Legal Practice Management Software or A La Carte?
Law firm practice management (PM) software is not always the solution for your law practice. You have to think about what best suits your law firm: All-in-one practice management solutions (e.g., Clio) vs. modular tools built for specific functions e.g, core tools like Microsoft 365 or GSuite, QuickBooks Online and Box.com, with specialty tools as needed like Factbox, Law Toolbox, Evernote, and shameless plug, LeanLaw for legal timekeeping and billing. You have make sure you get the basics right: timekeeping and billing, email, document storage and management and accounting. Every day you will send and receive emails, create documents and bill for your time. Make sure you get this part right.
I’m going to break down the issues you should consider:
Priorities: Make sure you prioritize those features that best match your core needs – whether a la carte or the full menu. Understand what you’re looking at and what is most important. This way, you can compare the specific function of different products against each other.
Necessities: Ask yourself, will I really use all the features in an all-in-one tool? Do I need a full practice management suite or am I better off using tools for specific functions? Will you feed the software the data it needs? These tools are only as good as the data you are willing to add. While it may seem slick, are you and your cohorts willing to invest the time to use it?
Flexibility: Can the all-in-one tool integrate for a smooth workflow with my other tools? Make sure you try it out for real and don’t just rely on what the sales rep says.
Interconnectedness: Does it work with the tools I already have? QuickBooks, Box.com, Outlook/Office365, GSuite? Can I integrate these tools into an automated workflow or do I have to do a manual workaround?
The Right Fit: Is the platform or tool built with my size practice in mind?
Exit Strategy: If I invest into a platform or tool, how difficult will it be to move to another platform if the tool isn’t working to my liking.
Yes, this is a lot of research, but if you find the right tools for your law firm, you can not only save money, but time. New software tools are built with the idea of automation, without the historical manual workarounds that you are used to, like entering your time on your yellow pad and into an excel document and then into an invoice. No attorney should ever have to enter time more than once with today’s legal timekeeping and billing software.
According to the American Bar Association, practice management (PM) software “provides attorneys with a convenient method of effectively managing client and case information, including contacts, calendaring, documents, and other specifics by facilitating automation in law practices.”
When you are in the market for practice management (PM) software, you need to do some serious thinking about whether PM software will be convenient or effective for you. To begin, think about which of your workflows is most important. To be clear, a workflow is just a repeatable sequence of processes needed to complete a task. I think legal timekeeping and billing (T&B) is most important workflow, so let’s use that as an example.
If you are starting a new practice, you don’t know yet what your best practices are. Once you get a feel for how you like to operate, assessing tools will become easier. Conversely, by adopting a practice management software from the beginning, you would be adopting their workflows: This isn’t awful, but doesn’t allow you to figure out for yourself what works best.
Timekeeping & Billing is a Core Workflow
Every law firm needs a timekeeping and billing (T&B) workflow. After all, you have to get paid. Your clients expect you to justify the charges through either a flat fee or hourly billing. T&B also feeds your accounting and business intelligence workflows, so it is critical to your business.
If the PM software you are considering doesn’t work for legal timekeeping and billing, forget about it.
Make sure timekeeping is easy enough that all the attorneys in your firm will use it. Think about what you need for the alternative fee arrangements your firm uses: fixed fees, hybrid fees, milestone fees, LEDES billing and so on. Invoicing should be handled with as little paper and staff involvement as possible. The software needs to automate the management of your trust accounts and produce all the reports you need.
Does the T&B Software Integrate with the Accounting Software?
Don’t overlook the accounting integration. Many PM tools claim to integrate, but really just dump general ledger entries into the accounting software for someone to clean up later. This costs you money and headaches. Talk to your accountant if you don’t clean up the books yourself.
If you can’t find legal legal timekeeping and billing features you like in PM software, take a look at standalone T&B products to see if you like any of them better. If you find a T&B product you really like, you can strategize about how to make your other workflows fit with it.
