The ins and outs of law practice management software
It’s not easy being a lawyer these days. Legal clients expect more from their lawyers than ever before. Because of technological advancements, consumers are used to being provided with instantaneous access to information by their service providers, and as a result, require the same from their lawyers.
Keeping up with increasingly demanding clients while also staying on top of a busy law practice isn’t easy. That’s where law practice management software comes in. It helps streamline law firms so that lawyers can meet their clients’ needs while running an efficient, profitable law firm.
Legal practice management software isn’t anything new; it’s been around for decades now. However, today’s cloud-based software is a game-changer, since it provides lawyers with 24/7 access to their law firm’s data from any location using an internet-enabled device. That’s why my focus for this column throughout the previous year has been on legal cloud-based software. It offers lawyers the convenience of mobile, flexible access to case-related information at an affordable, cost-effective price.
As is the case with other types of legal software, cloud-based tools are your best—and increasingly only—option if you’re in the market for law practice management software. This is because many companies are phasing out their premise-based solutions.
Cloud-based practice management software was first rolled out in 2008 or so, and there are lots of programs to choose from. The programs that have been around the longest include Rocket Matter, Clio, MyCase (note that I am the legal technology evangelist with MyCase), CosmoLex, PracticePanther and Firm Central.
First and foremost, because there are a good number of products on the market, you’ll need to learn about the provider—and any integration partners—before signing up for a trial. Determine how long the company has been in existence, where it is located and whether it has received funding or has been acquired. Because the company and any integration partners will be hosting your law firm’s confidential data, you have an ethical obligation to ensure that you understand how the data will be handled by each software company. That ethical duty includes knowing who will have access to it, how and when it will be backed up, how you can export your firm’s data should you need to, and in what format, among other things.
Next you need to thoroughly research the features of each program you’re considering. Different software platforms have different strengths and varying approaches to software development. Some build most features into the software, some offer many features through integrations with other software tools, and others take a blended approach, with some built-in features and some integrations.
One factor to keep in mind when researching law practice management software is price. All software has a base price, but many companies offer tiered pricing, with increasingly more features included in the higher tiers. Integrations are often included in the higher tiers, and depending on the company’s pricing scheme and how integrations are set up and priced, you may have to pay subscription fees for both the integration tool and the practice management software. Alternatively, you may be required to pay a higher subscription cost for the practice management software to have access to the software integrations.
There are many basic features common to most law practice management software programs—the key is to find the tool that works best for your firm’s specific needs. So it’s important to identify the top problems that you’re trying to solve by using this software and then choose a platform that excels at addressing those particular pain points. What follows is a description of many of the most common features, along with links to my prior articles that address them more fully.
One key feature included in most programs is document management, which provides a built-in organizational system for your documents and often includes document collaboration and sharing features that allow secure external sharing with clients, co-counsel, experts and more. You can learn more about document management and how these features are incorporated into law practice management software in my earlier column on that topic.
Law practice management software also offers lots of useful tools for assigning and managing tasks and to-dos, along with calendar management features. Some include task management features that allow you to establish task templates (called workflows) at the start of a case that automatically calendar important dates that relate to specific types of cases. Others include rules-based calendaring features that automatically apply the court rules and statutory deadlines of specific jurisdictions to the due dates of a particular matter at the start of a case. You can learn more about rules-based calendaring here.
Another important element is time-tracking. With it you can you can track and enter time contemporaneously no matter where you are using a mobile device, thus ensuring that you capture—and charge for—all of your billable time. You can learn more about time-tracking features and how they are incorporated into law practice management software here.
Next there are legal billing features, which reduce the steps needed to send out invoices to clients by automatically generating editable invoices using the billable time entered via the time-tracking features. Other information, such as LEDES billing codes, is also often automatically included in the invoice. Once it’s in final form, the invoice can then be instantaneously sent to the client for payment. You can learn more about legal billing features and how they are incorporated into law practice management software here.
Another feature that is an important part of the billing process is payment processing. With this feature, clients can immediately pay via credit card or ACH payments upon receipt of an invoice. You can learn more about payment processing options and how they are incorporated into law practice management software here.
Finally, all practice management software should include secure communication and collaboration features. These features are all the more important in light of Formal Opinion 477, an ethics opinion issued by the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility in 2017, wherein the committee concluded that unencrypted email may not always be sufficient for client communication and advised lawyers to assess the sensitivity of information on a case-by-case basis and then choose the most appropriate and sufficiently secure method of communicating and collaborating with clients. One such alternative to email that is inherently more secure is using the communication portals built into law practice management software. You can learn more about the benefits and features of client portals here.
So there you have it—the ins and outs of law practice management software and tips to help you choose the right platform for your law firm. If you’re not already using law practice management software, 2019 is the perfect time to start. You have lots of options available to you; it’s simply a matter of choosing the right platform for your law firm. Good luck!
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York, attorney, author, journalist and the legal technology evangelist at MyCase, legal practice management software for small firms. She is the nationally recognized author of Cloud Computing for Lawyers and is co-author of Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier, both published by the American Bar Association. She also is co-author of Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for ABAJournal.com, Above the Law and the Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. Follow her on Twitter @nikiblack, or she can be reached at [email protected]