For a recent presentation at the Massachusetts Bar Association covering the startup of an Immigration Law practice (which was, incidentally, really well done, covering, as it did, general, as well as immigration law-specific, topics of interest, this all being a credit to the speakers and to the program chairs, Roy Watson and LOMAP’s own Rodney Dowell), I was asked to consider the use of practice management software generally. Now, of course, I’ve considered this before, and the subject comes up in nearly every attorney consult-meeting we have; but, there’s something about putting it all down on paper, and outlining a subject. Immediately after my presentation piece ended, and just before I sat down to fill out an evaluation for the strikingly handsome speaker that had just finished, my first thought was: “Yes! My blog post for this week is nearly done.” And so it was.

We have written previously at the blog on the topic of practice management software, with Rodney (backed by a post and linked article emanating from David Bilinsky’s Thoughtful Legal Management blog) advising that the use of such software means that you’ll have more time, make more money and get more sleep. (All good things; but, let me know when someone comes up with a way to make more money while sleeping. You can wake me up for that. But, then, let me go back to sleep, again.) I intend to present more of a general overview of Law Practice Management Software with a handful, or two, or some, particular options. So, feel free to review both this post and that last post in companion; but, don’t miss this one: there’s a special announcement at the end. Shhhhh (for now).

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The preliminary question, of course, is: What is Law Practice Management Software? (Of course Wikipedia would let me down this time, right? I guess I’ll have to field this one myself.) The easiest way to think about Law Practice Management Software is to think of it as a computer-based, or virtual law office management system. (Think about your client contacts, client info, email, files and file cabinets, the Redbook, your sticky notes, your research files, all neatly bundled, searchable, and prepared for your easy access. Too good to be true, you say! Nay.) It’s your one-stop management space. The aspects embraced, and alluded to before, include: client contact information, schedule and appointment management (with reminder options), deadline and task management (with reminder options), email archiving, document management and (if you choose to purchase an associated time and billing program) time and billing and financial accounting, including trust accounting. Now, that is a mouthful. Overwhelming? Nah. Law Practice Management Software makes it all easy. Here’s why: You’ll now have an accessible, single dashboard that provides you with a holistic view of your practice (all of your cases) as well as, at a secondary drillbit, a client-, or matter-, centric view (one case at a time), from where you can move down through files, like flipping pages, only easier, and with less walking, man. Plus, genuinely intuitive, tabbing functionality allows you to maneuver easily, in ways you recognize, and understand. And, you can sync Law Practice Management Software with your email calendar. Oh, and there are one-touch billing options and linking with your online accounts. (Damn, that’s sweet. (I know, that’s what I said!))

Alright . . . Bells. (Check.) Whistles. (Check.) Now, Why do you really need Law Practice Management Software? Well, two main reasons. And, these also happen to be the two main reasons that people get in trouble with the BBO (you remember the BBO). Hmmm, How ‘bout that? So, attorneys generally end up running afoul of the BBO because of: (1) lack of client contact (you never call your client; they’re angry; they call the BBO about you, saying you charge too much and never call; the BBO calls you; you shriek); (2) financial management missteps (you better watch out; you better not cry; you better not pout; you better have your reconciliations). What Law Practice Management Software does is provide you with (potentially synced) calendaring, task and deadlines options, including reminders (that’s 1) as well as (potentially synced) billing options, operating account and trust account management (and . . . that’s 2). Of course, there is always the potential for human error; and, although your Law Practice Management Software system will provide you the tools to manage your client contacts and financial accounts, you have to use those tools correctly, and you must stay on top of things, in order to truly keep yourself out of trouble. Add to the benefit of serving as an aid to keep you out of trouble the facts that Law Practice Management Software provides you those various levels of viewpoint, increased efficiency and integration.

If you’re already starting to whine now: Oh, but I haaaaate technology. Well, that’s cool, because I do, too. There’s nothing that pleases me more than logging off of a computer or shutting down a blackberry. However, since there’s no money in farming, we’ve all got a job to do, and I’ll be damned if I am going to avoid useful technology that makes me more efficient based upon some Amish philosophy that I’d like to apply to a perfect world. Waste your time, instead, mastering the technology, so you can get home and spend some time with your kids. And, if you’re not tech-savvy, take the time to analogize your way through it. There is an offline equivalent for everything you do online: Your Law Practice Management Software is your file cabinet. Your files are still your files. Your Redbook is your electronic calendar. Think of it in whatever way it takes to make it work.

You have two overarching choices to make before you select a Law Practice Management Software. The first choice in your legal Choose Your Own Adventure is whether you want to go with a software download or an SaaS (Software as a Service) model. Everybody knows what a software download is: you pop your CD into your computer, you download a program, and that program lives on your computer. SaaS, though, takes the software off of your computer, and makes the software accessible via someone else’s (the provider company’s) server. You log in to access your information that someone else stores, maintains and protects. Now, there are certainly advantages to using an SaaS model over a traditional, software model, not the least of which is the fact of increased mobility (anywhere you have an internet connection, you have access to your stored information and your program features). The SaaS model, also, does not use any space on your device(s), so you’ll have more memory for your massive iTunes library. (Oh, sorry, that’s me.) Of course, there are down
sides to the SaaS model, as well, including perpetual monthly fees (for maintenance of the server you’re using), and the fact that your information is somewhere where you do not have essential control over it, somewhere on the computing cloud. The cloud computing issue also raises the specter of potential security breaches stemming from unauthorized access, especially relevant given the pending effectiveness of the Massachusetts statute on the subject. Despite the potential drawbacks, though, SaaS is the wave of the future. It just is. It’s easier. It’s less hassle for you. There’s the potential for more direct support and assistance. (Sure, at some points the service provider will need to access your information, but so does your IT guy when he troubleshoots. And, confidentiality and obligations to protect information can be memorialized by contract.) With more users coming in, costs can be decreased. And, with respect to the question of breach, I’d be more concerned in keeping my stuff on my computer, frankly. If you’re a solo attorney in Mendon (sorry, Mendon, I still love you), who do you think has better internet security: you or Apple? Law Practice Management Software delivered by Saas: Be here now, because it is. The key to the SaaS Law Practice Management Software option is that you choose a reputable company that will be around for a while. If you choose a fly-by-night operator, you risk that company’s shutdown and the loss of access to your information.

