Smokeball is legal practice management software for small firms that use Windows. While it does what you have come to expect from most case management software—matter opening, calendaring, keeping track of contacts—it places particular emphasis on document assembly and automation. It is also tightly integrated with Microsoft Word and Outlook.
Getting Started with Smokeball
Smokeball does not have a free trial. Instead, it relies heavily on an old-school sales process: you need to hand over your information and talk to a salesperson just to try it. That means trying Smokeball takes considerably more commitment than many of the popular cloud-based options, which are about as easy to try as opening a box of cereal. If you would like to get a sense as to whether Smokeball will work for your practice without making that sort of commitment, though, you can at least watch a quick demo:
Smokeball will also give you a personalized demo if you call.
Smokeball costs $99 per user per month. That gets you access to Smokeball’s Android and iOS apps, and unlimited storage. You also need to pay an onboarding fee of $300 to Smokeball to install the program and train you on it.
Onboarding with Smokeball
After you have signed up for Smokeball, a representative will guide you through the install process or remotely install the software on your Windows machine, whichever you prefer. That installation will also include helping you install add-ins for Microsoft Word and Outlook so that Smokeball can work seamlessly with those programs. Smokeball personnel then train you on how to use the software. Onboarding consists of manually setting up an account with data like your letterhead and user preferences, a consultation call to learn more about your firm and your needs, and two online training sessions covering both basic and advanced features of the program. Because of that, the setup process is unfortunately fairly time-intensive.
Setting Your Preferences
Smokeball has a wide variety of settings, from adding staff and users to deciding how the program interfaces with Outlook. You can also automate some of your workflows.
Smokeball will help you with these during the onboarding, but it is helpful to know how to tweak things yourself as you get more comfortable with the program.
Smokeball integrates with Clio, which may seem odd given that Clio is also legal practice management software. Clio and Smokeball anticipate that you may use Clio to handle your invoicing and billing because those Smokeball doesn’t have those features.
There is no way for you to bulk import information from other practice management software you may have used previously. That said, Smokeball does offer a way to import documents into each new matter you set up.
In each matter, you will see a button to import or scan documents. If you choose “import” you can choose an entire folder or a file to upload to Smokeball. You can also drag and drop items directly.
You also cannot bulk import contacts, but Smokeball’s integration with Microsoft Outlook ensures that the program has access to that contact data. Alternatively, Smokeball will import your contacts for you during your onboarding as long as you have them in a .csv format (which is typically how you would have exported contacts from your previous legal practice management software or your existing email account).
When you open the program, you will see Smokeball’s home screen, which has three components:
(1) A “daily digest” bar to the far right, which gives you a day-at-a-glance view of your calendar, your tasks, and any phone messages. You can create tasks and events directly from the daily digest bar, which is a nice touch.
(2) Your matter list, which has the most screen real estate in the center. This list is highly customizable. You can set up any number of matter types that you would like. You can set the matter list to only show you open matters. You can sort by any of the fields at the top, including matter number, type, client name, and assigned staff.
3) On the far right, a toolbar with tabs for the other areas of Smokeball: contacts, calendars, tasks, “activity intelligence” (more on that later), and reports.
Opening a new matter is simple: choose New Matter from the home screen and pick a matter type. Smokeball comes pre-loaded with all the matter types you would normally expect, such as criminal law, immigration, personal injury, and workers compensation. If you practice in a niche area that isn’t pre-loaded, you can tell Smokeball during the onboarding process and they will add a matter type for you. Each of the matter types also has optional sub-types.
The first thing you will want to do is enter information about the parties. You will see that Smokeball provides some roles based on the type of matter. A driver’s license reinstatement case has a space for alcohol/drug evaluation information, which obviously doesn’t appear in the real estate litigation section, for example.
The Matter page also has several widgets on the right-hand side. Three of those widgets—Next Step, Upcoming Events, and Notes—allow you to quickly enter information that will be associated with that matter. The fourth—contact details—is for address information for your client or other individuals.
At the bottom of a Matter page, you will see the Documents and Emails section. All types of documents that you have associated with your matter appear here. You can import documents using the Import tab above or drag and drop. Additionally, you can organize this section however you would like with subfolders.
As soon as you attach any type of document to a matter in Smokeball, the program saves that document within Smokeball’s cloud. Put another way, regardless of whatever organizational chaos you may have on your actual computer with your files, Smokeball will organize those files via matter and subfolder for you in the cloud.
The Contact tab displays all of your contacts (not just your clients.) You can add a new contact from the New Contact tab. As with the matter window, you can organize this information in a number of ways. You can slot contacts into categories, like “expert” or “mediator.” You can sort them alphabetically or by organization.
Smokeball allows you to get even more granular with how you slice and dice your contacts thanks to tags.
Tags will be familiar to anyone who has used Evernote. A tag is a brief word or two that you associate with a contact. More than that, though, it is something you expect may be associated with more than one contact and something where you would like to be able to see all associated contacts at a glance.
