Legal practice management software is a complete system that helps law firms manage day-to-day workflows and business operations within their law practice. These firm management systems help manage a law firm’s cases, contacts, calendars documents, tasks, time tracking, billing, payments, accounting, and more.
Legal practice management software allows you to store all of your firm’s information in one secure place. This creates a working environment that has better access to information and supports better coordination across a greater range of tasks. Everyone always has access to the most up-to-date case and contact details at all times, and no one has to spend time chasing down information.
With the right office technology, administrative tasks can be completed more efficiently with less chance of error—ensuring that nothing gets missed. Legal practice management software can help achieve this across all administrative functions within a law firm.
- Case management: A good case management system will help you stay organized and access the information you need—when and where you need it.
- Legal document management: Make sure you can edit, store, and organize your legal documents securely.
- Billing: Bill your clients in a way that’s easy for them—and effective for you. good legal billing software automates time-consuming tasks, and helps you get paid faster—like Clio does.
- Contact management: Good contact management software that lets you manage all your clients and contacts, and ensures you never miss a client interaction.
- Accounting: Make sure you can simplify reconciliations and comply with trust accounting regulations. You’ll want to be able to sync to third-party accounting systems like QuickBooks Online.
- Calendaring: A good calendaring system helps you stay on top of deadlines and keep you connected on-the-go to your cases, clients, and work.
- Task management: Make sure you can organize to-do lists, see task progress, and manage your team’s workload and productivity.
- Online payments: Can you accept online credit card payments? Doing so will make it easier for clients to pay you—ultimately, it will help you get paid faster.
- Time and expense tracking: A good time and expense tracking system will let you spend less time tracking your hours, and more time billing for them.
- Law firm insights: You need to know your firm’s utilization, realization, and collection rates so you can make informed business decisions. Getting a bird’s eye view of your firm’s performance will help you identify opportunities to improve productivity, efficiency, and revenue.
Choosing the best law practice management software for your firm can be overwhelming, thanks to the many choices you have. Should you choose a cloud vs on-premise legal software solution? What about the cost differences of different law practice management software? Like any purchasing decision, it’s important to consider long-term goals over any specific features that may seem attractive in the short term.
Below, we’ll cover what to consider to ensure you choose the right legal software for your practice.
1. Know the difference between cloud vs on-premise practice management software
One of the first considerations to review before purchasing legal practice management software is whether to purchase an on-premise or cloud-based solution.
On-premise solutions represent the more traditional software model, where companies purchase licences for individual staff and then install the software from a disk or via download. The software runs on each individual’s computer, and all information is stored on that same computer. Since it’s important that information be shared and retained within the law firm, most firms will also network and back up data from individual computers to a central file server shared across the firm. This network is typically limited to a firm office, which means that staff need to be in the office to access, share, or back up data. To access the database from outside the office, a virtual private network (VPN) would need to be set up and maintained.
Cloud-based software (also referred to as web-based or software as a service (SaaS)) embodies the new software model that has emerged with modern internet technologies. Cloud-based legal practice management software is accessed through a web browser, such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Safari, or Microsoft Edge. Much like using Google’s Gmail, Dropbox, or an Amazon shopping cart, data is stored in the vendor’s database instead of on a local office computer. This means that as long as they have a valid username and password, firm staff can log in to their firm’s practice management software from virtually any web browser, regardless of whether they’re in the office, at home, or another remote location. This can offer several benefits in terms of the overall setup and maintenance costs, compatibility, usability, and security.
2. Consider the differences in cost and maintenance requirements
The cost structure varies greatly between on-premise and cloud-based legal practice management software.
Cloud-based law practice management software
Cloud-based legal practice management software is typically sold on a subscription-based model, paid on a month-to-month or annual basis, which can result in more predictable and often less expensive costs when compared to an on-premise solution. And, since cloud-based software is hosted through a web browser, maintenance, security, and troubleshooting are significantly less cause for concern:
- Updates and security patches are installed by the service provider on the company’s servers as soon as they’re available, resulting in very little disruption, if any, to law firm operations.
