Think of it. Where do you spend most of your time during the workday? In your email, right? Yet, all of these practice management systems exist separately, outside of Outlook–although most do provide sync and integration. But, wouldn’t it be great if someone could develop a practice management system that exists within, that operates within, Outlook itself? Well, someone has . . . and you won’t be getting rich off your idea.

Hey, don’t blame me, you’re the one who sat on it.

Credenza is a recent entry into the “Law Practice Management System” market. Why it has been named Credenza, I don’t know; as far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with furniture. Their slogan, however, is catchy: “Improve Your Outlook”. (.500 would be a tremendous baseball average.) And, the improving your Outlook part is what Credenza offers that is entirely unique in the arena of law practice management systems. While other practice management programs are systems separate (residing on your computer, or at a dedicated server) from Outlook, and sync with Outlook, Credenza is an add-on to Outlook, operating, in essence, then, as a set of functionalities and functional improvements grafted onto Outlook. Outlook itself is not a practice management system; Credenza, though, turns it into one.

Credenza works by engaging Outlook in a couple of different ways: It creates new functionality within Outlook; and, it improves existing functionality within Outlook. The most immediately noticeable change to Outlook that Credenza makes upon installation is the addition of three new panels at the lower left-hand corner of the screen. You’ll begin to see options for “Matters”, “Time Sheets” and “Phone Calls”. The “Matters” option is the most important part of the Credenza system, as it is the organizing principle for the whole she-bang. This is where you are labeling your case files, as “matters”: by client name, file number . . . however you do it. The baseline for Credenza’s operation is in the association of Outlook activities with matters, so that you can have options for viewing a clearer picture of all activity within each matter. In using Credenza, you will cause to be assigned to each activity its root matter. When creating a new matter, you can adopt rules for associating activities, and can even establish certain billing parameters, from the word “go”.

The “Matters” tab is one way that Credenza adds new features to Outlook; creating new activity panels is another way. Credenza, for example, allows you to track phone calls. Once you pick up the phone, you open a new phone call note. When you open the note, a timer will automatically start, which timer you stop when you complete the call. You can establish rules for archiving calls (to specific matters, e.g.), and can dial out from your computer (using an existing Outlook feature). And, once you train yourself to archive phone calls, and to use the option regularly, all the records for your phone calls will become activities in Outlook, can be viewed under specific matters, and can be billed out. The “Phone Calls” activity addition is a boon for careful attorneys, and sure beats sticky notes. Credenza also allows you to capture time using Outlook activities old and new (the new being Credenza elements introduced). Given the amount of time you operate in Outlook, the use of Outlook activities for tracking time is perhaps the truest measure available for how your time is actually spent.

Although Credenza is a wonderful time tracker, it cannot appropriately be called a billing platform. Clicking on the “Time Sheets” icon will allow you to view processed and unprocessed time entries, for a filtered time period. In order to bill for that time, you’ll need to export to your billing platform. Credenza provides templates for “posting” (i.e.–exporting) to TimeSlips and Quickbooks, as well as wizards for posting to other systems. Credenza keeps track of bills that have been posted, and disables billing for those–so you’ll never be allowed to double-bill. Time entry functionality exists all over the place in Credenza, and not just at and around the “Time Sheets” view. You can make a time entry from any Outlook activity view. The simplicity and ubiquity of the time capture feature of Credenza is inescapable–in a good way. Credenza even provides a “Time Entry Assistant”, coming formally dressed in tuxedo t-shirt, because it’s formal, but also knows how to party. One of my favorite niche features of Credenza is that the system allows you to bill at settled increments (e.g.–at 6 minutes). In addition to the main additions that Credenza makes to the standard Outlook menu, it also provides: flexible reporting options; a date calculation function that determines due dates by calendar or business days, and can account for statutory holidays; a documents relation option that associates file paths for documents to Credenza matters (so that you can view documents, in addition to activities, at the “Matters” window); a conflicts checking system (global search); and, a chronology view of associated activity for each file, covering historical and future events.

Besides the additional functionality that Credenza adds to Outlook, Credenza also improves upon the existing functionality in Outlook. It adds one-touch time entry and matter association options to emails, appointments, tasks and notes. It adds two new columns to email (inbox), task and note views, showing matter association and time entry status. Credenza allows you to automatically associate activities to matters (e.g.–emails to johndoe@gmail.com always become associated with the John Doe matter), and to automatically associate time entry to activities accomplished within matters (generally, think along the lines of Outlook rules). If you don’t like that, you can ask Credenza, instead of automatically processing items, to remind you to do so. If you hate to be nagged, you can turn off the reminders all together, and proceed manually. If you’re really a free spirit, and you don’t want to be held down by the standard set-up for Credenza, you can add custom fields, and remove some existing fields. Credenza also allows you to associate Outlook contacts to matters, and to assign those contacts “roles” (e.g.–judge, opposing counsel, witness), for further definition, within the context of matters. Associating contacts in this way becomes helpful for conflict checking purposes, providing additional a priori information. If you frequently work form your smartphone, you can associate activities to matters by including the matter name in the notes field of a newly-created activity (e.g.–Matter: John Doe). You also have the option to work away from the office without attaching tagging notes, and to associate later, when you have returned from going mobile, to be back at your desk.

