How to use the Law Practice Management comparison charts
By Jeffrey Schoenberger, Affinity Consulting
Have you tried to compare products or services slightly off the beaten consumer path? Or well-known products for a non-marquee feature? Despite that product’s market being worth tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, the information is difficult to come by.
If you’re in the market for a pillow or bedsheets, there are obvious sources of information such as the website Consumer Reports that rate pillows and bedsheets on relevant categories like softness, durability, and ease of cleaning, for example. Easy enough. But suppose you want to buy a pillow made in America or in a union shop? It’s harder to come by that information in part because most buyers are not including those features in their buying decisions. In that case, your best recourse is to look for manufacturers who brag about location or employees. You could also look to sites that promote “Made in America” products.
The same information gap occurs with tech products too. To begin with, honest feature comparison sites that aren’t littered with ads are hard to come by for the general consumer. And once found, those sites target the broadly relevant features. Websites like PC Magazine or CNET will compare Dropbox, OneDrive, and G Drive, but they’re unlikely to do so with a legal professional in mind. General audience news sources will talk price, speed, and ease of use, all relevant to legal professionals as well as the general public, but they won’t address more esoteric things important to lawyers. A PC Magazine comparison won’t address data center locations, what the service does when served with a subpoena or warrant, or how you could use a “roll your own” encryption on top of the service.
For legal-specific products, the problem is worse. While potential buyers can compare Dropbox, OneDrive, and G Drive, software and services targeted at legal professionals have websites and marketing materials that often offer vague descriptions of capabilities, lacking important caveats, and many times hide pricing behind a “Request a Consultation” form that results in a sales call.
These problems are exacerbated because lawyers, particularly those new to the profession or unaccustomed to comparing and choosing software, may lack a good idea of what features they want in a practice management solution, for example.
Using Your Resources to Make Good Legal Tech Decisions
That’s where the Law Practice Management Resource Center come into play. We’ve collected and analyzed information in key law practice tech areas so you don’t have to. Let’s walk through an example:
Suppose you find your case and matter organization lacking. You can’t access documents unless you’re in the office. You rely on one or more people to figure out what, if anything, a client owes you and how much, if anything, the client has in their trust account. A client calls, texts, or emails you inquiring about case statuses, and you spend time rifling through emails, handwritten notes, and your memory to give updates. You talked with clients all day but, at the end of the day, are hard-pressed to remember who you talked to for how long and what was discussed. The clients are happy, but poor recollection has cost you billable time. Not good!
If we treat this like a law school exam, we can unpack it and get an idea of issues this law office should address when evaluating a new practice management system.
Document access: You want to be able to access documents from outside the office. Is it just documents or do you also want access to case information? How important is it that access works well on tablets or iPhones, or is good laptop access enough?
Accounting: You want to know what the client owes and what’s in his trust account irrespective of whether the bookkeeper or support staffer, if any, is reachable. Do you want to know other financial information as well, like upcoming rent or office supply bills in the same program? If not, what accounting program do you use now, and will it share data with your prospective practice management program? Should clients be able to see and pay bills over the internet?
Case status: Most practice management programs hold general case information, party contact information, calendar dates, and tasks. Most also have some form of document storage. All would be an improvement over the “rifling lawyer” in our hypothetical scenario, but there are wrinkles in the options. How important is mobile access and from what device? Many programs can capture email and sync calendars and contacts but are you a Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace firm? Many products, particularly the web-based ones, offer client portals where the client can see upcoming appointments, share documents, exchange secure messages with the lawyer, and see bills. Is this case status “self-help” a feature you want? Some programs integrate with voice over internet phone (VOIP) systems so phone call numbers and length become proposed time entries, so you don’t lose billable time as in our hypothetical situation. How valuable is that?
As with a law school exam, our one paragraph hypothetical became three paragraphs of additional questions and considerations. You don’t want to do all the leg work yourself!
Our Law Practice Management Resource Center offers checklists and whitepapers to spur these types of questions. Find the checklists (here and here) and whitepaper relevant to practice management software on our Law Practice Management website. Once you’ve picked your “must have” features and prioritized their importance, then head over to the Checklists and Charts resource, scroll down to the “Manage a Practice” heading, and you’ll find two relevant comparison charts. The “Practice Management Server-based” comparison chart compares vendors offering software that would install on a desktop or server that you maintain. This route is popular with lawyers who have more complex needs, want to integrate with other desktop software such as PCLaw or Microsoft Word, and those who don’t want client data stored with a cloud-based provider. The “Practice Management Cloud-based” comparison chart compares vendors whose offerings run in a web browser, requiring little to no software maintenance on the user’s side. This route is better for lawyers newer to practice, those who are more mobile, those who desire tablet or smartphone apps, and those who don’t want to make an upfront investment in software and hardware to run traditional software.
The comparison chart organization makes feature analysis easy. For example, if you are committed to desktop/server software over a web-based solution but want the ability to email or text appointment reminders to clients, then Coyote Analytics is your answer. Or if you’re committed to a web-based offering but want offline access to case information because you have spotty internet, then Smokeball is your answer. Missouri Bar members receive discounts on many top practice management programs, including Smokeball, at the Member Benefits section of the bar’s website.
Finally, once you’ve selected a practice management solution, be sure to clean up your data before moving case and billing information to the new system.
Much More to Discover
Practice management software is just one example of high-value, legal tech decisions that the comparison charts can help you make. Comparisons exist for everything from document management solutions (that can talk to your practice management solution) to document assembly tools (that can pull information from practice management software into documents) to voice over internet phone (VOIP) that can automatically create times from phone calls. Visit all the checklists and comparison charts available for bar members.
If you have any questions or want information from experts who’ve implemented these solutions for law practices and legal organizations, visit LPM’s Ask an Expert to email questions or schedule a phone or video call.