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September 21, 2016

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Picking Practice Management Software: A Guide for Lawyers

by contributor
Illustration of two lawyers with computer symbols
With all the different time-and-billing and practice management programs these days, it can be difficult to choose the right one.

Illustration of two lawyers with computer symbols

With all the different time and billing, practice management, and customer management programs these days, it can be difficult to choose the right one for your practice. I’ve talked to many lawyers over the years about choosing software. I ask them what they have explored and why they are considering it. I also ask them what problems they are trying to solve and how they want their workday to feel different. Here are some red flags I’ve learned to recognize, as well as answers that give me confidence that lawyers are making the right decision for their practice.

Poor reasons for picking a product:

  • “My colleague down the hall said I would like it.” Unless you and your buddy are identical beings, what she likes and needs may not be what you like and need. Is it possible she purchased that product because her colleague down the way said it worked for him? Do your own research. Do more research.
  • “My IT guy said I should go with this one.” I appreciate information technology specialists immensely. Your IT person is an expert in many things that you are not, but he is not a lawyer. He may not understand the case management software needs of the firm. His recommendation is often the equivalent of the buddy down the hall, where the “buddy” is another of his clients. Ask more questions.
  • “Bob is a total geek. He researched the heck out of it and told us what to get. It must be great if he likes it.” Bob is a great help to the firm, but he is lacking complete buy-in from the rest of the stakeholders in this law practice. Choose the person who translates tech-speak to normal language, not the one who speaks tech exclusively. This does not mean Bob is unhelpful — it just means the product must work for the middle-of-the-roaders, too. Have a typical user fully vet and test the products.
  • “It was the cheapest product out there, so even though I hate how it looks, I’ll make it work.” If you don’t like how your software functions at the beginning or during the testing phase, don’t even go down that road. Chances are it won’t get any smoother. If price is a barrier, there are many affordable solutions. One may very likely be giving up usability that will be desirable in the near future as the firm grows.
  • “It only does what I need and nothing more.” I used to think this was a good answer, but instead it has become a red flag. This can be a symptom of insufficient training, not fully implementing all the features, or failing to look at the bigger picture. It is a waste of money to spend $39/month on a product when you are only using $12/month of features. So invest in training. Roll out new features on an annual project plan. And be thoughtful about the five- to ten-year plan of growth. Can this product grow with the firm?

Better reasons to consider or pick a product:

  • “I liked the way it looked when I added a client and started logging my time. I could see myself using it every day.” This product is user-friendly. If you learn to use it quickly and like the interface, that is a great sign.
  • “It was easy to use from the first. I just pushed a button and I was logging my time.” Many lawyers get practice management software and use just a fraction of its capabilities. Timekeeping is one of the greatest benefits of implementing practice management software, because it usually results in a greater number of hours being recorded. If you can find the time tracking mechanism quickly, you’ll likely use it frequently and make more money.
  • “I wanted something really close to the products I already use. I looked for something that wouldn’t be hard to get used to and would have a better chance of synching with my current tech ecosystem.” Sometimes avoiding the learning curve on a product is a smart business decision.
  • “I use X product often and they partner with this one. I tried it out for several weeks and found it synced well and worked in an appealing way.” Syncing with other products already in the office’s IT ecosystem is crucial. Research beforehand and be prepared to iron out the kinks and make these products talk to each other. If known relationships between products are present, this question is easily answered, but do take into account the potential vulnerabilities through third-party relationships and investigate each one separately for the security and procedures you desire.
  • “Once I set up my first workflow, I could see how easily documents would be generated and assignments could be given.” This statement shows training and a platform pleasing to the user’s eyes. It will need to be followed up with training and practice to be fully implemented, so set a schedule for rollouts of different features and try to stick to it — even if you are a solo practitioner.
  • “I don’t like the way the bills look, but I do like the timekeeper.” Usually you can find a better way to tailor a form like a bill, using tutorials and software support. This type of comment shows an in-depth look at the product’s different components. Even better, compare it to other products you’ve tested. Take full advantage of free trials by taking a case all the way through each feature over several weeks.

Factors to consider when researching practice management software:

Choosing the right product should always start with the firm’s needs and wishes, or an analysis of goals and what the firm is trying to achieve. Vet them out by asking these questions.

  • What is your size of practice?
  • What types of law does your firm practice? (Some packages are practice-area design-specific, like immigration, personal injury.)
  • What is the level of sophistication of users?
  • Does your staff have past experience with any products that you can leverage?
  • What other products do you want to interface/sync with?
  • Are firm stakeholders cloud-adverse or do they want to take advantage of cloud-based hosting?
  • Does your firm have the infrastructure to host a traditional premises-based (license) package and is this their preference?
  • What is the need for current mobility during the day?
  • What are the accessibility goals for the lawyers? Do they want to work from home and access the court?
  • Can the product do everything that you want it to do?
  • Is it a good fit for the users and the firm as a whole?

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