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July 02, 2009

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SourceXtract

Will Geer has some good observations. Many smaller firms might not need a comprehensive management suite of software and can work systems out on their own, both for reasons of expense and the learning curve of software.

greg

no matter whether it is a solo attorney or a 100+ focused on crm, lawyers indeed need it (http://www.thelegalassistant.com/ http://www.needles.com many more to pick) to increase efficiency.

Legal Software

Yes, Lawyers need Practice Management Software.

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Conflicts are another area of concern that can be addressed with practice management software. While it may be easy to determine whether you've ever represented a particular party before,

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We all need management software to organize our documents and so do lawyers.

Allison C. Shields, Legal Ease Consulting, Inc.

Carol:

Thanks for your comments. As I noted earlier, a solo or small firm practitioner can function without practice management software, but your system is still missing some of the components. For example, although you have folders and a database system, they are not linked. In other words, if there were changes made to the database, those changes would need to be made manually in the client's folder as well - and possibly in more than one place or in several documents in the client's folder.

For any practice management system to work, the law firm will have to have rules and protocols in place and to follow those same rules for each matter. One of the biggest advantages of practice management software are the fact that changes can be made in one place that will be 'shared' so that there is no duplication of entry from the database to the documents to the billing program, etc. This is especially helpful if you have more than one matter with each client.

Since you haven't mentioned how your billing, calendar and other programs integrate under your system with one searchable database and separate folders for client matters, it is difficult to tell how those would integrate. And advantage to practice management software is the ability to see everything (not just documents) that relates to a particular client all in one place - the billing history, the calendar for upcoming dates/appointments, the most recent documents, etc.

Allison

Carol A. Bratt

I am a software trainer and also work in a law office where I have implemented a system whereby we do not need PMS.

If a solo or small firm spends the money to have an efficient system put in place with rules there is no need for practice management softare

Regarding conflicts checks, I implemented first an MS Excel database and then imported it into an MS Access database. I enter all case information for every case when I open the file and can search the database every which way from Sunday for a conflicts check. Especially in today's economy, small firms need to use what they have instead of paying to PMS and the using lots of time to get up to speed about how to use it.

Create your folders and name them intuitively when you receive a new matter from a client - name each matter with the case number and name or whatever is intuitive for you, but make the rule stick for everyone. Then all you need to do is create subfolders as you receive new cases. Everything for the client is in one place.

I know this method works as I have implemented it for more than one firm.

Allison C. Shields, Legal Ease Consulting, Inc.

Kalani:

Thanks for contributing to the conversation. It appears that the site has accepted your post - although comments do not appear automatically and only appear after they've been approved.

My point about multiple programs was not necessarily that switching between programs or screens is an issue - it was that the information from one program isn't always as easily shared with another program. As I note above, if there are several different programs running, that often necessitates entry (or re-entry) of information multiple times, which is not only inefficient, but leaves room for error. Practice management software allows information to be entered (or edited) in one place and shared across the other applications.

Having worked with a number of lawyers and firms over the years, I've seen where the folder system breaks down. I'm not sure whether your comments about implementation of practice management software comes from personal experience since you didn't mention it. There are up front costs associated with implementing any new system, and of course, changing those systems will often necessitate process and workflow changes - for the better.

One of the problems I've seen with the law firms I've worked with (and in) is that their workflow and processes are outdated or ineffective. If the same ineffective and outdated processes and procedures are used with new practice management systems, confusion and wasted time and effort can result. But where the workflow and processes make sense for the practice and are effective, many of the software programs can be customized to work within those workflow processes, making the firm more effective and the lawyers and staff more productive.

Kalani Patterson

I tried commenting in Allison Shields' Legal Ease blog, where she rebutted this article, but the site simply refused to accept my post! So here we are:

I agree with the no PMS approach. File folders are simple, flexible, and just as searchable as PMS is... even if you're using a stand-alone file server.

The simple \client\matter\ folder structure works quite well. Beyond that, breaking things down to folders for correspondence, memos, pleadings, and an "everything else" folder, can handle the vast majority of simple cases, and IF they grow more complex, it's not too tough to start breaking things into subfolders (for discovery, individual motions, etc.), as needed. (There is ZERO need to name documents by type... that's what the extension at the end is for.)

As for multiple programs... so what? Just by running Acrobat, Word/WordPerfect, Outlook and perhaps a browser, it's not like it's difficult to switch from one screen to another. And what's the difference between making several clicks in one program to get to a data entry screen, and making one extra click to switch to another program first? Same number of clicks, in most instances.

I like the concept of PMS as a general idea (the software variety, that is), but the implementation (and cost) is generally where they seem to fall flat on their faces. They seem to add as much (or more) work than they save, and force massive and disruptive workflow changes. And again, the cost. And this ignores the after-thought treatment that WordPerfect users are getting these days.

I do agree that for the technologically illiterate, there's probably no other viable option. But for people with a modicum of skill and common sense, I don't see the need outside of larger (or at least mid-size) firms, where the scale of operations mandate much more strict methodology enforcement that PMS can bring to the table.

Allison Shields

Will, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments and for continuing the conversation.

I think you hit it on the head when you said that the less technology-savvy you are, the more you need practice management software.

I critiqued the folder system specifically because I have encountered the same or similar systems being used by a number of firms (of many sizes) and in most cases, it ends up a jumbled mess – even when those firms were using a stand-alone file server. Again, if you’re the only one using it, many of those concerns go away.

