Solo practitioner John Peek, based in Andalusia, Ala., has been practicing law for 14 years. Most of his work consists of auto liability cases, which involve travel and complicated case files. He had been using several software systems to keep track of files and bills.
But recently Peek began using one system for everything. Time Matters practice management software allows him to access documents, e-mail, calendars and phone records, as well as manage time and billing. Designed to track and organize a lawyer’s work, Time Matters has become “the central point of input or contact for the whole office,” he says.
Peek says the accounting features aren’t as capable as other accounting packages and the document manage- ment features aren’t as robust as a large law firm would want, but they fit his needs.
Usually, back-end functions of a law firm, like time and billing and accounting, have little to do with the front-end practice of law. Most law firms like to keep it that way, but software vendors have been slowly integrating back-end and front-end software. “The main problem in a lot of places is that many lawyers in a firm don’t know what’s going on with the financial side of the business,” says Sasan Goodrazi, a vice president with Intuit, which makes Quickbooks, a popular accounting system for law firms. “It’s important to know whether a bill has gone out the door or not.”
Do It on the Desktop
Software for time and billing and for accounting has become more accessible to attorneys. It can be used to track time, bill clients and determine the most profitable lawyers and clients. The same software can integrate with a calendar, contact information and communications-tracking software so lawyers don’t have to switch between programs to figure out their billable hours. And by integrating with document management or case management software, it becomes easier for lawyers to keep track of how long they work on a project or for a particular client.
One drawback is that more software packages are handling functions for which they were not designed. That can spell trouble down the line.
Stephen Collins, president of legal financial software firm Juris, used to be the chief financial officer for a big dotcom advertising firm. During those years, he says, he saw lots of companies buy software that promised to do more than it ever could. “There is always a tug of war between whether you should buy software that claims to be a Swiss Army knife or whether you should just buy the best knife or screwdriver,” says Collins.
Software companies will admit that software suites do a lot of different things but tend not to be good at all of them. “We understand that lawyers have different needs, which is why we give our customers the choice to use any software they choose,” says Scott Hindenlang, director of market planning for LexisNexis, which owns Time Matters. So far, it doesn’t look like lots of law firms are going for the all-in-one solution. According to the 2003 ABA Legal Technology Survey, most firms still use different software for accounting, calendaring, databases and project management.
“Integrating databases is not a hard thing,” Collins says. “There’s no reason you can’t use the same software you’ve been using in an integrated fashion.”
But for a lawyer like Peek, one system that can do multiple jobs, no matter how limited, can be an advantage. “Just because I work in a small firm,” he says, “doesn’t mean I don’t have the same technology as a large law firm.”