The legal field is becoming increasingly technology-dominated, both because of the availability of technologies specific to the legal field as well as the tangible improvements to both efficiency and productivity when solutions are implemented in a law firm. The decision to purchase and implement specific technologies is a heavy one because if the wrong solution is put into place, the work environment suffers as staff struggle to adapt to the software, ultimately not taking full advantage of the software or, worst case, abandoning it altogether.
Practice management software products for law firms increase efficiency through organization of data and are an important and necessary investment in the future of the firm. The software that a firm chooses depends on the specific needs of that environment, but there are two main types of legal practice management software: all-in-one and best-of-breed.
All-in-One Solutions vs. Best of Breed Solutions
All-in-one solutions provide both front and back office functionality including: time and billing; accounting; case management; and document management. Best-of-breed solutions focus on a specific area or areas, providing more options for customization as well as greater emphasis on functionality. Examples of best-of-breed solutions include document management, contact management, and case and matter management.
While an all-in-one software package provides both front and back office capability, it will likely lack depth of functionality. If the firm is looking to find a solution for more than one practice area or has complex needs for storing information and automation, then looking past the all-in-one solutions to a best-of-breed solution will provide for a higher degree of functionality.
Another difference between the all-in-one systems and the best-of-breed systems is the level of customization. Best-of-breed allows for an a la carte approach to software -- each firm is allowed to choose which modules best suit its needs and then configure those packages, as opposed to taking a one-size-fits-all approach. The word "configure" may imply a more complicated implementation, but it also allows for a more process-oriented approach and will most likely increase acceptance among users. If a firm is looking for a solution for multiple practice areas, or more specialized types of law, best-of-breed solutions may provide a tighter fit and allow for adaptation to unique process flows.
Integrations are important as well. While an all-in-one solution may provide full coverage for office applications, it may be difficult to incorporate any existing software into the new all-in-one system. Some best-of-breed solutions offer a broad range of integrations with popular applications, so a firm may be able to leverage existing investments in software into a solution that meets specific needs.
One of the most often overlooked but very necessary solutions for organization of case-related data and calendaring is case and matter management software, a best-of-breed subset of practice management software. Its strengths lie in the ability to customize the software to suit the needs of the firm. At its core, case and matter management software allows firms and offices to track all case- and contact-related information, including clients, experts, witnesses and additional parties in a single place.
In addition to consolidating necessary case-related information, case and matter management software enables real-time and ad hoc reporting across departments or practice areas. Reporting and searching across departments and practice areas is one of the most immediate benefits of case management software, since time spent searching is time wasted. Another time saving feature included in best-of-breed case management applications is automation of tasks, which automates generation of reports, email notifications, and document assembly, among other things.
Case and matter management software greatly minimizes the risk of error and overlooked deadlines. Using document assembly software, either in conjunction with best-of-breed case management software or as part of an all-in-one will decrease errors by helping to streamline the document generation process. Instead of manually entering data into a form, the data can be pulled from the database, ensuring its accuracy. Calendaring functionality can track important case-related events and tasks for staff and provide reminders for upcoming deadlines. Calendars may also integrate with standard productivity programs, such as Microsoft Office.
Organization of contact information and case-related data will be extremely helpful for law firm marketing as well, since the software will allow for tracking of and marketing to both existing and prospective clients.
Figuring Out What's Right For You
While at the outset it may seem easier to go with an all-in-one solution due to initial cost and ease of implementation, it is important to consider other factors including existing software investments and breadth of functionality in relation to the unique needs of the firm. If the firm already uses time and billing software or document management, it may be best to leverage the existing investments by seeking out a case and matter management solution that will integrate with those solutions. Future expansion should also be factored into any purchasing decision. Best-of-breed solutions will be best able to adapt to changing requirements as the firm expands and adds practice areas or divisions.
Purchasing managers should view a series of demonstrations of various software products. While this may seem tedious and repetitive, it allows the team involved with the implementation an opportunity to vet the company giving the demo and ask any questions they may have. Things to be considered during the demonstration process include: length of time the product has been on the market, its reputation (ask for references and contact them), and the ability to incorporate firm processes into the software (how flexible is the software compared to the needs of the firm?).
Only after critical assessment of the unique needs of the firm, demonstrations of various products, and attention to the details of the product's functionality should a decision be made. As much as technology allows attorneys and legal staff to be more productive, the results are only as good as the effort made to find the solution that will best suit the firm. Considering a best-of-breed solution for case and matter management allows purchasing managers to be confident that their selection will give their firm the best tools to succeed in the digital age.