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Management Software for Law Firms
by Barbara Lewis MBA and Dan Otto MBA

If your law firm is like others, you have probably purchased separate and individual software products to handle time and billing, accounting, conflict management, scheduling, contact management, case management, accounts receivable and payable, docketing and calendaring, document management and/or payroll. Historically, most of these diverse programs could not communicate with each other.  More recently, certain programs have begun to partially interface with each other since software companies have undergone mergers.  In certain cases, links that patch systems together have elicited the “it’s-not-us-it’s them” response from the software companies after you have waited 90 minutes for tech support. This multilevel finger pointing magnifies exponentially when more than two vendors are involved, leaving you in an integration spiral that would confound both Watson and Crick.

The process of evaluating and implementing the various software applications for law firms has never been a more complex task.  Despite the consolidation in the software industry in the recent years, there are still numerous companies offering many applications from which to choose.   One of the most often asked questions, which we receive, is “What software can do it all?”

            In the search for that one software that combines all the various law firm management functions above, we reviewed 104 products.   The software was evaluated on the following qualities: comprehensiveness, integration, ease of use, customization capability, available support, industry focus, reporting capability and reasonable price for small to mid-size law firms. 

            In each of the functional areas above, we defined specific requirements that we wanted:

Documents – capability to attach or link documents with cases and contacts, integration with MS Office, particularly Word and Excel.

Users – availability of several levels of access for administration staff, clients, associates, partners, accountants, contract professionals, etc. 

Access – Remote access through the internet. PDA (Palm OS) compatible, integration with Outlook

Contact – availability of multiple contact types e.g. the client is also a vendor and referral source; capability to easily convert the prospect to a client. Input and query on referral data.

Case management – availability of schedule, cost and quality measurements.

Time reporting – easy access to case details, automatic timers; easy entry of time with customizable rate structures, cost recovery.

Billing – multi-level chart of accounts; customizable reports, Excel link or downloads, split fee, fixed fee, contingency, liens and multiple trust accounts.

Accounting -- integrated time reporting, prebills, billing, collection, payables and receivables.

Productivity- availability of partners and managers to view daily billed hours of all time reporting professionals, instantaneous case status reports, collection performance, customizable comprehensive capability to generate reports across all facets of the firms business from prospects to collection.

General function - customizable fields and reports; remote access; level of documentation and ease of understanding; and security, security, security.

          Our first cut through the pile of products was for the comprehensive requirement. Even if the system stated that it links to another vendor’s software, it was excluded. Having witnessed, first-hand, the tech support issues that evolve with multiple vendors, we placed great emphasis on having a single point of contact for integration, customization and technical assistance. Next, we next winnowed the survivors on price. In this instance, we were dealing with a small firm and wanted to keep the initial costs below $1,500 per user. This included installation, data transfers, testing and training.

          Once we identified the top five software products, we acquired sample programs or demonstrations through downloads from the Internet or requests for a CD-ROM to review the layout and user interface. Then we asked for a face-to-face demonstration with a sales representative. When we narrowed the field to the one that scored the highest in all the areas -- ProLaw -- we arranged for the company to make a presentation to the law firm interested in replacing its fragmented system with a cohesive product.

          The company conducted a demonstration with a knowledgeable sales representative who answered a myriad of questions from everyone in the firm who would be using the system, which is both back-office (accounting, billing, etc.) and front-office (case management, calendaring, etc.). We watched as assistants and attorneys alike marveled at what a truly integrated system can do.

          Next, we contacted 10 law firm customers with a list of questions such as: Why did you decide to purchase the system? How long did it take to transition to the new software? How much training was required? What do you think of software? What do others think of software? How has it helped operate firm? What are most useful components? How much support did the vendor provide? What would you do differently? We interviewed attorneys as well as back office users. The overwhelming response was extremely positive, although certain users said that they were not employing the software to its full potential.

          Once the partners decided to purchase the system, we developed a project management document on the logistics of the transition from the fragmented system to the one software product. We decided to install the software on the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s and transfer the data and test the system during that week when certain staff was on vacation. The project had begun in August when we first analyzed the 104 software products. First, we required system verification that the in-place capabilities matched the software requirements of the new system. Next, we sent the vendor sample data to test conversions.

          Concurrently, the firm organized all the document files that were to come across to the new system. Attorneys and staff had gigabytes of data that could be archived instead of converted to the new system. Data was separated into former and current clients with the former clients being stored on a segmented section of the server. This was a necessary clean up, regardless of the new system and took about one week for everyone to complete.

          The vendor educated users though on-premise training, on-line training, manuals and training for two people at their headquarters in Albuquerque. All of the technical support and user support is one telephone number, since all the systems are integrated. No longer do people need to contact a variety of vendors before the system problems are resolved.

          For one month, the law firm ran two billing systems to check against each other. Few problems occurred and the transition was smooth with available support from the vendor. Three months later, the system is fully functional with a plethora of benefits and cost-savings for the firm and the attorneys and staff.

          Some of the benefits include immediate time recording of hours and daily monitoring of time by partners, if desired; time is automatically connected to accounting; easy access to clients’ files on the server; and critical management reports including diverse areas such as case management, collections and referral sources.

          For the law firms that have spent thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars in piecing together a system from several software vendors, the thought of replacing the multiple systems with one software product may be too hard to fathom. However, the fragmented system can be costly and frustrating, especially when the systems cannot be linked to each other. Each software product may require a separate support contract. Entering the same data in more than one system can cause mistakes as well as costing labor time in the duplication of effort. Multiple systems also limit the amount of cross-functional reports available.

          If you are searching for one comprehensive system, there are several cost-effective software products that do all of the functions in operating the back and front office functions. Before making your purchase, map out a detailed strategy, which should include examining the software options available; matching those options with the needs of the firm such as comprehensiveness, price and functionality; taking your top three choices for a test drive; and requesting a personal demonstration by the vendor with a variety of users viewing. Vendor balking at the thought of spending time at your site on a sales call portend frustration in future support requests after the sale. Check references thoroughly; negotiate the contract and then develop a logistical project plan for implementation and data transfer.

          Involve your staff in the evaluation process as much as is practical to generate ownership. Take advantage of training prior to installation to accelerate the learning curve. Learn and use the basics first then add more difficult tasks of the system. Since your new comprehensive system is designed by the same vendor, there should be a lot of user interface commonality between functions. Designate a champion for the system transference and a resident expert for system operations. Be patience, you will probably be using functions that were not available with your old system. Lastly, inspire communication between users, trade tips and shortcuts and reward staff members who take the initiative to use the full capabilities of the system.

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