As a 'trusted law firm advisor' you will be called upon to assist your clients in the implementation of practice management concepts and software for their law firms. In this article we will look, on a simple level, at helping them do this.
I'm often asked why a law firm can't (or shouldn't) just use Microsoft Outlook for their practice management needs. Outlook is powerful in managing contact information, but contacts are not sufficient for law firms. Law firms are Matter (or case) centric. This can also apply to other types of professional services firms as well, although they might consider a matter a project.
The client/contact comes to the firm with a need and the firm evaluates the case. First they must make sure that they are equipped to handle the matter. A firm that specializes in Estate Planning is not the right firm for handling a civil litigation matter. A criminal law firm shouldn't be handling a real estate closure, and so forth.
Next they have to make sure there are no conflicts of interest. This requires looking at the opposing parties to see if the firm has had any representation that might cause a problem in bringing this case. In order to properly search for conflicts of interest you need not only a list of all your clients, but you need to know opposing parties, expert witnesses and others who have been involved in work the firm has done. Besides knowing who the people are, you need to know what the relationship was to the firm, so that you can make an evaluation of conflict.
Depending on the type of law you might also need to know the companies the people the firm represents. All of this may involve searching not just the list of contacts but emails, notes and billing entries.
One of the biggest mistakes a law firm can make involves taking on a client and then finding out that there is a conflict of interest with a prior client, matter, or even 3rd party (like an expert witness or consultant.) Well designed, and utilized, Case Management software can make avoiding such conflicts less of a task than any manual methodologies.
Once a case is accepted there are deadlines, appointments, documents and other individuals that must be tracked. If a person or company (a party) is involved in multiple cases you want to enter information once and have it flow to all the right places, whether that party is the client, an expert witness, or the opposing counsel. This is what Practice Management software does. Practice Management software is sometimes referred to as Case Management software because it helps manage the information related to the law firm's cases.
While Outlook is contact centric, Practice Management or Case Management software is Case/Matter centric. You enter a piece of information once and it ties to all the related pieces. So when the client calls you can see all the information about each matter, but when speaking to the opposing counsel on one matter, you only look at the information for that matter. If someone is an expert witness for multiple cases, you only record their information once, but you relate it to all the matters and appointments where it is important.
A single entry that can be tied to multiple matters makes it easier to maintain accurate information. If an address changes, you only change it once and all the pieces are changed. Documents can also be tied into the matter, making them easy to find regardless of where they are stored.
There are lots of Practice Management software choices available. So how does a firm choose? The firm needs to know the answers to the following questions to help in starting the search, as their trusted advisor you can not only assist them with these questions, but also garner your own evaluation of these key concepts:
- Are they looking for cloud-based or desktop/server based software?
- Do they need calendar integration with court rules?
- Do they want the calendar to integrate with Outlook or Google?
- How do they, or or do they want to do billing in this software?
- How do they, or do they want to include document management ?
- How do they, or do they want to do document assembly?
- Do they practice multiple areas of law so that we might need to customize the information collected by type of law?
- What security do they need?
- How many people in the firm currently need access, and what are our growth plans?
- How tech savvy are the people in the firm (what's your impression, as well as that of the firm itself)?
- How do the firm handle email? What types of email accounts are used by the firm?
Once you have a basic idea of features you can start searching options for your client. You can easily develop a list of products to consider by talking to the bar association and other attorneys or attending trade shows or conferences.
When you speak to attorneys I think it's important to ask what they don't like about the software they are using. This can give great insight into how it might fit, or lack, for your client's firm.
There are also lots of publications where you can do research. Technolawyer is an online newsletter that offers a guide to many solutions available. And of course there are consultants that can help you.
When you have picked a few products to look at it is important to get a demo and to get a trial version. The demo will give you a good overview of the program. Make sure the demo answers the questions that are most important to your firm. The trial version will give you a sense of how comfortable you will be with the program.
Trusted advisors can guide the process, but only if they themselves are totally familiar with all the offerings. Review and learn the software, BEFORE you introduce your clients to it. You can count on the fact that the one question they will ask, will be 'the one' that you didn't take time to learn. Practice makes perfect, so trusted advisors should also take time to 'try the trial' themselves, if you develop an 'Advisor Alliance' with the software developer they may in fact provide you will a full-feature working copy so you can not only learn the software, but learn how to support it.
It's also important to check on the availability of training and technical support. You don't only want to know what's available but "how good". Would you rather work with a product that has 24-7 technical support but the support people are overseas and have an average tenure with the company of 6 month, or would you prefer a company with 9 am to 6 pm support but the average tenure of support people is 10 years. While these are extreme ends of the spectrum, I think you get the point.
I think it is a good point to interject here that the purpose of this software is to help you in keeping the law firm 'on course'. Rick Kabra, of Cosmolex, recently told us in an interview, something that I think fits in perfectly with this concept, he said, “Managing a firm goes far beyond just practicing law. With client costs, trust accounting, staff management, billing, and so much more- there’s never a dull moment. Even the best attorneys lack all of the expertise needed to manage the many different areas of the firm’s business. That’s where technology comes into play. Make technology your friend and it will free up you and the rest of the firm to do what you do best- practice law.”
ProAdvisors, acting as 'trusted law firm advisors' can help accomplish the level of service and technological support that your law firm clients need. So when approaching the decision making conclusion, make certain that your law firm clients ask questions and talk to other users of the recommended products BEFORE making any final decision. Making a decision takes a lot of work, but changing it is always far more difficult.
With the right practice management solution, your law firm clients will realize that having the information they need at their fingertips, can significant improve their 'client' services and save them time and money. With the right assistance, recommendations, and implementation you can soon become their 'next best friend' (or at least 'their trusted advisor'.)