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April 2001
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Time & Billing

Will Your Firm Survive?

If you pick the wrong systems vendor, it may be time for last rites.

By M. Thomas Collins

Will Your Firm Survive? SOFTWARE IS different from almost anything law firms purchase. It is the one purchase where we expect to get more than we bargained for. The time-and-billing software industry has seen more turbulence over the past few years than at any other time in recent memory. The features and power behind today's time-and-billing systems have reached far beyond simply "time-and-billing."

If your current system hasn't kept up with technology trends and workplace demands, it may be time to start shopping.

With respect to time-and-billing, today's leading law office business systems offer far more. They must accommodate tremendous diversity including the different individual preferences of attorneys, as well as mandates imposed on the firm by its clients. These systems also must work cooperatively and integrate with the firm's other information system components, whether from the same vendor or others.

This includes conflict, case management, records management, docket/calendaring, trust, check writing, disbursements, general ledger and financial reporting -- not to mention the basic factory floor of the law firm: word processing, spread sheet applications, report writers, and so on.

Work style, Lifestyle

These business systems also must accommodate the work style and lifestyle of the legal professionals and their support staff. That means the days of working with the firm's information system from just one angle or method are gone. Systems must accommodate mobile handheld and wireless devices, such as Palm organizers.

They need to provide access over the Web, as well as access from within other software used by the firm. More and more, different people within the firm increasingly will work with the firm's information systems from different angles and points using different methods.

There is no longer just one model for operating the firm's information systems. The vendors who are in for the long haul are adapting their software to accommodate the various preferences.

The prevalent model is an in-house system with hired or contracted system integration support. Some firms, however, now outsource -- hosting their server equipment off-site to be administered by professionals. Others are turning to the ASP model, in effect renting use of their business systems from a value-added online service provider.

Many legal software vendors rise and fall with one generation of technology. During this time of rapid change, a number of companies have gone out of or gotten out of the business. Some of the biggest names have been on the block or were purchased by offshore companies whose eyes are on the growing European professional services market, rather than on the U.S. private law firm market.

Some vendors are still trying to sell yesterday's technology disguised to look more modern. Too many treat existing clients as cash cows, charging for every new function and every new enhancement.

This brings home the importance of a vendor's vision and track record when selecting a new law practice business system. Software that remains substantially unchanged from the date you acquire it is quickly obsolete and behind the curve with respect to changing businesses practices. The purchaser (licensee) depends on the ongoing enhancements and innovations of their vendor to keep the law firm's business system competitive. Select the wrong vendor and you will quickly have the wrong business system.

It's virtually impossible to know the right questions to ask.

-M. Thomas Collins

Law office business systems have had to adapt to rapidly changing business practices in recent years; however, the most dramatic changes are still ahead and closing fast. You can't prepare for those changes; your business system vendor must do that for you.

E-commerce is just around the corner and your vendor better be preparing for it. Increasingly, law firm clients will prefer electronic bills. Those clients, including individuals, will also pay those bills electronically. Likewise, the law firm will shift from printing and signing checks to paying the firm's expenses electronically.

Law firms are in business to practice law. Attorneys did not go to law school to become computer experts. It is virtually impossible for most law firms to be engaged enough (given our run-away technology) to know the right questions to ask and the right decisions to make in order to keep their business system competitive. Yet long- term survival of the firm may depend on those decisions.

The only sound answer is to pick a vendor you have confidence in to supply the technical vision and innovations to keep your systems competitive -- so that you and other members of your firm can concentrate on the practice of law.

M. Thomas Collins is president of Juris, Inc., based in Brentwood, Tenn.

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