Overarching all of this is the menu that really ties everything together in Credenza: the Matter View. In the Matter View, you can choose to see a list of all activities associated with a matter, or you can filter for sets of particular activities associated with a matter. You can also view or perform customizations here. If part of the appeal of Credenza is that it looks and feels like Outlook, this is the part of Credenza that looks and feels most li
ke a law practice management program.

Credenza also offers collaboration features for small numbers of associated persons (up to three), labeled by the Credenzers as “work groups”. Existing users may invite new users to, and invited persons may accept invitations for, Credenza work groups. Within a work group, each user shares any activities that have been associated to matters by any other user, such that an effective change in one place in the work group takes effect over the entire work group, immediately. Work groups offer some added collaborative features, e.g.–phone callbacks can be assigned; shared calendars and a drag and drop feature between calendars are present; and, timekeepers are specified and may be assigned. New views include the ability to see which team members are assigned to which activities. I must say that I really like the collaborative views that are provided in the work group environment: the ability to view a personal calendar in relation to, and abutting, the shared group calendar is extremely useful; and, the same sort of viewpoints gets applied to tasks and notes, as well.

Credenza has some very impressive features, as relayed above; and, there are a number of significant advantages to using Credenza; however, there are some drawbacks to the system, as well–the most obvious being that, if you don’t have Outlook, you’re fairly out of luck. But, in choosing the Outlook platform, Credenza has gone for the largest portion of the business email market: I understand that. Collaboration is limited to three persons. This makes it difficult for larger offices to effectually use the product. There are no administrative controls, either, in the work group setting. The only thing that users can do is to hide information by not associating activities to matters. A more flexible system would be an improvement. The largest potential problem of all, however, is that Credenza runs as an Outlook add-on, which is both its best feature, and its most vexing bogeyman. Outlook is the lifeblood of modern practice. If Credenza causes your Outlook to go wonky, or to run slowly, it’s a serious problem. If Credenza incapacitates your Outlook, it’s a potential disaster. One immediate issue I have had in using Credenza is that it has slowed my Outlook, and has caused some odd things to happen with some incoming messages (text disappears at second opening). Of course, I must temper this by saying that I am, perhaps, an outlying test case. Due to the nature of my work, I have a number of add-ons to Outlook already. Credenza does test for compatibility with add-ons, but it’s impossible to test for every add-on, and for every combination of add-ons. The issues that I had, though, would not immediately stop me from using Credenza, and more time with the product could allow me to access a fix, perhaps through the use of a nifty little feature that allows you to tag an email error message, or wonky email message generally, to be sent directly to Credenza email support. And, since Credenza is an Outlook add-on, you can always disable the add-on and/or remove the program.

In the final analysis, I think that the advantages of Credenza far outweigh the negatives, and potential negatives, of Credenza. It is remarkably robust for a new program. And, it is uniquely impressive. If you want to take Outlook to the level of a professional practice management system, Credenza is the only way to go.

But, as I always say (well, as Levar Burton always says, and as I continue to rip him off), “Don’t Take My Word For It”. Visit the Credenza website, and check out their features list, their FAQs, their training videos, and their array of support options.

If you discover that you have an interest in potentially adopting Credenza for your use, there’s only one way to find out for sure whether it’s the right fit: hop onto the free trial for a couple of weeks.

And, if you decide to buy, you’ll be pleased to know that I have saved the best for last: Credenza only costs $9.95 per month, per user.

. . .

Liner Notes

The other day, I was on the train, my iPod being on shuffle, like e e cummings. At one point, the shuffling resting upon Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon”, I became taken in– I must have listened to it, like, five times in a row. (I only have one question: What exactly is a “karma chameleon”? The Geico gecko starring “My Name Is Earl“?) I do love cheesy pop tunes. And, this was one of my Dad’s old CDs that I had imported; so, we can only assume that a love for bubble gum pop music is genetic. Beyond the culture club, I began to think of the other sorts of embarrassing music that I listen to. I’m seriously like that Asian guy in the minivan on the State Farm commercials, only the stuff I listen to is much worse. At least Kansas was a rock band. What, then, are my guilty pleasures?

Well, you could seriously blackmail me pretty good if you ever discovered some of the mix tapes I made between the years 1988-1993. But, I’ll save you the trouble, laying bare to the internet, my shame . . . I even like pretty much all of Paula Abdul’s early stuff , I must admit.

Here are some of my favorite bad pop songs:

That’s What Love Can Do” by Boy Krazy

She Ain’t Worth It” by Glenn Medeiros featuring Bobby Brown

With Every Beat of My Heart” by Taylor Dayne

Shake Your Love” by Debbie Gibson

Round and Round” by Tevin Campbell

Wild West” by The Escape Club

Lift Me Up” by Howard Jones

Room At the Top” by Adam Ant

The Cathy Dennis Three-Pack (“Touch Me”/”Just Another Dream”/
Too Many Walls”)–yes, all three; and,

much of the lamest portions of the Fleetwood Mac catalogue, late (“Hold Me”/”Everywhere”/”Little Lies”) and early (“I Don’t Want to Know”/”Over My Head”) . . .

But, I can honestly say that I enjoy the experimental “Tusk”, as well.

Does that make any of this at all better, or will I have to grow a beard likeThe Fugitive”, and begin hiding out under a bridge, with a Walkman and Z. Cavaricci pants?