As clients become increasingly adept at spotting legal professionals who offer efficient, high-value services — smart lawyers and firms are adopting technology that enhances their productivity. In a mobile computing environment (where smartphones and tablets have earned a place in the courtroom and the boardroom) these productivity gains often come via cloud-based software providing integrated practice management tools.
What Constitutes “Practice Management” Software?
“Practice Management” is a general term for software packages providing a suite of productivity-enhancement tools to practitioners and firms of all sizes. (Note: Some software solutions are designed to focus on a specific information management need — such as the management of legal documents or court cases — so it’s important to take a close look at what is/isn’t included in each provider’s product offering.)
Among the most common features included in Practice Management software are: Calendaring and Docketing, Case Management, Contact Management, Document Assembly, Time Tracking and Billing.
Getting Clear About Your Software Needs
The all-important first step in considering practice-management software solutions is to get clear about the specific practice-management needs for you and your firm. This clarity-of-purpose will serve as a useful filter — focusing your attention on mission-critical capabilities, and screening out those software options that simply don’t add value where you need it most.
Choosing A Practice Management Software Solution
Early on in the selection process, do your homework (and ask your I.T. staff) to learn which cloud-based software options are best able to interface with your existing systems. (For example: Does your office manager or accountant use a common accounting system such as Quickbooks? Make sure the cloud-based practice management options you consider are compatible.)
When you have narrowed-down the list of prospective solutions, arrange to speak with other lawyers/firms that use those systems. (Search “practice management” forums to find conversation threads that relate to each software option. Then contact the commenters who strike you as most knowledgable.) Software providers themselves also can be helpful in putting you in touch with their satisfied clients — but bear in mind that these testimonials don’t constitute an unbiased cross-section of the software’s user base. Ask tough questions about key factors — such as the the responsiveness of a provider’s tech support personnel.
Cloud Software Security Issues
Whether a legal professional stores information locally (on the firm’s server or a PC’s hard drive) or in the cloud — security is an important issue. At the very least, make sure that every web-based software provider under consideration employs high-level data-encryption practices. (Get specifics from each provider — and feature this security information in your head-to-head comparisons of various software packages.)
Professional Ethics Standards for Cloud-Based Information
Committees on “Professional Ethics” in most state bar associations have been reviewing cloud-computing issues for years. Most commonly, these groups’ guidelines approve the use of cloud-based information storage services (such as Dropbox, Evernote and Google Docs) so long as an attorney exercises “reasonable care” to ensure security and protect privacy. For cloud-based software managing legal offices and cases, the issues can be more complex — especially concerning matters of privacy and confidentiality. (See guidelines offered through national and state bar associations.)
A Sampler of Cloud-Based Software Options
If you’re still “at the top of the funnel” — and just beginning to consider cloud-based solutions — we hope the list below will help “jump-start” your research. (Presented in alphabetic order; inclusion here should not be considered an endorsement.)
- Amicus Attorney
- LexisNexis Firm Manager
- MerusCase Review
- Rocket Matter
- Time Matters
- Tritek Case Management
Practice Management Benefits Come at a Cost
The potential benefits of cloud-based practice management software can’t be denied. In the right hands these integrated tools will help practitioners capture more billable time, assemble documents more quickly and manage schedules with greater efficiency. Claiming these advantages, however, does come at a cost…
First, there is a “learning curve” — as legal staff members migrate to the new technology. Second, this training period means that your workplace may actually be less productive before it becomes more productive. Third, cloud-based services come as a subscription — often at a monthly cost of about $50 per user. So if you’re leading the charge “into the cloud,” be sure to manage expectations about what will be required to get where you want to go.