Avoid Decision Paralysis: Choosing Practice Management Applications

Practice management applications are specifically designed to help law firms collect and organize information about clients and matters, give lawyers an “at a glance” status on a matter, run productivity reports, and make short work of many tasks. In the 2019 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report (forthcoming) fifty-three percent of respondents report the availability of case/practice management software at their firms, with only 35% of solos adopting this technology. Deciding on a platform or switching to a different practice management application can be daunting, but there are ways to make good decisions and get the most out of your investment.

Law Firm Swiss Army Knife

Practice management applications help manage all aspects of a law practice and is often divided functionally between “front office” and “back office.” Front office functions include document assembly, docket and calendaring, email management, document management, conflicts checking, contacts management, time tracking/billing, and task management workflow. Back office functionality includes trust accounting, general ledger and accounting. Some applications have built in email, some are incorporating client relationship management elements for client development, and some integrate with other applications like MS Office 365, QuickBooks, TrustBooks, or LawPay.

Choices abound for practice management software. Many applications, such as TimeMatters, TabsIII, and PCLaw are installed on a server or computer and typically charge a one-time license fee per user with annual maintenance and support charges. For traditional client/server installed products a firm can choose to have a third party host the software on a remote server and access it through a VPN or other remote access protocol.  Newer entries to the field are the “cloud based” programs such as RocketMatter, MyCase, PracticePanther and Clio, which require only a web browser for access.  The principle behind “the cloud” is leveraging the internet to provide access to computing power, mobility, and storage. Cloud based applications require no installation or IT support and are available as long as the user has access to the Internet. These applications typically charge per user, per month. Most of these applications have a trial period. 

Decisions, Decisions

How do you make technology purchasing decisions? Generally, the steps are:

  • Conduct a self-assessment
    • What problems are you trying to solve?
    • What is your budget?
  • Research the products
  • Get a demonstration
  • Ask for customer referrals and check them
  • Try it via a trial account
  • Evaluate it
  • Buy it
  • Implement it
    • Include data migration, customization, and integrations if applicable
  • Train, train, train

A recent article on a qualitative approach to selecting legal tech provides a model that advocates for first identifying and listing the problems you are trying to solve, independent of the features of any particular technology. Then either through RFP or a demonstration, score each application’s ability to help solve these problems based on a decision matrix that weights the importance of features and availability of those features.  You can create a spreadsheet to keep up with the scoring, in addition to other elements like price, to help you decide about which products to move forward into the trial phase.

Important Factors to Consider

During the research and demonstration phases don’t forget to investigate the following aspects:

  • Firm size – Not every product scales up or down well for very small or larger firms. Depending on your circumstances, ask the vendor whether the product is a good fit for a solo or what is the largest firm they have. Don’t forget that your support team will also need to access the product so count them as users too.
  • Integrations – Not all integrations are equal. Investigate and ask to see a demonstration of integrations with applications you use that are essential to your practice, whether that is MS Office, Corel WordPerfect, GSuite or Quickbooks. For database integrations like Quickbooks, data may flow in only one direction, meaning that if you input in the “integrated” application the data may not be updated/changed in the practice management application. Some calendars may not sync from Outlook to the practice management application to your smartphone calendar and back. Ask if the synchronization of data is bi-directional. Then during the trial be sure to test it.
  • Data migration – If you are moving from one product to another keep in mind that while a vendor may assure you that migration is “easy” that is hardly ever the case. If your existing database has been customized or if you are using an older or less well-known product then migration can be very challenging. Migration of time, billing, trust accounting, and general ledger information is complex. In many cases, it is simply better to “cutover” from one system to another, rather than risk errors that are very difficult to identify immediately. If your firm does decide to migrate financial information, ask for specifics about how the vendor can help or hire an independent certified consultant with experience in this type of migration.
  • Existing infrastructure – If you are considering an “on-premise” (installed) application find out what type of IT infrastructure is required, including server specifications, and additional licensing for SQL or other database requirements. If your firm has multiple offices or a mobile team find out how best to structure remote access.
  • Longevity – It is important to know how long a product has been on the market, though that may be a meaningless measurement. Some new products offered by very large companies have been sunset within a year and some venerable products have been bought and sunset. Better to ask about the product user base, financial strength, and long-term plans for growth. Prepare your own data portability plan so that if a product you depend on is at risk you have your data. This can be as simple as making an export of essential information to a spreadsheet weekly as a backup. Also, keep a copy of emails and documents separate from the practice management application.
  • Mac v. PC – While most cloud-based applications will work on a Mac, the integrations between Office for Mac or another installed product may not. Check to make sure any plugins, extensions, installs or customizations will work on a Mac as effectively as a PC.
  • Practice Area(s) – Some practice management applications are designed for specific practice areas or have practice area specific modules. Many are generic by design. Find out if the applications you are looking at can be customized if there are fields you need for certain types of client/matters or consider one specifically designed for your practice.
  • Do not underestimate the resistance to change – Make sure to include your whole team on the process of identifying problems to solve so you can identify those who think everything is just fine the way it is. They may be resistant to change and need special training, incentives or motivation to adopt and adapt to new technology.
  • Be prepared to run a trial through its paces – Don’t start a trial until you have identified a few sample matters to try and can commit to having several key members of the team participate in the trial. While most companies will agree to extend a trial period, in a busy law firm without committing to engaging with the trial that extension may never be long enough.
  • Pricing – Make sure to understand the total cost of ownership of a product. Find out what upfront costs may be incurred, including any fees for migration, implementation, training, licensing, and the need for any additional hardware or software. Many of the web-based practice management application pricing list the less expensive monthly fee based on a 12-month purchase. During the demonstration and certainly before purchasing make sure to be clear if any integrations, features, and functions come with an extra price tag.

Where to Start?

For a list and comparison of case/practice management software see 20 Best Legal Case Management Software Programs for Small and Medium Law Firms and Capterra’s listing and review site. Additional review sites and listings include those from G2 Business Technology listings and Software Advice. From ABA TECHSHOW 2018 you can read a comprehensive overview of choosing practice management technology. Additionally, Lawyerist has a tremendous amount of guidance on shopping for and comparing practice management applications, as does UpTime.

Conclusion

While a practice management application may not be the right solution for every firm, you should at least investigate whether it could assist your firm to organize and find information, provide better client service, reduce administrative tasks and streamline processes. Like a law firm, these applications are sophisticated and require a dedication to onboarding and training to really see a return on investment. Ready to get started? NCBA members can get assistance from the Center for Practice Management.