Law Firm Technology
Law Firm technology can weigh heavily upon the Scales of Justice....this series by Caren Schwartz is intended to 'come to the defense' of your Law Firm in finding the right technological solutions.
Professional Services Firms in general, and Law Firms in particular, have specific software needs that are different from those of other types of firms. Law firms need software that generally falls into the categories of:
- Document management
- Document assembly
- Practice management
Document Management involves finding and maintaining the documents created by the firm and received from outside parties. This includes scanning documents received and searching for documents or information in documents. Many practice management solutions have some document management capability but specialty software such as Worldox, IManage and NetDocuments generally provides more features and more control.
Document Assembly involves taking information from your database and pulling it into existing templates and re-using the firm knowledge. Software like HotDocs, Ghostfill and others, help you create libraries of documents and paragraphs that can be assembled to meet specific client needs without reinventing the wheel for every case. Seth Rowland of Basha Systems explains it nicely…
“Document assembly to this day largely remains one of those "mystical" areas of the technology age that is either overlooked, undervalued or simply misunderstood. To some, "document assembly" refers to merge tables in Microsoft Word, or perhaps a crafted macro system in WordPerfect. To the more enlightened, it may refer to a collection of individual templates, with fixed language that are accessible in a single menu. For the "tech savvy", perhaps document assembly means database driven documents that produce most content in a fairly automatic fashion.
Is this document assembly? Yes...and no. "Yes" in that these methods are the "tip of the tip" of the iceberg, but "No" in that these approaches and systems do not reflect even 1% of the functionality and profit available via document assembly avenues.”
Practice Management software, used properly, becomes the core of the firm. Practice Management software should provide access to information about the contacts you deal with and the matters you work on. At a law firm people and matters overlap in many ways and information needs to be accessible from multiple perspectives. Whether looking at your calendar, a matter or a contact you need to know what work has been done, who is involved, what calls and emails have been created or received and where to find the relevant documents. Without leaving your desk to search for paper records, practice management software provides this information.
Most importantly when a prospect arrives at your office you need to be able to quickly check for conflict of interest. Practice Management software can help with this. Properly implemented, it can also help prevent law suits by making sure deadlines aren’t missed and by facilitating communications with clients.
CRM Software – Customer Relationship Marketing – is a “hot button” in industry today. For law firms CRM falls short because it doesn’t usually give a view by matter – a key factor for law firms. Properly implemented Practice Management software can do everything CRM software does and more, it just doesn’t have good catchy initials.
Unlike a manufacturing company, law firms don’t sell a physical product; they sell time, knowledge and skills. Whether you are billing by the hour, working on a contingency basis or for a flat fee, it is important to be able to measure your time and your profitability. Most firms need to bill their clients in order to get paid; or at least present a statement of work done and funds received/disbursed to show the fees. Billing software tracks your time and client expenses, tracks IOLTA funds and what you are owed and helps you assess firm, case and individual profitability and productivity.
While billing is the key source of revenue, all firms need to track expenses that don’t relate to specific clients. From payroll to rent and office supplies, there are a range of costs that need to be paid. Accounting software is designed to meet this need and to give you the reports needed for the government and partners. Whether we like it or not the IRS wants a report at least annually. If you have employees you are responsible for payroll taxes and reports. While much of this can be outsourced the responsibility still lies with the firm partners. Choosing the right accounting software can make the workflow easier and enhance reporting ability.
To choose the right software you must first evaluate your firm needs. What I wrote on this topic in my blog from 2010 still holds true today. You can read the full article at http://www.timeandcents.com/saving-time-and-money-with-software-2/. Before you start evaluating software you should determine what features are essential and what would be nice to have. You should also think about your style, how are you comfortable interacting with the program. No matter what solutions you choose the usefulness will depend on the information you enter. The old saying “Garbage In, Garbage Out” can be expanded to “Nothing In, Nothing Out”.
In today’s environment you also need to decide if you prefer to work in a desktop or a cloud environment. A cloud environment does not rule out desktop based software, as most applications can run in a hosted environment, giving them cloud like functionality. However, there may be some differences in a hosted environment, especially if you want to start linking pieces together.
Once you have identified your criteria you should look not only at the features but the support and training available. This varies widely but can include online webinars, both live and pre-recorded, and support and training from independent consultants either onsite or remotely. Learning styles and the needs of your firm will determine what is right for you. For example, if you want in person training, are there people locally who can provide this, or will someone have to be flown in. Bringing someone in from a distance can add significantly to cost. If you are located on the west coast and support is limited to 9am to 5pm eastern time, will this be a problem for your firm. It is important to make sure the products you evaluate have the resources to meet your learning style and support needs.
While there are many places to get lists of software and reviews, during the coming months this series will focus on different products that address the legal market, particularly in the billing and accounting arena. Since many practice management solutions offer these components we will attempt to identify strengths and weaknesses so that you, as a law firm or a consultant to a law firm can determine the right solution for your firm.
About the author:
Caren Schwartz founded Time & Cents Consultants, LLC , a Southport Connecticut firm, to help legal and other service professionals select, install and get the most out of their practice management, billing, accounting, and other firm specific technologies. She works to allow companies to better manage their time, money and information through the practical and efficient use of their software. She is an expert in billing, case and practice/office management systems. Caren focuses on making practice management software into real world turn-key solutions. By understanding a firm’s practice, business and industry needs, she can help implement a solution that meets the practice’s requirements. Caren is an associate of 35-45 Consulting-Global, a national company providing comprehensive information technology services for a wide variety of industries.