Can You Integrate Your Favorite Apps Into Your Practice Management Software?
Once you’ve found a T&B tool you like, think about other workflows that are crucial to your practice. Communication (email, contacts), scheduling, document management, case management. These workflows are the real test of PM software. If you’re not excited about the non-T&B workflows in the PM software, you’re not likely to use them. For many of these workflows, PM software struggles. Why would you use the email box or contact list in PM software when you have Outlook or GSuite? Why would you use the document management features if you like Box, Dropbox or OneDrive?
Think about how you will feel if you buy PM software and don’t use 90 percent of the features, because that happens a lot. PM software can make you feel like you paid too much for something that functions only as a legal timekeeping and billing tool.
Will You Be Disciplined to Load the Necessary Data Into Your PM Software?
There are firms that succeed with PM software. The key is to be willing to enter a lot of data into the tool, with continual extra steps beyond your usual workflow. Ask yourself if you are willing to dedicate the resources to feed your contacts, emails, documents, and client and case information into your PM tool, because this is what you need to do to take advantage of all the features. Give this a serious try during your trial period to see if you will actually do it.
Buying new software for your law firm is a serious research project. If you get it right, you can save not only money but hours of time that will pay huge productivity dividends in the future. And if you are not a solo attorney, your law firm colleagues must also like the software and be open to using it in order to get what you pay for. You don’t want to be the one who bought ANOTHER software suite that everyone hates.
If you buy a la carte software, you must identify which workflow is the most important. Remember, a workflow is just a repeatable sequence of processes needed to complete a task. Everyone has different ideas about core workflow. For some, it’s Timekeeping and Billing. For others email or document management. There is no right answer. You know your practice best.
Following are some core workflow assessments if you choose to go the A La Carte route:
Here’s the big difference: If you love Outlook, Office 365 works well and plays into the other Microsoft apps. It’s very convenient to bundle the subscription and receive professional email and the office apps in one payment. Office 365 allows you to bundle in apps (Word, Excel, Outlook, etc) with one user license, which is convenient.
- If you like Gmail, GSuite really works well and it’s easier to set up. Google still has a far more robust app store. And superior support. GSuite comes with Google Docs for free and works better on mobile (Android and iOS)
- Both Office 365 and Google:
- Operate on secure, Cloud-based infrastructure
- Enable you to share across calendar, email and contacts with your associates and clients
- Work with the Desktop application Outlook, allowing sync across all of your devices.
- Give you fully encrypted email for secure communication with clients
For most users, the simple question is do you like Gmail or Outlook?
The more you open your email in a browser (Chrome, Safari, Firefox) the easier the IT management. In this case, you would lean toward GSuite.
#2: Legal Document Management
Top Vendors: Box.com and NetDocuments. Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive are popular but raise concerns in a legal practice, due to security and encryption issues.
We have a blog post that tackles the difference between NetDocuments and Box.com. We prefer Box.com, although NetDocuments is a great solution as well. Box.com won out with cost, robustness of the app, integration and workflow accessibility. The main differentiator is that NetDocuments creates an integrated workflow whereas Box is more of a storage and collaboration tool where you have to develop your own workflow.
Considerations when you choose a document management system:
- Number of users, including collaborators outside your organization – this could add to the cost.
- What will the data look like when accessing from your tablet or other secondary devices?
- Total storage size and the maximum size of a single file.
- Are you comfortable working from the Cloud? Do you need all the data on your local machine? Is there a server?
- How data will be organized, tagged and managed?
- Integration with other key tools — Office 2016, GSuite, Practice Management. If it doesn’t integrate, there’s no point, no matter how sleek the software.
- How will the data be backed up to a secondary storage location?
- Can my tool provide user “rights” to ensure the right users have access and others do not?
- Does the tool allow for the migration of data from one user to another? Think: staff member leaving? Where does that data go?
- Can I migrate my data easily to another tool?
