Ambrogi on Tech

Thomson Reuters’ cloud platform Firm Central emphasizes integration—at a cost

Posted Nov 1, 2013 1:19 AM CDT
By Robert Ambrogi

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Photo of Robert Ambrogi by Len Irish.

There is gold in them thar clouds—or so it would seem, given the number of companies launching cloud-based practice-management platforms for lawyers and law firms.

One of the latest to join the rush is a goliath of legal technology, Thomson Reuters, which earlier this year unveiled its cloud platform, Firm Central, designed for firms with fewer than 10 lawyers.

Just five years ago two companies, Rocket Matter and Clio, introduced within weeks of each other the first Internet-based practice-management platforms. Ever since, lawyers’ use of this technology has grown with increasing momentum. In just the past year, the percentage of lawyers who use the cloud rose from 21 to 31 percent, according to the ABA’s latest legal technology survey. The most common activity there, after document storage, is practice management.

DEFINED BY DIFFERENCES

Today a variety of companies offer cloud practice management. All are accessed through the Internet using any standard Web browser. All allow mobile access. All enable management of cases, clients, contacts and calendars. Most include document storage. All are sold through monthly subscriptions, generally ranging from $40 to $60 per lawyer.

So it is their differences that distinguish these products. Some offer automatic document assembly. Some integrate with third-party applications such as Dropbox and Google Docs. Some include client portals for access to documents and billing. Some provide full-featured accounting and invoicing.

For Firm Central, its standout feature is tight, single sign-on integration with related Thomson Reuters products, most notably WestlawNext. Log on to your Firm Central dashboard and—besides the components you would expect, such as your matters, clients and contacts, appointments and tasks, and documents—you can jump directly into WestlawNext to perform legal research, into Westlaw Form Builder to assemble legal documents, and into Drafting Assistant for help in drafting and formatting legal documents.

This pairing of research with practice management is a match made in lawyer heaven. Begin your research and save the results to your matter folders. Upload a legal brief and Firm Central automatically formats all the references with KeyCite flags and hyperlinks to WestlawNext. Similarly, if you use Form Builder to create a document, it will automatically extract pertinent case and contact information from Firm Central.

A second standout feature is its integration with Microsoft Outlook and Windows Explorer. Install an unobtrusive plug-in and, for each matter you create in Firm Central, it adds corresponding folders in Outlook and Explorer. Drag an email or document to the desktop folder to add it to the matter in Firm Central. Create an appointment in Outlook and it is tied to the corresponding matter in Firm Central.

THE DOWNSIDE

Integration, however, is not always Firm Central’s strong suit. In lieu of its own time-and-billing component, Firm Central integrates with a third-party product, eBillity. It is a fine product, but the integration between the two platforms is clumsy.

You can access eBillity from within Firm Central with one click, and all your Firm Central matters and clients appear, as if magically, within eBillity. But there the integration ends. To keep time or check accounts, you need to switch from one platform to the other.

The biggest downside to Firm Central is that all this integration carries a price. Firm Central’s base monthly subscription is $35 per seat, which is cheaper than most of its competitors. But that does not include the optional eBillity, which adds another $25. For the other Thomson Reuters integrations—WestlawNext, Westlaw Form Builder and Drafting Assistant—each requires its own subscription.

Even more unfortunate, when you ask what it would cost to add these products, you are directed to a salesperson rather than given a direct answer. What separates Firm Central from the practice management pack is its integration with other Thomson Reuters products. Unfortunately, the only way to get those integrations is through extra subscriptions.

For this reason, Firm Central is a good choice for lawyers who subscribe to WestlawNext. Others may find one of the other platforms is a better fit.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "High in the Cloud: Firm Central emphasizes integration—at a cost."

Robert Ambrogi is a Rockport, Mass., lawyer and writer. He covers technology at his blog LawSites and co-hosts the legal affairs podcast Lawyer2Lawyer.

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