Many positives can be gleaned from the challenges of the pandemic. One has been the legal profession’s further adoption of technology, particularly practice management systems. These systems struggled to take hold significantly until more firms considered their advanced cloud options when moving away from outdated network-based services. According to the recent ABA Legal Technology Survey Report, the adoption rate of practice management systems barely made it over 30% of responding lawyers. Even then some of the respondents were clearly confused about what practice management systems are, since they listed Microsoft Outlook as their practice management system of choice.
Solo and small firms can benefit greatly from practice management systems to help organize matter information and track the work being done. Many systems are available to meet these needs for lawyers. How to select the right system is a vital question for many solos and small firm practitioners. Below are some keys to help select an appropriate practice management system in a solo or small firm practice.
Understand what a practice management system is and is not
If you are not clear about what a practice management system is, consider the type of work lawyers do to determine if the system you are reviewing is a practice manager or not. Because practice management systems are typically relational databases, the functions offered to users can determine if the system meets the widely accepted definition of being a practice management system or not. Some legal technology categories besides practice management are billing, accounting, document assembly, document management, and litigation support. Other utilities do specific things like legal research or time tracking, too. The definition of practice management is further muddled with the use of terms like matter management to further define the function performed by some technology tools.
So, let’s clear this up – maybe. A practice management system is a relational database that allows users to gather records for contacts, events, tasks, matters, and many other related records. The functionality across these records includes searching and extended interoperability so that users can do things like generate documents from the information put in the database. The functionality sometimes is confused with litigation support technology, which tracks litigation, and includes functions like transcript storage and data extraction from those records. In some cases, firms have bypassed adopting practice management systems because they thought it was only for litigators. Also, Outlook is not a practice management system, because it does not have the front-facing database structure to manage multiple record types by matter as do true practice management systems. For instance, in Outlook, there is no easy way to generate reports across multiple records at once. These types of database limitations make practice management stand alone as a genre of technology.
Understand your needs and know what practice management can do for you and your practice
Next is to know what a practice management system can do for your and your practice. This step in the selection process begins with knowing your firm’s needs. Yes, you need to track contacts from potential clients to existing clients to third parties like opposing counsel, vendors, and folks you met while networking. You also need to know what’s going on with your matters, beyond the basic calendaring part of systems that help track events and tasks. The need to manage email and documents tends to top the lists of what else is needed from the practice management system. However, you should not overlook the need for time-based tracking and reporting, which will lead to billing and getting paid for your work. Most practice management systems will have this functionality. The different add-on and products which link to these systems to expand functionality will be discussed later.
Practice needs may also be specific to the types of cases you work on. The practice-specific needs will generally take advantage of the database functionality of utilizing different record types to track specific information. For instance, in a forms-intensive practice like immigration, the forms are highlighted in the program as a separate record type, and allow for built-in forms that contain exactly the type of information required for the practice. A good way to ensure your practice manager provides what you need is to enter a complete set of file matter information into the system, and pay close attention to the reports and information that can be generated from the information you put in the database.
A benefit of using a practice management system database is that if used properly, you will have all information about your matters, events, tasks, contacts, and more in one place. The database allows all users to access the centralized information and to make changes that are accessible to all users. This prevents duplicating efforts and provides up-to-date information to all users. The ability to track all communications and keep up with all of the matter-related information in the firm is valuable and can be leveraged for making important business decisions.
Know what goes in the system and how it gets there
When planning to implement a practice management system, be sure to know if you are planning to start fresh with all new cases and enter information from a particular point forward, or if you will be moving data from somewhere else, like another database or electronic file before beginning. Understanding that data will need to flow into the program consistently to make its use more effective is an early lesson for new users. Decide who can help you with onboarding data and what is specifically involved. If your data is being entered from existing data sets, you will want to ensure the mapping or matching of fields for the input are correct. A new system may require you to create custom fields to manage information that does not automatically have a place to reside in the new database. You must make sure a new program can handle this. You should also take into account the time and cost of cleaning up existing data and weigh it with starting anew. For effective implementation, know what will go into the new practice management system and how this information will get into the program.
