteria for selecting a document automation system are: Ease of use, power, flexibility, and price. If you choose the leader in all four, you’ll enjoy the benefits identified in our survey of lawyers. They report saving more than 70% of the time previously spent on repetitive documents and, more importantly, eliminating errors and improving client service levels.

  3. Jared Correia
    2 February 2016 at 11:04 pm #

    Thanks, Gyi! Great add . . .

  4. Jared Correia
    2 February 2016 at 11:06 pm #

    Thanks, Bob. I talk to a lot of solo and small firm lawyers who use, and like, The Form Tool.

  5. Rick Kabra
    3 February 2016 at 2:31 am #

    CosmoLex:

    While you have many products listed in the “case management software” category, including CosmoLex, each has its own unique strength over others. A law firm should analyze their most important needs and then look for the best fit.

    CosmoLex’s uniqueness is integrated Practice Management, Billing AND Accounting, all in one login system. Our users do not need a 3rd party accounting program like QuickBooks or Xero and thus don’t have to worry about duplicated data entries or messy export/imports. Many small law firms love it and many don’t. It is all about your needs and preferences. Horses for the courses is the answer here…


    Rick Kabra
    CEO, CosmoLex

  6. Jeannie Borich
    3 February 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    You mentioned a lot of great solutions for case management software, but you forgot to include Smokeball!

    Smokeball is a case management software specifically built for solo and small firms. Smokeball includes over 200 different matter types which means Smokeball is customized to your area of law. Every matter you work on is created as a digital file, with the important details saved as you go. From within the file, you can see emails both sent and received related to the matter, access the contact details of relevant parties and generate documents and emails in a flash.

    What makes Smokeball so powerful is our deep integration with Word and Outlook. Turn all your most used documents into templates and store them within Smokeball. Pull client details from the matter file to fill out documents quickly and with no errors.

    See you at the Super Marketing Conference in June Jared! 🙂

    ——
    Jeannie Borich
    Marketing Specialist, Smokeball

  7. Jared Correia
    3 February 2016 at 9:41 pm #

    Thanks, Rick –

    ‘Horses for the courses’, I like that. haha.

    Jared

  8. Jared Correia
    3 February 2016 at 9:55 pm #

    Sorry, Jeannie –

    As my favorite time traveler, Samuel Beckett, would say: ‘Oh, boy’.

    And, I was just talking to Chelsey a couple weeks back.

    This is my bad; but, I have submitted some special edits to Joan, to make this right . . . I owe you guys an Edible Arrangement, or something.

    Jared

  9. Leslie Meagley
    5 February 2016 at 12:51 pm #

    Jared,
    ‘Love your latest post because it provides such a succinct summary of the technologies firms really need! Bravo! The one thing we’d like to add is in the DMS section. We agree that the stand alone DMS products offer much more robust capabilities. You named the three most well-known systems, but we wanted to point out that there’s a NextGen alternative, MetaJure (www.metajure.com), the uses technology to solve the fundamental issues that the traditional products raise for the lawyers using them and law firms that put them in place. (i.e.: Not capturing 100% of documents, to expecting lawyers to spend time tagging and filing, and more).
    Thanks!!

    Leslie Meagley

  10. Larisa Tehven
    5 February 2016 at 4:12 pm #

    Firm Central

    Our survey showed an average of 40% of small firm time is spent on non-practice work. Thomson Reuters Firm Central streamlines both practice of law and business tasks. Affordable rates on par or lower than others, and it integrates with Westlaw – not only giving you seamless access to legal research, but also providing KeyCite flags on citations, and the same indexing used to power Westlaw’s search engine on any document loaded to Firm Central.

    Firm Central also provides integration with legal forms, Practical Law, legal drafting software, legal deadline calculation, and a new time & billing module. A dashboard, QuickBooks integration, you name it, all within the best data security available. Uncover more on http://www.firmcentral.com.

    Larisa Tehven
    Marketing Manager, Firm Central

  11. Fred Cohen
    5 February 2016 at 10:00 pm #

    After watching all the youtube videos in the links I’m finally getting around to writing our pitch (thanks for insisting Jarad).

    In developing ZOLA SUITE for the last 5 years, we didn’t set out to be a “me too” player; our entire team has been laser-focused on creating a next generation application that not only provides best-in class practice management features, but also one that has powerful built-in email capabilities (using your existing accounts) and complete accounting through a beautiful, fast and fun interface. Oh and we provide real iOS and Android apps that among other features, have business card scanners.

    We have been humbled by the reception Zola has received from attorneys and industry insiders. Oh and stay tuned for an awesome new feature we’re releasing at Techshow 2016.

  12. Jared Correia
    8 February 2016 at 1:54 am #

    Thanks, Leslie –

    Somebody mentioned MetaJure to me the other day.

    Methinks I need a demo . . .

    Jared

  13. Jared Correia
    8 February 2016 at 1:55 am #

    Larisa,

    Thanks for adding this information about Firm Central!

    Jared

  14. Jared Correia
    11 February 2016 at 2:31 am #

    Fred,

    Thanks for adding some further information about Zola, which is an impressive case management tool.

    Now then, I feel like it would be a far less effective article if I WASN’T making obscure references to a young Abraham Lincoln . . .

    Jared

  15. Virginia Nicols
    16 February 2016 at 2:29 pm #

    Dear Jared,
    The obscure references and off-the-wall comments are what keep us readers’ eyes from glazing over! Great info, great writing. Thanks.

  16. Jared Correia
    17 February 2016 at 4:35 pm #

    Virginia,

    I am nothing if not obscure :).

    Thank you for the kind words.

    Jared

  17. Greg Churilov
    29 February 2016 at 1:17 pm #

    For the medium to large firm, a court-rules based docketing & calendaring solution is important. #edockets

  18. Greg Churilov
    29 February 2016 at 1:28 pm #

    I’ve spent the obligatory minute or two cursing you under my breath – sidetracked a bit by watching a non-sequitur Beatles video – but I am now back on task and ready to tell you about eDockets – Critical Dates.
    eDockets is the flagship product of American LegalNet. We’ve been developing solutions for the legal industry for 20 years. eDockets is a browser-accessible, court-rules-based docketing & calendaring platform. It integrates seamlessly with Outlook and provided a centralized docketing workflow, significantly reducing risk by lowering human error in deadlines. (I’m sure we all remember AT&T’s 40-Million lost appeal nightmare over a missed deadline.)
    eDockets has features such as AutoReports, ECF Verify and the Attorney Change Utility – this last one makes case reassignment a breeze. http://alncorp.com/products/edockets
    (Thanks Jared, for the opportunity to brag.)

  19. Harry Singh
    25 March 2016 at 12:50 pm #

    Great post Jared, I believe Lawcus too fits this list 🙂

    Lawcus(www.lawcus.com) is a simple and visual legal practice management software with integrated CRM. Lawcus enables attorneys to automate consistent processes to help deliver more with transparency and less effort. With Lawcus, lawyers can collaborate with matter-centric chat, visualize their matters with Kanban boards and identify bottlenecks to improve their bottom line with our matter progress report. Also, as of today, we have users in 20+ countries check out here – https://share.intercom.io/TdhBEZQ8qHKo


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