- Cloud-based software is run through an internet browser, which makes it much less likely to conflict with any other office technologies. This is because web-based software must comply with strict internet protocols, which are more universal than the proprietary systems that many on-premise products are built upon.
- If any problems arise with a cloud-based service, they are likely caused by an issue on the developer’s side, which means they will affect the company’s entire user base. This gives a very strong incentive to resolve the issue as soon as possible, with all available resources. In most cases, this means problems get solved as soon as they happen, at their source, rather than based on the availability of a consultant.
On-premise software law practice management software
The traditional on-premise software programs often require high upfront costs to purchase and install. Licenses themselves can be costly, and setting up an in-house server network typically requires the help of an IT specialist. The benefit to this type of investment is that the software is paid in full and will not incur future costs in and of itself. However, firm owners should be mindful of hidden costs that can quickly add up:
- Updates and security patches typically require regular attention, which may require support from an IT consultant.
- Individual licenses typically need to be repurchased every three to five years when a major revision is released for the software. This is necessary to ensure ongoing functionality and security, but often amounts to purchasing a brand new software package, which may also require hardware upgrades.
- Since the software is installed on so many computers, across a complicated server network that likely involves several other software and hardware configurations, troubleshooting issues when they arise can be difficult, time consuming, and costly. For example, it may take time for a consultant to identify a potential conflict, which can then require reaching out to different hardware and software vendors to resolve.
3. Ensure you can access your information when you need to—even remotely
Not all legal work gets done in the office. More and more, it’s being done at home, in client offices, in hotel rooms, on the road, and in court. Many virtual law firms have forgone office space altogether. According to the 2016 ABA TechReport, 77% of lawyers work regularly from home (not counting those who don’t have an office), 38% while travelling, and 28% from client offices.
Technology in the courtroom is also becoming more common, with 80% of lawyers bringing at least a smartphone to court. How do lawyers use electronic devices in court? For laptops specifically, the most common activities (by percentage of lawyers) include:
- Evidence and document access (35%)
- Internet (32%)
- Online research (30%)
- Email (30%)
- Presentations (28%)
Cloud-based legal practice management software can be logged into from anywhere when using a laptop with an internet connection. Some solutions also offer a dedicated mobile app that can be used to access, edit, and share information stored in the firm’s management system. For attorneys working on the go, this means that they can quickly access case, contact, and calendar information when visiting a client’s office or while attending court.
For lawyers who need to track their hours, a dedicated mobile app lets you track time directly to specific matters using a timer or logged entries. This gives lawyers and other legal professionals more flexibility in how they track time, ensuring that all work is accounted for while minimizing the risk of entries being lost or misplaced.
4. Make sure your law practice management software is compatible with your existing software
It’s important to look at legal practice management systems as more than just a single piece of software. Whether it’s word processing, email clients, electronic calendaring, document assembly services, client intake databases, bookkeeping systems, or other specialized legal tools, modern law firms typically incorporate several technology solutions into their office workflows. Where this can be problematic is when each piece of software contains its own database of information that needs to be manually referenced and entered in another place. Even with the most robust systems in place, manually recording and transferring information is both inefficient and prone to error and omission.
Many legal practice management software options give you the ability to integrate these systems into a single platform that can access data from different technologies to ensure that they are all up to date in a central location, without manual entry. This makes it easier to access information between different softwares while ensuring the information is accurate at all times.
Being able to connect your legal practice management software to other software applications ensures that you can connect to services that may already be in use at your firm. It also gives you the flexibility to change or add tools, ensuring more options for growth in the future.
5. Consider how easy is it to migrate to and integrate with your existing workflow, and how easy it is to train your staff to use the new software
It’s important for law firms to provide the right tools for its lawyers and other legal staff. When software is difficult and inefficient, it can lead to team frustration, workarounds that are difficult to track, and higher rates of turnover. Training can also be an issue for difficult software, which can increase the time and cost of onboarding new members to the firm and delay work contributions.
When switching to a new legal practice management software system, it’s important that everyone can quickly adapt to new, more efficient workflows with a little disruption to firm operations as possible. How a system is designed can affect this transition, as well as the support and training available. Some key factors to consider include:
How much training and support is provided with the product, and when is it available?
