Break it Down: Choose the best legal accounting software for your firm
In Part 1 of How to buy billing and accounting software for a mid-size law firm, we went over who needs to be involved in the decision for the new law firm software and how to go about determining what is essential to have and what is merely “nice” to have.
In Part 2, we’re getting into the nitty-gritty: practice management software or best-in-breed? Accounting platform or built-In? On-premise or cloud? So many elements to consider – which is why LeanLaw has taken pains to break it all down for you.
In Part 3, we’ll give you an extensive checklist of what you need to consider before you buy law firm software for your mid size firm. Keep reading…
Step 2: Choose Your Software
Understand Solutions from 30,000 feet
Practice Management? A big decision to make early on is whether you want all-in-one practice management software or best-in-breed legal billing and accounting software. The best thing about law firm practice management software is that it is fully integrated. The worst thing is it tends to be just OK at everything, not great at anything. With this mix, all-in-one software has a hard time meeting the needs of mid-size firms (our founder experienced this pain in years of using practice management software at his mid-size firm).
The reasons for this are not hard to understand. Remember the exercise you just went through mapping out your users’ needs? Imagine you are now expanding that to document and email management, calendar and docketing, case management and so on. The bigger and more diverse your firm is, the less likely a law firm practice management tool will fulfill all of your must-haves. This is not to say that some firms will not find the benefits of tight integration to outweigh the negatives, but understand it is rare. Most mid-size law firms choose best-of-breed.
Accounting Platform or Built-In? The next big decision is whether to choose an industry-standard accounting platform, like QuickBooks Online, or a tool with a built-in accounting system. A platform like QuickBooks has a lot of advantages (that’s why LeanLaw relies exclusively on QuickBooks):
- Over 100,000 accounting professionals trained in QuickBooks Online in the QuickBooks ProAdvisor Network
- 7 million businesses rely on QuickBooks. It’s a product of Intuit, a Fortune 500 company
- Connections to 5,000 banks to automate reconciliation
- Built-in payroll, payments. Invoice reminders and other automated functionality (some of this is only available in QuickBooks Online Advanced)
- Largest app ecosystem in the accounting industry, including many apps to improve the law firm billing workflow, e.g. LeanLaw, Bill.com, HubDoc, Expensify
- QuickBooks will be here for decades to come. One of their big bets for 2020 is to disrupt the mid-size law firm market, so they want you and have their eye on you. QuickBooks Online and QuickBooks Online Advanced work well for law firms and are only going to improve.
The built-in, boutique accounting system has two primary advantages: (1) it integrates well with the rest of the tool, and (2) the accounting system is customized for law firms, with features like built-in trust accounting. However, you will need to have a heart-to-heart with your accountant or bookkeeper who is not going to be happy about having to learn a proprietary accounting system compared to an industry standard like QuickBooks.
You should also look closely at whether you can offset most or all of the integration and customization advantages of a built-in accounting system by adding apps. To brag a little, LeanLaw’s integration and legal features stack up well against our built-in competitors. We’ve been able to focus on those features rather than reinvent the wheel by duplicating the QuickBooks accounting platform.
Nonetheless, if you decide a built-in is for you, here are some options:
- Zola Suite
On-Premise or Cloud? Another consideration is whether to choose an on-premise or virtualized on-premise cloud solution. To be clear: on-premise and virtualized tools are band-aid solutions. The world is going to the cloud. The list of advantages of a native-cloud solution is long:
- Open architecture and ability to integrate through APIs
- Continuous updating
- Enhanced security compared to on-premise (who has better security, Microsoft or your IT person?)
- Any time, anywhere access
- More appealing to younger attorneys and employees
- Usually less expensive
- If you are considering an on-premise tool, ask hard questions about the company’s commitment and ongoing investment in this solution. How many engineers are working on new features? Most investment goes into cloud solutions, not fixing legacy solutions.
Keep the Lawyers out of the Accounting
The second consideration is whether the software allows you to wall-off the lawyers from the accounting system. The managers of mid-size firms tend not to want the lawyers messing around in the accounting system or sending their own invoices.
Some of the legal billing software designed for smaller firms facilitates DIY invoicing and accounting by lawyers. If you’re OK with that, good luck. If you want a more disciplined invoicing workflow, your choices are narrower:
- LeanLaw + QuickBooks
- Rippe Kingston (built-in accounting)
- Several on-premise and virtualized options like Juris, Timeslips, PC Law, Prolaw
Make a List of Options
Now you know what your users need and you’ve looked at the options from a high level. The next step is to make a list of options you think best fits your firm’s needs. If you’re going down the built-in accounting road, you can skip to the step of comparing features. Otherwise, you need to pick an accounting platform and then a billing and invoicing integration to go with it. To make this process manageable, we recommend you start with accounting.
Choose Your Preferred Legal Accounting Software
The most complex and critical part of your law firm workflows is the accounting, so it should be your first priority in choosing your law firm software. There is a lot to balance, beyond features, including:
- Industry acceptance – how easy will it be to find people who know how to use it or expert accounting support?
- Can you integrate the legal customization you need?
- Does it automate workflows like bank reconciliation, payroll and payments, or are those separate or add-ons?
- What other app integrations are available to fill workflow gaps like invoice reminders, expense tracking, documentation and collections?
- Will they be around in 10 years?
Software options for a mid-size law firm:
- QuickBooks Online or QuickBooks Online Advanced
- Sage Intacct
Billing and Reporting Tools
Once you identify the products that have the answers you need to this list of questions, you are ready for a detailed comparison. Start with a feature checklist (we provide one at the end of this document), and walk through the accounting feature list with a sales rep.
Next, demo the product with each of your law firm user groups – have the software rep walk you through the workflow. Does it do what you need it to do? Ask to see the reports that you need. How does it work with the accounting platform? Really: In detail. Integration means a lot of different things – ask to see it.
Get a free trial or a sandbox account where you can play with the software. Test the customer support for knowledge and responsiveness. After this, you should have a preferred product or even better, a short list. It’s a good idea to have a back-up in case you can’t find the right fit with a legal timekeeping and invoicing tool.
Do a feature check comparison against your list: do you need customizations? Can they accommodate you? What’s the work-around if the feature isn’t available? Make sure you are clear about what the proposed software can accomplish.