You can add tags while you are adding a new contact or go back and do it later.
The Calendar display allows you to view the day, work week, week, month, or view your activities (upcoming and past) in a timeline format.
If you are in a workplace where calendars are shared, you will see all of those calendars here as well. If you have chosen to enable it, Smokeball will sync your Outlook calendar with Smokeball. That way, it won’t matter where you are entering your meeting information – it will all show up in Smokeball regardless.
Smokeball’s Tasks section is designed very well for multiple-person teams. If you are a solo practitioner, you can use Tasks more like your own to-do list, but the real power of Tasks comes through when you have several people to whom you want to assign things and track progress.
Clicking Task while in any portion of the home screen will bring up a new task prompt. From there, you can assign the task to a specific individual and attach it to a matter. You can then create a checklist with subtasks within that task.
You can view all your completed or upcoming tasks at a glance. You can also view those of anyone else on your team. It is a great feature if you assign a lot of tasks elsewhere and want to be able to keep tabs on how those things are progressing.
The only downside is that Smokeball doesn’t let you set granular permissions, which means that every user can see everyone else’s tasks all the time.
When you go back to view specific matters, you can then see all the tasks attached to that matter.
Ai (Active Intelligence)
You can get a sense of your matter-by-matter or day-by-day progress by looking at your completed and yet-to-be-completed tasks. If you are looking for a more comprehensive view of what you and the people in your organization are getting done every day or week or month, the Ai section is what you will use.
You can customize the Ai display in a number of ways., such as sorting by matter name or limiting what types of activities show up in the report. If you want to track overall productivity or show a client the amount of tasks that went into their bill, it works very well. It suffers from the same problem as the Tasks section, however, which is that all your users can see all the data.
Think of reports as a static exportable version of Tasks or Ai. You choose the type of report from a drop-down menu, set your dates, status, and assigned staff, and Smokeball will run a report that you can print or export to a PDF.
One of the ways in which Smokeball strives to set itself apart from other case management software programs is by adding robust document automation capabilities. Smokeball presumes that you draft the same or similar things on a regular basis and would benefit from having the routine portion of that automated.
If you start with a “blank” letter, it actually won’t be blank. Smokeball pre-populates your address, letterhead and signature block. Similarly, a court form will include a caption that is correct for your jurisdiction and your attorney/firm information.
Smokeball also has a variety of forms and letters that come pre-installed. You can also request that Smokeball set up a form or letter specific to your practice. Finally, if you are comfortable with setting up forms and letters with various fields, you can make your own forms from scratch.
Smokeball does not have a user-side way to export data, but the company states that if you contact them and request an export, they will provide you with a full backup of all your documents, including all versions of each.
Smokeball isn’t very specific about security on its website or in its documentation but does state that it uses “bank-grade security, encryption, firewalls, and data backups” to keep your client data secure. From a phone discussion with one of Smokeball’s tech personnel, I learned that they use 128-bit SSL to encrypt all data traveling between your computer and Smokeball.
For storage and backup, Smokeball relies upon Amazon’s S3 service, a cloud storage system that has a high level of security, uptime, and backup capabilities.
Smokeball has mobile apps for both iOS and Android. The mobile apps allow you to view matters, see your daily digest, see your calendar (and those of your colleagues, if applicable), and your tasks and to-do list. Although Smokeball is a desktop-based application, everything is stored on Smokeball’s cloud servers so you can use the mobile application to access the correspondence, documents, and notes you have related to any given matter. You can also add documents to a matter via the mobile apps as long as it is a document stored locally on your device or stored in iCloud or Dropbox.
Who Should Use Smokeball
As a threshold matter, every attorney should use legal practice management software. Period. Given that Smokeball’s pricing is roughly comparable to other practice management applications, why would someone choose Smokeball over the ever-increasing number of other programs out there? The answer to that depends a lot on what type of technology you have already wedded yourself to and where you see your tech use going in the future.
Over 70% of solosmall attorneys use Windows machines. Roughly 75% of solosmall lawyers use Outlook for their email, calendar, and contact management. It is generally a safe bet that someone running Outlook is also running Microsoft Word (and the rest of the Office suite). If you are in that number, you are the current target market for Smokeball, technology-wise. Smokeball presumes that you want to stay on a Windows machine and want to keep using desktop-based Office applications. The latter may prove tough as Microsoft increasingly drives its users to the cloud-based version of Office 365. However, given that Smokeball relies upon such tight Microsoft integration, it seems likely that it will figure out a way to integrate with the cloud versions of Word and Outlook eventually.
Besides being committed to a Microsoft ecosystem, the ideal Smokeball user is someone who wants case management software that takes over for them, allowing them to functionally do everything within just one program. They are also comfortable with having all the data in the program accessible to everyone in the organization. Finally, since Smokeball does not handle billing or invoicing, the ideal user must be willing to pay for a separate program to manage those tasks or manage them manually. If this describes you, Smokeball may be a good fit.