Having access to knowledgeable experts on how to use firm software can help ensure a smooth transition—and assist when bringing on new staff in the future. Working with the simpler technology framework of cloud-based systems also helps ensure that any training and support stays focused on learning how to use the product rather than troubleshooting complications with the software.
Is the software easy to use?
One of the most overlooked features to consider is the interface and usability. Many traditional, on-premise software systems have been around for over 20 years and rely on out-of-date interfaces. As a result, many lawyers and other legal professionals find them extremely cumbersome and difficult to use. Cloud-based practice management solutions are newer to the market and have been built from the ground up with more intuitive, modern user interfaces that most professionals find more aligned with other technologies they use.
Is the software compatible with existing firm technology?
Cross-platform compatibility can also be an issue for staff who may need to work out of office or between offices. Many on-premise solutions are limited in their compatibility, able to work only on Windows-based operating systems. Cloud-based solutions have the advantage of working across different operating systems (Microsoft Windows and Mac OS), and even on mobile devices through dedicated apps for both Android and iOS.
6. Ensure your legal practice management software is ethically compliant and secure
Since law firms operate under strict rules for professional conduct, such as the duty to protect client information, legal practice management software offers advantages over other systems. Not only does it offer unique trust accounting workflows to keep separate ledgers for client funds, it also provides reports for convenient three-way reconciliations. Electronic case management and document storage also ensures that client records can be stored and easily accessed for as long as is required for auditing purposes or as dictated by jurisdictional retention policies.
You can find a list of jurisdictional ethics opinions organized by state here.
Data security should also be a major concern for any law firm. According to the 2016 ABA TechReport, 14% of firms reported having experienced a data breach at some time; this number jumps to 25% for firms with 10 to 49 attorneys and to 26% for large firms with 500 or more attorneys. The trend has been consistent within a percentage point over the last three years, but these numbers may be underreported, as data breaches may occur without the knowledge of the firm or the staff who participated in the survey.
Storing information in a cloud-based practice management software can also be more secure than an on-premise solution, which if not kept up-to-date with the most current security requirements, may be subject to malicious hacking or virus attacks. On-premise solutions are also at a greater risk for disruption in the case of a fire or other disaster; if a central server is damaged, case information may be irretrievably lost.
Cloud-based services offer a more robust backup system, often storing firm data in multiple locations that are protected by the most advanced security protections available. And any information transmitted through the service should also be encrypted to prevent anyone from discerning the information if it were somehow intercepted.
Finally, firm managers may also want to limit access to certain information within the firm, which is made possible with advanced permissions that allow staff to see only the information they are authorized to access.
1. Are you struggling to reconcile case information between your calendars, contact lists, and document management systems?
Legal practice management software can help organize and consolidate firm information so that it’s easier to access, manage, and maintain. With better control of your information, you and other staff at your firm will be better prepared to manage your legal responsibilities on behalf of your clients.
2. Are you overwhelmed by the amount of information required to manage a law firm on a daily basis?
When information is organized, it becomes much easier to manage. You don’t need to chase information or review documentation to ensure it’s accounted for. Storing information within a legal practice management solution means it gets stored in a secure central location, making it easier to search and find information.
3. Are you spending too much time generating invoices and collecting payment?
Managing invoices and collecting payments is not only time-consuming, it’s also non-billable, meaning you need to factor the time it takes into all your other firm costs. Legal practice management technology can vastly reduce the time spent creating invoices, managing follow-ups, and reconciling payments—opening up more time to perform other tasks.
4. Do you have difficulty accessing firm information when out of office?
Many lawyers and other legal professionals take their work beyond their office walls—to court, to their client’s offices, or to a home office. In many cases working out of office can improve client service, making them feel more attended to, or improve work-life balance, by affording more time and flexibility for personal commitments. Cloud-based legal practice management software can give attorneys the ability to access all of their work from anywhere, without cumbersome or expensive VPNs.
5. Do you find yourself copying information from one place to another?
Chances are most law firms already implement several technologies at the office. Whether it’s email, word processing, or some other specialized legal software, legal practice management software can facilitate better coordination between services, which also makes for a better, more organized system for tracking information.