Small & Home Office
Legal-Specific Practice Management Database Software Is Essential, Even for Small Firms
Microsoft Outlook is popular, but legal-specific programs offer industrial strength organization tools.
By Guy Wiggins
PRACTICE management database software is an essential technology for the modern "wired law office." It can help you keep track of most of the information you need to practice law -- people, appointments, tasks (to dos), deadlines, court dates, related documents, phone and e-mail messages and notes. In essense, it's like having your own digital administrative assistant.
A practice management application should, at a minimum, provide:
* A docketing system that can add rules that automate a sequence of events.
* A calendar with several different views (e.g., day, month, year, seven-day, 14-day) that enables users to see others' schedules.
* Complete lists of contact information, tasks, and appointments.
* A customizable personal journal, so the user can view a broad range of short-term information at one time and place.
System functions should include the ability to:
* Customize existing fields or add new fields to the database.
* Generate singledocuments or mass mailings, using contact information and a document assembly or word processing application.
* Synchronize data in the central database with hand-held computers (e.g., Palm Pilots), accounting and/or time and billing applications and with remote users.
* Find any information in the database quickly and easily, including performing conflict-of-interest searches.
* Archive data after a set amount of time.
* Track all information on a matter by matter (or case-by-case) basis.
Because it requires that lawyers change the way they process and use information, practice management software demands a serious commitment from all of the firm's users -- partners down to secretaries.
As a legal technology consultant, I find it to a hard sell, because most law firms resist any change to tried and true (and inefficient) manual systems. Changing people's habits, and "going digital" can be difficult intially, but the results achieved through better information management make it well worth the struggle. That's why it's important to get the firm's partners on board. If they are active users and encourage (or better yet, demand) everybody else's participation, then the software will truly be worth the investment.
What's the difference between a Personal Information Manager (PIM), such as Microsoft Outlook, and a practice management application? It is common to find firms keeping track of contacts and, perhaps, tasks and appointments in a PIM or contact manager.
Indeed, Outlook has become the application of choice for these activities, for perhaps the simplest reason of all: it comes free with Microsoft's Exchange and Office products.
However, there are significant limitations to using a PIM instead of a true practice management database when managing legal information.
Here are some of the limitations, (with examples and screen shots from TimeMatters 3.0, one of my favorite practice management systems):
1. Inability to organize data by case or matter
Perhaps a practice management application's main advantage is that it provides a means of organizing information by case (or matter). That means that users can see at a glance what events, to dos, contacts, documents, email and phone messages and bills, for instance, are related to any case. A law firm's practice is case or matter-centric; its software should reflect that approach.
Practice management applications are, in essence, sophisticated relational databases with pretty faces. Let's say you change a phone number in a "contact" form -- that number will be updated in the "matter" form, and everywhere else the record is used in the application (as well as in a linked time-and-billing and/or accounting program). By contrast, Outlook is a flat file database and cannot perform any such magic.
2. Difficult to create a firm wide shareable calendar
Any practice management application worth its salt provides a firm calendar that all users can access and easily see what everyone else is doing. Outlook is essentially a personal information manager and doesn't include that kind of built-in functionality.
A firm calendar can be created using "public folders," but it's not nearly as versatile. For instance, if you create an appointment in both your personal calendar and the firm calendar by means of a "meeting request," and you change the appointment on your personal calendar, the appointment will not change on the firm calendar.
In a practice management application, everyone's calendar is viewable (unless a security setting dictates otherwise) -- there is no distinction between personal and public calendars.
3. Sharing firm contact information
All practice management applications feature a firm address book that everyone can share. This makes it easy for users to access information about any contact.
Even more important, users can easily access information about contacts involved with a particular case.
To give credit where credit is due, you can create a shareable firm address book in Outlook with "public folders." However, to simulate the ability to quickly find out which contacts are affiliated with a case or matter takes some doing: Outlook enables a user to create categories and assign contacts to those categories.
So you could, theoretically, add matters as categories (e.g., In re: Smith) and assign contacts to those matters. Then you could create "custom views" that would show you only those contacts assigned to a particular case or matter (i.e., category). You'd have to do that for every case. You can see how much easier this is in a practice management application.
In addition, the practice management contact form is likely to be much more versatile than Outlook's.For instance, in Time Matters, and most other case management applications, you easily can add new custom fields and change existing ones. It's a lot harder to do in Outlook.
You can see at a glance which events, todos, contacts, matters, documents, email and phone messages and bills are related; and you can add notes, and custom forms containing as much additional information as you want.
4. Lack of integration with word processing and document assembly applications
A well-designed practice management application provides integration with the major word processing applications such as Corel's WordPerfect, Microsoft Word and HotDocs. That makes it easy to perform a quick mass mailing to contacts in the database, or to generate more complex documents that extract information from the database.
Outlook is limited to basic integration with Word and lacks even a basic formattable clipboard feature to make it easy to cut and paste into other applications.
5. No integration with billing systems
Because you're keeping track of events and to dos in your practice management application, why shouldn't you be able to quickly generate a bill for the time you've spent right from within that application? In fact you should be able to do so with just a click of a button.
Some practice management applications have built-in accounting and time and billing modules, others allow you to create invoices and/or have links to time-and-billing applications such as Timeslips and PCLaw.
In addition, many of these applications offer a timer function, which you can turn on when you get a call, for instance.
6. No conflict of interest searching
Attorneys recognize the fact that the ability to quickly search the entire database (i.e., all fields, memos, notes, any custom forms, archived records, etc.) for a person or company name is extremely important. This feature is built into practice management applications.
While Outlook's search capabilities are very impressive (if a bit obscure at times) it offers no easy way to search the entire database in one fell swoop.
In addition, some practice management applications offer a "sounds like" or Soundex option to locate words for which you are unsure of the spelling or that may have multiple possible spellings.
7. No rules-based docketing
Sure you can maintain a calendar in Outlook, but can you create court rules for automatic calendaring? One program, Amicus Attorney provides a link to Compulaw that provides local court rules for automatic calendaring. Another, ProLaw, offers built-in Legalex Rules.
8. Lack of sophisticated reports
Outlook has only basic reporting features. By contrast, Time Matters 3.0 now enables users to create their own custom report forms. Amicus Attorney 4.0 offers two add-ons: "Report Pro Personal" and "Report Pro Firm-Wide." ProLaw has a powerful built-in report writer.
A practice management system should be one of the cornerstone applications of your practice, along with a document management and time and billing system. Because it is such an essential tool, research and try out at least a few products before committing. The good news is that many, if not most, of the case management applications listed offer either trial copies or on-the-Web demos, where a company representative walks you through the software. These options provide a much better evaluation method than any review could. In addition, we recommend signing up with one of the many legal technology listservs, such as TechnoLawyer Discussion List (www.technolawyer.com).
There you can get all sorts of valuable advice and information about these applications from other users (lawyers, office administrators, paralegals), consultants and integrators, and the software vendors.
Attorney Guy Wiggins is chair of LexTech Inc., a legal technology consulting firm based in New York City. Web: www.lextechinc.com.