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There are several, and very different software tools that attorneys, paralegal, management and staff use in their various roles in a typical law firm. Some of the most sophisticated and critical of these are: accounting software, practice management software and document management software. Depending on the firm, practice management software is probably the most commonly-used software (apart from the word processing and email programs found in every office.) However, not all users in a law firm rely on practice management software. If the PM software is connected to their email/calendar software (whether it be Outlook or Gmail) then they may rely on those two products, in addition to their word processor to manage their correspondence (email-wise), their calendar and any documents that they generate or review. 

Practice management software is used most extensively by those managing the progress of the case: those who manage deadlines, requests and the day-to-day setting up and executing of the interaction between the firm and its clients and resources. Someone, who is primarily a "rain-maker" for example, and whose responsibility to the firm is meeting new prospects and keeping the firm's profile constantly in view, and does not actively manage many, if any, cases, will rely on his/her calendar and email to manage their day-to-day responsibilities. 

For those in the firm whose  primary responsibility is to manage and perform the day-to-day accounting functions, then the firm's choice of accounting/billing/timekeeping software will be their main focus. Making sure that time is tracked and entered as desired, that bills are received and paid as requested, and the invoices to clients are sent out and payment is received as expected are all functions that will keep the accounting staff mostly in their specialized accounting/billing software.

But what about the attorneys whose primary function is to work the case, but who also has staff that manages the day-to-day tasks? Their responsibilities are to manage their calendar, make sure they (and everyone associated with the case) can see all emails sent/received about the matter, and to draft and review all documents associated with the case. 

Seven Key Points to Your Practice Management Program

I’ve been advising firms on legal practice management programs for several years. In the years I’ve been doing this, the following key points to setting up and using practice management programs have always proven worth the effort to evaluate– regardless of the software being selected/used:

1.Learn the features of the program you are going to buy or have already bought – I’ve been amazed by clients who purchase a practice management program and then want it to do something it cannot do! Listen folks, with some companies, getting a desired feature added to the program will take years – if at all. With others, it sometimes takes only a suggestion to their website and ‘Voila!” there it is.
If you know you need to be able to create custom reports, either learn how well the program does it, or ask for a demonstration. If you have complicated data intake needs, make sure the program can take in the data in the manner in which you want. Don’t assume!

2.Explain how your firm works – some consultants (usually those more experienced) will have seen similar workflows (the processes you use) and will be able to tell you which programs will offer the mix of features you will need to accomplish those processes. If you are going to do this yourself – expect to spend a lot of time learning the programs (just like attorneys have to learn the law!) If you have a complicated workflow (that perhaps needs to be improved) – be sure you can explain it in detail so that you (or your consultant) can identify which features will be used to accomplish it.

3.Identify the data you need to store – If you are using a practice management program that doesn’t offer custom data fields, at a minimum, you are working too *#!@ hard! If you are not sure – hire a consultant (this is just like your clients, who realize that they don’t know the law well enough to go to court without one) And if you hire a practice management consultant that has worked with other firms that work in the same areas of practice, while that consultant may be capable of suggesting the data you may want to keep – he/she doesn’t really know! You will need to spend the time teaching your consultant how yourprocesses work, and consequently exactly what data you need. With the more experienced consultants you will need to spend less time, but there will still be the need to identify exactly how your process works.

a.Identify what data you need to see every day, or every time the phone rings, or every time you or your partners need to have a partner meeting. If you don’t identify what you need to be able to see, and when it will need to be seen, and by whom, then you really haven’t done your job.

b.Identify what data will need to be pulled out of the forms you see on yourcomputer screens and merged into your standard documents (welcome letter, retainer letter, documents for courts and letters to opposing counsel, etc…) These fields will include the basic client data and also some area of practice-specific data fields such as date of accident (Personal Injury) or discharge type (Military Records) or Bankruptcy type (Bankruptcy).

A Beginning

Web?/Cloud?

Yes, it's hard to tell if there is a difference - what do people really mean when they say they want their Practice Management software in the cloud? For some, being "in the cloud" simply means that, through whatever means, if they access their data (wherever it may be stored) through the Internet, then they are "in the cloud." For others, being "in the cloud" means that their programs and data reside on a server somewhere outside their offices, and they access them through the Internet--by using a browser - not some program (Logmein (to a desktop in their office), iTap (from an iPad), or just Remote Desktop to a Terminal Server.)

Finally, there are those who think that "in the cloud" means that your practice management software runs in a browser, not by getting to it through the Internet.

When evaluating whether or not your firm should be in the cloud, first think through all of the reasons you think you need to be "in the cloud"

For example, do you:

  • Need to access your programs/data from anywhere (using a browser-based approach)?
  • Want to avoid the responsibility of maintaining/upgrading servers within your office? (Remember that you will still have to have a server for your LAN, but not one that requires as much power and sophistication.)
  • Want to take advantage of some of the newer features (i.e., remote client access, sophisticated workflows, etc...) that newer, cloud-based programs offer?
 
These are just some of the reasons some firms think they need to be "in the cloud." Realize that if you get more (Practice Management through a browser, new features that older, more established practice management programs do not offer, etc...), you will probably pay more. If your goal to be "in the cloud" means that you don't have to maintain (as much) or purchase a new server (as often), or worry about backups (as frequently), then there should be a cost for that. If you get more, you probably will end up paying more - isn't that what our life experiences have taught us?