The Evolution of Law Practice Management Software Design


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Good design is critical. It makes things both easier and more pleasant to use. Law firm websites and law practice management software haven’t exactly been paragons of great design and user experience, but that’s changing.

Law often favors function over form. Generally, if something works, it doesn’t need to look pretty. People found lawyers in the Yellow Pages, and that worked just fine. Why change?


The software favored by lawyers was equally mundane. It worked, but that was about all that could be said about it.1


Law Practice Management Software: From Confusing to Clean

Practice management software wasn’t so good-looking at the start either. As recently as ten years ago, PCLaw looked like this:


What is going on there? Why are some things graphical, and some things just text buttons? Why are some things at the bottom of the page and some at the side? Why on earth is “Reports” hanging out all by itself with the graphics instead of with the rest of the text buttons?

This isn’t a particular knock on PC Law. Software used to look and function worse, period. Over time, that has changed, albeit slowly. User experience (UX) design became important as software designers realized that user satisfaction and productivity improved when products were aesthetically pleasing (which is great, but not strictly necessary) and simple to use (which is absolutely necessary). Put another way, UX recognizes that design isn’t elevating form over function. Design is function. Good design is, anyway.

Bad design like old-school PCLaw forces you to hunt for functions and memorize where they are, which makes it much more difficult to use and reduces the chances you’ll use anything close to its full potential. If you have to hunt around your practice management software to enter a note in a matter, chances are you’ll just put that note somewhere else, like a piece of paper. Like any other tool, using software that you just don’t like, or that you find difficult to work with, means you probably won’t use it if you can avoid it.

As software companies—even law practice management software companies—realized they needed to distinguish themselves in some fashion, things started to get better-looking, but they also started to get better-organized. By 2008, an early iteration of Clio’s web app was rough around the edges, but still pretty usable by 2016 standards.

(Clio just released a new mobile app, so it seems worth using Clio as a guinea pig for a tour through legal software design history. Full disclosure: Sam and Aaron are in Chicago right now for the Clio Cloud Conference, which Clio wanted them to attend so badly it put them up in a fancy hotel with views of Lake Michigan.)


This would be slightly clunky to use today, but you wouldn’t have trouble finding your way around.

Software built since has started looking quite a lot better. And more importantly, as design has improved, so has utility. Here is Zola Suite, which looked great right out of the gate.

Zola screenshot - opening screen

It’s not just good looking; it is built to reduce clicks and taps and scrolling and corner-to-corner mousing. It speeds up your work because can just use it without a lot of fuss.2

Good design is also about what is under the hood, and it intuits what its specific users need. For example, lawyers do a lot of data entry work. If it is too hard to enter data, you might not do it, and the chance for errors increases if you do. But if a program incorporates good user experience principles you are more likely to use the program and less like to make mistakes. And you can use that data to do more interesting things, like assemble documents.

Mobile Apps: From Grim to Good-Looking

Mobile apps are a must-have for modern law practice management software. If you can’t track your time, add notes, or schedule a meeting without pulling out your laptop and waking it up, your software isn’t very useful.

Mobile apps started out painfully ugly. Not low-functioning, necessarily. Just ugly, thanks to the layout and display limitations of earlier smartphones. Here’s Clio’s original mobile app:


It lets you get at the essentials, but here’s the mobile app Clio released in in 2013, which Sam Glover called “right up there with the best iPhone apps, period.”


There’s no question that was true in 2013, and that’s not meant to damn it with faint praise. A few years ago, the gold standard for mobile applications was indeed the sleek paneled look Clio has here. It’s intuitive and easy to use and pops up in a lot of other non-practice management types of apps. For example, this is Clear, a to-do app for the iPhone:


But with more screen real estate and much, much better screen resolution, apps have been able to maximize how many tasks you can get to from one screen. This is the new Clio app.3


It’s designed for fewer taps and less scrolling, with some other great features built it. It’s more of an evolution than the major overhaul Clio released in 2013, but it’s an important evolution.

It may seem a bit overwrought to say that lawyers deserve attractive, well-functioning practice management software, but it’s true. Lawyers use law practice management software all day, every day. You don’t wear clothes to work that are ill-fitting, tattered, stained, and frayed (hopefully). You wouldn’t drive a car that had inexplicably placed the gear shift out of your reach. You wouldn’t use a legal pad if the paper tore with every stroke of your pen.

There’s no reason to expect less of your software.

  1. Some of you clung to the DOS version of WordPerfect for forever, but that design isn’t similarly mockworthy because there are very few ways to circumvent the limitations of DOS, and WP 5.1 did the best it could with what it had. 

  2. Apple’s Steve Jobs was famously fixated on boot times, wanting early iterations of the Mac to boot faster and faster. While not strictly a design choice, it was a huge usability choice. Think about how you now expect your computer to wake from sleep instantly, regardless of OS, and your phone and tablet are specifically designed to be always on and always available. 

  3. There’s also an Android app with the same functionality. 

More in this Series: 2016 Clio Cloud Conference


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