But, choice, choices, choices . . . What should you choose?

Here are some specific options, broken down by category:

Software

PracticeMaster is the system we use here at LOMAP because it is an affordable and robust option for solo and small firm attorneys. We have demo versions available upon request. (Starting at $150)

Amicus Attorney is a fulsome system with features that include team research sharing and template document (macro) creation options. (Starting at $499)

Time Matters is the LexisNexis entry in the field, with all of the LexisNexis bells and whistles and all of the LexisNexis pricing. Features include project management options. (Starting at around $1,200)

Abacus Law has specific practice area versions of its product, as well as a general version. Features include rules-based calendaring and specific sync and integration options. (Price via Quote)

Needles is highly customizable software popular with personal injury and worker’s compensation attorneys. (Starting at $1,000)

PCLaw is a very sophisticated time and billing program that has case management functionality, such that some attorneys use it as a practice management system. (Starting at around $1,200)

SaaS

Clio is an intuitive product, based on familiar interfaces, so that it can be used “out-of-the-box”. Features include a timer, for billing. ($49 per month)

Rocket Matter is another intuitive product (think Apple-style: you remember Apple, and you remember Jeep). ($60 per month)

The second overarching choice you’ll have to make is whether you are going to also purchase the time and billing add-on for your Law Practice Management Software. You’ll have four options: (1) buy the Law Practice Management Software; (2) buy the Law Practice Management Software and its Time and Billing Add-On; (3) Buy a Separate Time and Billing Program; or (4) buy a Separate Time and Billing Program, and try to sync it with your Law Practice Management Software. The obvious advantage to buying the add-on, is that there is an easy sync, and you get your easy integration. Of course, you may save money buying a separate time and billing program, or maybe you just like a certain time and billing program, and don’t want to give it up. If you don’t know which time and billing program you might like, look into these:

Times & Chaos ($45)

RTG Legal ($95)

BSA ($300)

Quickbooks ($320)

And, although Quickbooks is a general accounting software program, it can be turned to an attorney’s use, even for trust accounting. And, to that end, we have made a short PDF guide available as well as the “Maintaining a Trust Account Using Quickbooks” book (2004), the latter available for your checking out of our lending library for a limited time period, the former yours to keep, via email attachment.

Now (and this is at the end (yes, this is nearly the end) because it is the most important consideration), before you get into any Law Practice Management Software system, keep in mind that: it’s easy to get in, but it’s hard to get out. Law Practice Management Software programs are so useful, in large part, because of the mass of information accessible through them. Of course, all of this information is of your providing. If you have been using Law Practice Management Software for any length of time, you will have mass amounts of important information saved through the program. The obvious, thorny question, then, when contemplating a switch, involves how to extract (from your old program) and then import (into your new program) all of that information. Oftentimes, the answer is that you may be better off sticking with what you have, sticking with a program you’ve fallen out of like with, because the transfer of information is just too costly or too inefficient. So, put in your research time ahead of time, and your testing time as well, and choose a product intelligently.

If there is just far, far too much information to handle at one sitting here, I understand. It’s nearly too much information to draft at one setting. There are, however, two tools available for your aid, and for your learning pleasure:

Check out the ABA’s fine overview of Law Practice Management and time and billing Software options, here.

Or, come see us, and try-before-you-buy, with our Technology Center. LOMAP’s Technology Center is a dedicated computer terminal (if you’re Abe Vigoda, laptop if you’re Abe Vigoda’s grandkids, or something (Seriously . . . he’s known for “Good Burger”–what in the hell did Fish do to the guy who wrote his Wikipedia page?)) upon which we have downloaded software/provided web access (SaaS) to various Law Practice Management Software programs. We have several options available already, and will add further options as we receive latest ve
rsions of same. You might be asking now, Why would I come into your office to try these programs when I can just do the online demo? Well, the simple answer is that we know people. And, the versions that those people that we know have supplied us are more fulsome than the demo versions you’ll look at: you’ll have access to more features. So, stop asking your infernal questions, and just come on down! If you bring gummi worms (Sathers are best), I may even sit down and walk you through things . . .

Now, when you end up getting your Law Practice Management Software program, there’s no need to thank us . . . You’ll be too busy counting the ways you love it anyway.

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Alright, I gotta run for now, in keeping on and keeping with keeping this one relatively short (haha, I know, I know). I’ve got to be well-rested enough for dinner Friday night at the in-laws. Don’t want to fall asleep in something au gratin, you know. (It started as dinner and then became Reno.)