Moving to a New Accounting System

♫ Start movin’ on, movin’ on I feel on a roll since you’ve been gone…♫
“Moving” by Ed Sheeran

One of the hardest decisions a law firm may have to make is to move from their existing accounting system to a new one. Time and circumstances change, and firms can outgrow their systems, the developers may change how the application works, the costs of maintaining a legacy system may become prohibitive, hardware that hosts the application may become outdated – there are many reasons for a firm to consider moving on. Certainly, this is not a decision to be taken lightly.

There is the whole process of how to select a new system to consider, and that decision will be unique to each firm, as there is ‘no one size fits all’ solution.  Here are some of the points to consider:

Start the Selection Process: Investigate the alternatives. There are many possible alternative solutions, each with a unique set of differences. Spreadsheets are excellent ways to help with this determination, with features set out in rows and alternative products listed in columns.

Evaluate the Alternatives: A major mistake that many firms make is to first look at the features of the products. Rather than focusing on the products, start by looking at your “must haves” and “would be great to haves.” Once you have your list, you are in a place to evaluate the alternatives based on your needs, rather than the bells and whistles that the products are offering.  This process helps drive the evaluation spreadsheet, as noted above.

Decide on One Product: There is no perfect solution. Each will involve some compromises; not all features of your legacy system will necessarily be found in each alternative and any new system will offer features not found in your legacy system. For example, you could be looking at an accounting system that offers general and trust accounting while another would also include practice management features. If you were accustomed to having practice management features in your legacy system, stepping down to just an accounting system may leave many of your users questioning the decision and wondering how this is a step forward.

Negotiate the Purchase: This is more art than science. As someone once said, everything is negotiable. Find out what is included and importantly, what is not. Determine cost implications if you grow or downsize.  Don’t agree to auto-renewal. Get a line-by-line breakdown if at all possible. Find out about updates and what each upgrade will cost and how often the application is updated. Is there a discount for agreeing to multiple years? What about satisfaction promises? Performance (uptime) promises? What remedies do you have if these representations and others, are not met?

Negotiate Support: How long will you get unlimited support? Once you start to pay for support, is it a per-call price or is there a blanket yearly cost?  What about commitments for uptime, support call response and timelines for resolutions?

Negotiate Training: Training will largely determine the success of the implementation. Get as much training for as long as you can.  Get everyone into the training process, especially if you have any dinosaurs. Have people in the firm who are particularly adept with the application serve as resource people when people run into problems. Great for them and great for you.

Worry about Data Privacy: Ensure that your data is and remains, private. Have your firm privacy officer review the contract to ensure that your firm remains onside of all data privacy laws and your privacy policy. The potential loss of reputation and client trust should drive this aspect of the negotiations.

Set Date to Start Conversion: At some point, you will need to set a date to begin converting your legacy data into the new system. Ensure that you have done all that you can to clean up your data to ensure a clean and hopefully trouble-free conversion.

Set Testing Date: Once the legacy data is being input, test, test, test! Bring in your least tech-savvy people and have them try to use the new system. What roadblocks do they run into? Have the developer address these concerns early to ensure that you demonstrate your focus on ensuring as trouble-free implementation as possible.

Set Cut-Over Date: Once you are reasonably satisfied with the performance of the new system, you have to set a date to start using the new system in practice. Maintaining dual systems is expensive and uses up precious resources. Try to ensure that dual systems will be maintained at the cost of the developer until you are satisfied that the new application is working reasonably as promised.

Keep to Your Deadlines: Many decision points are inherent in any conversion process as noted above. While these deadline dates need to be flexible, they also need to reasonably stay on schedule to keep the entire process moving forward successfully.

Evaluate the Process: Take the time after the process to note the lessons learned  during the entire process.  Record the take-aways for future projects.

All firms, once any new application is selected, must go through a similar data conversion process to cut over from a legacy system to the new application. Here is an overview of some of the points to consider in that regard:

Clean Your Data.  Chances are your data dates back years, possibly decades. The old expression GIGO “Garbage in, Garbage Out” – applies here. You will be relying on someone to migrate your old data to the new system – and that involves trying to achieve as good an overlap between the old system and the new one. However, if data has been improperly entered, is ‘dirty’ or imperfect, this will cause no end of grief when trying to move it into the new system. Take time to clean up the data fields that will be moved to speed up the conversion process and reduce headaches.

Get Buy In: Acquiring the best-fitting software may be pointless unless everyone in the firm buys into the project, commits to using the new system, and works to achieve the same goals. Passive-aggressive behaviors, sabotage or simply working around the system all reduce the likelihood of a successful launch. Your new system may incorporate features not found on the earlier system that will benefit the whole firm if adopted by all. Be aware of the potential barriers and actively plan to overcome them.

Work with Your Developer and Conversion Team: Chances are that a conversion expert will be brought in to make the conversion easier, faster, and orderly. Their experience gained from prior conversions make these people worth their salt. Listen to them, bring them into the process and follow their advice. Chances are this will save you headaches and grief down the road.

Go Slow: Putting your foot on the accelerator is probably not the best thing to do.  Slow and steady wins the race rather than being rushed and potentially having to go back and correct things that were not well understood at the time.

Train, Train, Train: The new system represents a different way of doing things. Processes must be unlearned and new ones taught. Patience is a virtue, but unfortunately in a high-pressure law firm, that may be scarce. Put the time into training to bring people with you and reduce the errors that may occur when people try to figure it out themselves.

Invest in Managerial Oversight: Your insight into the firm cannot be matched by any outside advisor. Work with your team to ensure that the best decisions are being made at each point in the process.

After all, once the conversion is over and you are moving down the highway with your new system humming, you will say that you feel on a roll since the old system is gone…

About the Author

David J. Bilinksy is a barrister and solicitor in British Columbia, and is the principal of Thoughtful Legal Management, a practice management consultancy focusing on legal technology and law firm finance. He was the practice management advisor and lawyer for the Law Society of British Columbia for 20 years.

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