To get a real sense of the tool, take one matter and test the tool. Using it is the only way to truly tell how it’s going to work.
#3: Legal Timekeeping and Invoicing
Top Vendors: LeanLaw – hey, it’s our blog, Bill4Time, eBillity.
LeanLaw has been working with small law firms and solo attorneys to work out the kinks in the workflow. We focus only on lawyers. And LeanLaw has the deepest integration with QuickBooks Online so that you can best implement all the features QuickBooks has to offer.
Others will get bills out, but are unlikely to support a lean law practice.
- Workflow. Assess in terms of timekeeping, time sheets, invoice draft, invoice approval, invoice delivery and invoice tracking – all the steps involved.
- Prioritize timekeeping. If you can’t track time, you can’t bill time.
- Don’t enter data twice. Yellow pads waste time. Retyping an invoice wastes time.
- User interface – does it feel intuitive? Timekeepers use the tool every day. If it doesn’t feel good, it’ll be difficult to get them to track time.
- Flexibility: How do you need to structure your billing? Your legal billing software needs to be able to flow with how you bill. This is important.
- Overhead: The legal billing workflow fuels a lot of administrative overhead in most law firms. You can save a lot of money if you automate your timekeeping into your invoicing and then ultimately, into your accounting as well.
- Data: What data is most important to you? Can you extract it from the software?
- Flexibility: All timekeepers track time differently. You have to make sure your tools are flexible enough to accommodate all users. Mobile, desktop widget, browser-based – the tool you choose should offer all of these options. LeanLaw does.
- Payment: How do you want to get paid?
- Does the platform allow for electronic payment?
- How much manual work is involved in tracking those electronic payments?
- Can you replace checks with ACH?
- Does the tool allow you to see if the email sending the invoice was opened? LeanLaw does.
LeanLaw advocates the A La Carte approach to managing your practice.
We can advise you on how to set up a suite of tools and get them to work together in an automated way. This is a more efficient system because you have hand-picked each software based on your needs rather than buying practice management software where feature quality can vary widely.
Legal timekeeping is how most attorneys generate revenue, so if you don’t track time, you don’t get paid. It’s that simple. And if you don’t track your time each day, you will lose serious income.
How serious? Tardy timekeeping can cost you $25,000 to $100,000 year. Ridiculous, you say?
Not so. The amount you lose if you don’t keep time contemporaneously is shocking. According to studies compiled by Ann Guinn for her ABA blog, if you don’t get your time in by the end of the day, you’re likely to lose 10 percent of your billable hours. If you don’t get it in the next day, you’ll lose 25 percent. If you don’t get it in by the end of the week, you’ll lose a full 50 percent.
Realistically, that means you’ll be making up what you put on your timesheet. Your clients will sense something is wrong, making it more likely you won’t get paid or your bill will be contested. And then you have to spend time explaining the bill to them – if you can remember. And that takes time. And time you spend explaining a bill is time when you’re not earning. Vicious, right?
This is why LeanLaw believes that your core legal workflow has to be timekeeping and billing. Lawyers need to get into the habit of doing it daily.
Some habits are easy, but some like timekeeping, are not so appealing. Your legal timekeeping and billing software should be designed to make the billing workflow to be as simple as possible and help you get you into the habit of keeping time every day. Here are some considerations when looking at T&B Software:
On Your Favorite Device, Wherever You Are
Desktop, Laptop, Tablet, Mobile, iOS or Android — you need software to make it easy to enter time in seconds on whichever device is most convenient for you.
Never Enter Your Time More Than Once
Once you have entered your time, it should carry over into your invoices and then into your accounting. Total automation will save time and avoid mistakes.
Your data should live securely in the cloud. Lose your phone? Your desktop hard drive breaks? All the data will still there.
Creating a lean law firm is not just about technology, but also about behavior change — and that’s very personal. You will help yourself by using software that makes that change as effortless as possible.