I also think that for lawyers who are not ‘true’ solos and who are going to be working with others (who may be even less tech savvy), using multiple applications is more difficult. I don’t think the problem is necessarily with having several programs open at one time – it’s more an issue of getting those different applications to integrate and share information effectively to eliminate duplicate effort (for example, your client information database and your calendar). You can sync your contacts with others, but will that contact information automatically be transferred to the other programs? When you create a new document, such as a letter to the client, will the new information automatically appear, or will you have to re-type it?

For those lawyers who anticipate working with others in the future (even if they're solos now), it's a good idea to consider practice management software sooner, rather than later. You won't have to migrate your information over later, and chances are that it will be easier to train new people on an integrated practice management system then it will be to train them on your individual multiple application system.

Of course, whether you use practice management software or not, the system should be customized to your practice and your clients, and you’ll have to create protocols for entering information to ensure that whatever program or system of programs you’re using is kept up to date.

Will Geer

Allison,

First I'd like to say that I am a regular reader of your blog and consider it an honor to be critiqued by the woman behind Legal Ease.

Now, for my rebuttal.

The file naming scheme was merely a suggestion. I clearly state to use what works for you. One is not required to name a file by date, it was merely a suggestion that may work for some practice areas. Cater the suggestions to your needs.

Now that I look at it, I really cannot think of any reason to name a file according to type. In the spirit of the free flow of information, I was emptying my brain out onto the screen, and it came to mind :)

As far as the document management subfolders, again, only suggestions. Use what works for you. A real estate attorney will name his folders one way, and a plaintiff's attorney will name them another. It all depends on your practice area. Tearing apart the vagueness of examples I threw up only for illustrative purposes doesn't really make much sense. Use what works for your firm. The method is not a cookie-cutter program, but a malleable system that each attorney must mold to his or her needs.

The most common and credible critique of not using practice management software is the need to have several folders and programs open at once. Not really a big deal for me. Maybe I am spoiled by a two monitor setup. I also enjoy the flexibility of being able to change one aspect of a system without exporting thousands of contacts and going through the headache of changing PMS (practice management software). Besides, why not use the best tool available for each function? (please, no analogies to all-star sports teams).

As far as client contact information, entering that information into Google Contacts only requires a one-time adjustment as well. I'm not sure what the difference is between editing a client's information once within a program window and once within your browser. Sync your contacts with other attorneys and staff and you are set. Exchange is an option as well.

A simple text document can serve as a journaling system for each client matter or file. It doesn't have to be integrated into a bloated program to serve its purpose. Each time an attorney works on a matter, update the document. I summer clerked in a firm where nobody ever used Time Matter's journaling system, so if I ever wanted to know what was done prior, I would have to open up Tabs3 billing software and see who billed and for what.

The file management system I laid out was quite simple and catered to the solo or small firm practitioner. Larger firms and even some solos would want to implement a stand-alone file server with a more intricate file management scheme. The stand-alone file server will prevent the confusion caused by duplicate content across multiple systems.

Another way to make sure that a document is edited uniformly across multiple systems with past reversions available for recovery is to use SugarSync, but only if you feel comfortable having a client's information backed up to an external server.

Setting up a file management system on your own is similar to practice management software in that both require a bit of time to gain any sort of proficiency. The great thing about going sans-PMS is the flexibility to change what you don't like without having to change an entire system.

You may have noticed that I am mentioning numerous ways to bypass practice management software. I realize that dealing with multiple applications may not be ideal for many attorneys. Here's my rule of thumb: The less computer savvy you are, the more you need practice management software.

Thanks for the critique, Allison. I really enjoyed the post. I think the take-home point is that whatever system you decide to implement, make sure to actually use it to its full potential.

Allison C. Shields, Legal Ease Consulting, Inc.

Sam:

While the date you scan a document might not be the date the document was created, if you're scanning on a regular basis, the date the document is scanned should relate closely to the date the document was received by your office - which may be more pertinent than the date it was created anyway, since scanned documents are usually documents you've received from elsewhere.

With regard to conflicts checking, searching manually not only will take time, but isn't as reliable as the searches performed by most of the good practice management programs.

With regard to document management, if the systems are set up correctly, you shouldn't be doing much (if any) additional work to get the document into the system - either way, when you scan the document, you'd have to tell the system what to name it and where to save it.

For a small or solo practice, some practice management programs are better than others, and some have a longer learning curve or are less intuitive, but overall, if used properly (and with proper training), they should increase productivity and save time, rather than the opposite.

Sam Glover

I stopped using practice management software (Time Matters, in my case) because I found it was an enormous waste of time. I can see how it would be useful in an office with multiple lawyers to help track all the e-mail, contacts, and calendar items, but Exchange and Google Apps do this just fine, too.

Your computer is built from the ground up to manage digital documents. All modern operating systems include indexed search, as well, so that you could just as easily toss all your docs, unnamed, into one folder, and find them by searching the OCR'd information in them. Spending time entering each and every document into practice management software doubles or triples the workload.

Conflicts checks are just as easy. Search your server for names. If you find one, investigate. Why waste time entering names into a conflicts database when they are already there in your data?

As for naming with the date, it just makes sense, since the date you scan is not necessarily the date of the document.

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