Q: What Practice Management Software Should I Use?

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A: You’re asking the question backwards.

This is one of the most-common questions I get from lawyers. Unfortunately, most lawyers skip the necessary preliminary question: Should I use practice management software?

Okay, so should I use practice management software?

Maybe. If you have more than one lawyer in your firm working on the same set of cases, then you should probably have some kind of practice management software. If you are a true solo, practice management software is probably unnecessary (and overkill). But you may want it, anyway.

Lawyers need to keep track of email, appointments, tasks and deadlines, and files, and to do timekeeping, billing, and accounting. That’s about it. This does not take all-in-one practice mangement software; it takes a Google Apps account and a few other things.

Altogether, these probably cost less and do more than most practice management software (not that a few bucks a month should be a deciding factor). They are also, individually, better to use.

The best calendar software is Google Calendar. The best timekeeping and billing software is Freshbooks. The best to-do software is (in my opinion — many prefer other options), Remember the Milk. And so on.

Practice management software, on the other hand, is a study in compromises. If you want to use the best software for calendar, email, timekeeping, etc., you won’t find all of them in any one practice management solution. One will have a great calendar and a limiting task list. The next will have a perfect task list and document assembly but an awful calendar. Yet another will have everything you need, but will require an expensive consultant to set up properly.

If you are in charge of everything, you may just want to use the best software, even if it means occasionally duplicating some effort (recording Freshbooks invoices in QuickBooks, for example). I know I prefer this, and it has worked well for me for quite a while.

However, once you have 2 or more people working the same set of client files, the advantages of practice management software generally overwhelm the disadvantages. It is important to keep everyone on the same page on your files, and this is much easier with a single, unified system. When Randall and I were working together, and we had a few other people who needed to be up to speed on our files, as well, we used practice management software. It just made more sense.

Of course, some solos would rather just use a single, unified system, anyway, and not spend the time tinkering with multiple solutions. That’s fine, too.

No matter what size practice you have, keep in mind that practice management software is not a silver bullet. If you are disorganized without it, you will be disorganized with it. If you aren’t tech-savvy, you probably won’t even use it. Solve your organizational problems before you decide whether or not to use practice management software, because software alone won’t solve anything.

Okay, I think I want practice management software. Which ones should I try?

I am a big proponent of cloud-based software, and I use it whenever I can. I like not worrying about installing, maintaining, and updating software. I like simple, intuitive software. I like being able to access my software from a browser on any computer.

There are real issues involved in using the cloud (although all 50 states’ ethics boards currently allow it), and you should familiarize yourself with them. (Just buy Niki’s book, Cloud Computing for Lawyers if you want to inform yourself quickly.) There are also — surprise! — real security issues involved in using locally-installed software, except that everyone pretends there aren’t.

I think the advantages of the cloud clearly outweigh any disadvantages, and I also think that many advantages of using the cloud directly answer some of the problems with using local software. If you disagree, fine. Don’t use the cloud.

In any case, all my recommendations are cloud-based:

  • Clio
  • MyCase
  • Rocket Matter — Note that Rocket Matter just launched a new business selling marketing services. I am concerned — though I do not know if my concerns are legitimate — that this will distract Rocket Matter from its focus on developing practice management software. Just something to think about. Edit: Larry Port, Rocket Matter’s CEO, assures me this is not the case, and that, if anything, Rocket Matter will be developing even more aggressively under its new VP of Product and an expanded team.
  • Total Attorneys — Small caveat, here. The Total Attorneys platform was originally conceived as an inexpensive (though very good, over all) platform from which Total Attorneys could sell add-on services. Due to a recent price change, I believe Total Attorneys is now committing to the practice management software for its own sake, and I anticipate it will be developed more aggressively going forward.

These are my longstanding recommendations based on some fairly extensive time playing with these four products. There are many other options out there, and many of them are also good. However, these four are, in my opinion, the four best cloud-based practice management options, and they are the ones you should try, first.

As you try them, you will almost certainly run into things that, at first, you don’t think will work for you. I encourage you to consider the software with an open mind, and to be willing to consider a change to your practices when it might make it easier to use software. The alternative, if you cannot find a software product that “thinks” the same way you do, is really expensive customization.

So go try out a few options. Use each one with a single client, and see how it goes. Talk about them in our forum, and see what others like and dislike. That should give you a pretty good indication of which will work best for you.

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  • Mark J Heftler

    I want to throw a hat in the ring for Podio.com. Due to its flexibility, it’s a bit daunting to dive into. You can configure everything about it to your liking, so it can be doing exactly what you want, from intake to CRM to case management. It’s free for up to five users, has nicely designed mobile apps, and recently added video chatting. I’ve been using it for the past few weeks (in conjunction with Freshbooks) and don’t think I’ll be switching away from it any time soon.

  • activesuccess

    We enjoy MyCase but probably not for the reasons you think. It’s all about the client experience! Here are my reasons… http://jacksonandwilson.com/client-legal-portal/

  • Jeffrey Taylor

    Sam, I think the answer to the “do I need PM software” question should be “YES!” Obviously there are patch together systems, as you’ve suggested, but the truth is, those systems only tackle half of the problem.

    The key benefit of all PM programs is the ability to link case information together and create relevant associations. PM software is well worth the cost.

    Additionally, I don’t think people should limit themselves to cloud-based programs. Over time, desktop-based programs are cheaper to manage, and can often offer more customizable options.

    Backup and security is what sets cloud-based systems apart from common desktop systems, which is something attorneys need to consider.

    Either way, attorneys need a practice management system.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      “Need” is a strong word, and I don’t think any firm needs practice management software. I know plenty who are making it to all their meetings and hitting all their filing deadlines with paper calendars.

      But is practice management software a good idea for many lawyers? Yep, especially those at firms larger than 1.

      As for local software, it may cost less, but most of it is awful. Plus, I’m not convinced it costs less, when most of it is designed to require an expensive consultant to set up properly.

  • Slaw76

    Sam, are there any books that you recommend about increasing organization?

  • Caren Schwartz

    Overall some good points but I am very hesitant to suggest that attorneys use Freshbooks or QuickBooks for billing. One limitation of Freshbooks is that if your practice needs e-billing you will have to change systems. My recollection is that it also can’t really track Trust funds.

    I have written on the issues of QuickBooks for billing in a law office at http://www.timeandcents.com/should-i-use-quickbooks-for-billing/ so will not repeat the information. I would just advise that whatever billing solution you look at you evaluate carefully for your needs including allocation of partial payments, fee allocation reports if needed, tracking IOLTA funds and flexibility in assigning different bill layouts.

  • Andrew Mitton

    I’m a solo and use Google Apps, Clio, and Outright.com. I highly recommend Clio for all solos. I scan all of my documents to a specific matter. I add a special bcc email for all emails related to a matter. I keep track of all of my time on Clio. The only thing it lacks is an overall expense/income tracker. I use Outright.com for that. I’m 99% free of paper (thank you Mac Thunderbolt display) and don’t use hard files for anything. Everything is kept in Clio. This saves me lots of time. I don’t have to set up any hard files. I don’t have any filing cabinets. I don’t even need a secretary. All of this is easy to do because when you’re a solo, your the boss. No old school attorneys who are holding onto the past with their dictaphones and courier font.