Be clear about potential challenges with add-ons and linking
Often practice management systems will not natively provide all of the functionality you require. When this is the case, you may find the program remains viable as a solution for your firm because it instead offers the ability for you to add on features or link to other programs to get the functionality you need. If you have done a good job with assessing your firm’s needs, you will know if you require more than the program you are considering offers. When this is the case, you can look to see if the add-on solutions or linked programs can give you what you need.
Practice management solutions will sometimes offer links and add-ons for matter intake and tracking; rules-based calendaring; document assembly; document management; automated phone call management; email integration; word processing integration; legal research integration; advanced reporting; and general ledger accounting. Several utilities also can run alongside the practice management system, which also serve to round out the needs of practice management users whose programs do not fully meet their needs. Be sure you understand the additional cost involved, and that the functionality of the add-ons or linked programs provide what is needed.
Know your choices
Suitable choices for solo and small firm lawyers are plentiful. The functionality of the programs are also varied. Below is a list of many of the more popular programs that are suitable for solos and small firms. Some on the list come with accounting functions, and others without. Those without will typically require an add-on or link to another program for accounting. The list is not comprehensive, so be sure if you are shopping for a program to look to product websites for details, including pricing information, which is not included here. The general price you can expect for the systems, however, typically range from around $50 to $100 per user per month. Again, with add-ons and other programs to link to, the costs can increase as you may be required to also subscribe to those services at an additional $25 to $50 per user per month on average.
Practice management systems with no integrated general ledger accounting:
Practice management systems with billing and integrated general ledger accounting:
Do not panic if you have a practice management system that is not listed here. There are many other programs besides these popular services. Perhaps your service is newer or addresses a particular practice area’s needs more effectively. Many other good systems are available but did not get listed here. Again, this list is not comprehensive but mentions popular programs suitable for solo and small firm lawyers typically.
Know what you can learn from demos and training
Because you have so many programs to choose from, and because most programs have so many features, it is wise to understand what you will gain from getting a demonstration of a system, and getting training to learn how to best use a system in your practice. A demo is generally available from the sales team of any of the practice management vendors. Go into a session for a demonstration with your questions ready, to make sure the program has the functionality and capacity to do what you need it to do. Check reports the program can generate, and ask the demonstrator how the data entered got to the reports. The data input for the demo should track along with what you do in practice. If you opt for a self-guided tour of the program, which is easy to do with many of the programs offering free trials and even money-back guarantees for their products, then make sure you put in the type of cases you work on from start to finish. Remember to check the basic record types – events, tasks, contacts, and matters. Also look for how the program manages email, documents, billing, and if needed, accounting.
Training for practice management systems typically comes from online videos, online help menus and knowledgebases, or forums of existing users. Sometimes certified consultants or onboarding and training teams are available for the systems. Be sure to monitor the additional costs of such services when budgeting for your firm’s training. Seek training that covers the needs of most users and then focus on the system administrator or designated firm trainer’s needs. Training in segments of two hours or less, focused by role in the firm’s work, can help organize and make the training more effective.
Understand what to consider when deciding if and when to change products
Finally, know how to examine the effectiveness of your practice management system if you are considering switching products. Look at how your system is used, and whether and how effective your training on the use of the system has been. Typically, the need to move from one database to another occurs after an assessment of any deficiencies in the program. Keep in mind that in theory, a shift from one database to another seems straightforward. However, a clear direct transfer of the data is not always the case in practice. Be sure to again weigh the benefit of starting anew in a different program before ultimately deciding to switch products, despite how simple ending one subscription and starting another may seem.
If you do make the decision to move programs, be sure you have an adequate backup of all your data, and having it in triplicate will not hurt. Have a detailed plan to map data and match fields from one program to the new program. Also, have a plan in place to train users on how the new program’s functionality is replacing the functionality of the old program. This can go a long way in gaining new buy-in for the new service and make for an easier transition.
Using a practice management system these days with or without the pandemic effect on law practice for solo and small firms is virtually a no-brainer, but getting there may require some assistance. Utilizing these key pointers and working with the vendors of the products should make your transition to a new program, or learning more about the program you are already using, more beneficial to both you and your practice.
About the Author
Natalie Kelly is the legal management director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a leading civil rights and legal advocacy organization focused on fighting white supremacy and advancing human rights. She formerly was the State Bar of Georgia’s director of law practice management. Contact her on Twitter @NatalieRKelly.