Choosing the best practice management system for your firm can be difficult and overwhelming. Practitioners should stay focused on their needs and take an objective approach when selecting a new system to ensure best results and to avoid common pitfalls.
Note: This article was originally published by NextLegal on 1 November 2017 for the Law Institute of Victoria – Law Institute Journal: https://www.liv.asn.au/Staying-Informed/LIJ/LIJ/November-2017/Making-the-right-decision
- A practice management system can be broken down into distinct parts.
- There are many reasons for changing systems: It is important to understand your needs to best navigate the selection process.
- Case studies: Firms can achieve the best possible outcome when confronted with commonly encountered problems.
Technology in the legal profession
Technology underpins many aspects of how a law firm operates, from document management and task tracking through to billing and trust accounting. A practice management system typically provides a firm with the core functionality needed to operate in that it provides, in one solution most of the technology functions required.
A practice management system can typically be broken down into these distinct parts:
- document management (storing and retrieval of documents, emails etc)
- document and precedent generation (templating of commonly used documents)
- task tracking/workflow /calendar (managing critical dates and processes)
- client management (client contact details, marketing lists, event attendance etc)
- general accounting (office accounting, time recording, reporting and billing)
- trust accounting (managing and reporting on trust monies)
This breakdown can help to better understand what a typical practice management system provides.
Systems in the market
There are around 20 practice management systems commonly used in the Australian market. While the core functionality these systems deliver (listed above) is seemingly similar, how the systems operate varies significantly from one to the next.
There is likely to never be one system that works best for all types of firms. What one firm considers to be a feature, others may consider to be a hindrance. Some firms might want “bells and whistles”, others might want a system that is easy to use with minimum complexity.
Firms frequently state the following as reasons for seeking to change systems:
- a failed software provider relationship (a lack of support or engagement)
- a lack of system functionality (the system can no longer cater to their needs)
- a lack of system flexibility (the system does not configure or integrate with other systems)
- the system is perceived as a legacy system (ie, old technology) or there appears to be a lack of product development.
A key issue to determine is whether the current practice management system is being utilised to its fullest extent. We often encounter firms with very different views on the same practice management system. This is often related to how much a firm has done to extract the full value from the system.
Case study example 1
David is the principal partner at a small regional law firm. His firm had been operating with their existing practice management system for more than 10 years. David had felt growing concern around his practice management system’s ability to meet his firm’s needs and was at the point of needing to reinvest around $10,000 to $15,000 in new server equipment. The firm had frustrations around a lack of ongoing customer support, limited reporting, poor document searching and perceived billing inefficiencies.
The firm also had a number of part-time and travelling staff, so a lack of remote access was becoming increasingly frustrating.
In this case, the firm was unaware of many of the potentially suitable systems available to them. They were only aware of those providers that had contacted them as a part of a targeted sales effort.
Despite the age of their existing system, it was important to ensure the firm did not assume the same functionality and features would be present in a new system. This meant there was a need to carefully review the new system to ensure the functionality they liked in the existing system would not be lost. This was achieved through numerous demonstrations. In one example, this meant asking the provider to detail each of the steps involved in a trust transaction.
A trial of the new cloud-based system was also run over the firm’s existing internet connection. This was performed during normal working hours from the main office and from some of the staff members’ homes.
David and his firm were able to confidently select a system which addressed each of their requirements, removed their need to purchase new server hardware and provided a range of additional efficiencies such as improved email filing, time entry and document generation. The success was mainly attributed to taking the time to understand both the pain points and the things that worked well in the old system. Despite the range of “shiny” new features and benefits the new system clearly had over the old system, it was important not to focus solely on these features. All of the relevant staff were involved throughout and the entire process was completed in less than 12 weeks.
- A new system will not always do what the old system did, so make sure to cover the basics (the less exciting part of looking at a new system).
- Be prepared for multiple demonstrations, do not stick to the normal “sales script”, ask questions and be prepared to ask the presenter to “rewind” and go through anything you are unsure of.
- Where possible, test a potential new system in your environment (particularly with cloud-based systems).
Case study example 2
A personal injury firm of approximately 20 staff had enlisted our help to select a new practice management system.
An initial meeting with the firm revealed they were frustrated with the fees being paid for the current software, unable to extract the reports they needed, and unhappy with the level of communication from the provider and that the provider was not re-investing in the product’s future development.
Being a heavily automated firm, specific questions about the current systems workflow capabilities were covered. Answers to questions we asked the firm – “Is the system able to record time as a part of a workflow activity?”, “Are you able to easily move tasks between team members?” and “Can the system be integrated to automatically capture leads through your website inquiry forms?” – revealed that the system was doing what it was required to do, and in many cases was being underutilised. Further discussion determined that the system itself was not the key source of the frustrations, it was that the vendor relationship had broken down.
Many of the features the firm was interested in from a new system were either available in newer versions of their current system or, in some cases, in the version they were already using. Many of the reports they required were able to be extracted through a relatively small investment of time and effort. In order to provide some particular reports, the firm just needed to make changes to the matter opening process to ensure the relevant information was being captured.
In this case, given the relationship was salvageable, our recommendation was to stay with the current system and resolve any shortcomings. The time and money that would have been invested in changing systems was used to resolve any shortcomings and fund some future projects the firm was contemplating, providing a much better and lower cost outcome.
- If the relationship is salvageable, engage with your current provider. Almost all providers will welcome the opportunity to tell you about or show you some of the new features you might not be aware of.
- Many providers are guilty of not communicating the benefits of their system to clients. However, firms also need to be prepared to engage with their provider in order to extract the most value from their systems.
- Remain open-minded to the fact that pain points identified with your current system may be addressed without changing systems.
Taking the time to understand what is needed in a new system is the most critical step in the selection process. This should involve staff from all areas of the practice as each will bring different views and have different expectations of a system. Without spending the time and effort to be clear on what is needed, firms run a high risk of being led by the sales process itself, rather than the agenda and requirements of the firm.
Be aware that no system is perfect – sometimes the features your firm may want or need will not be a part of any practice management system. In this case, the firm will need to look at third party software or custom solutions to address those needs.
It is important to invest the time in detailed software demonstrations. The selection of a new system is likely to have long lasting implications for your firm, so it is not unreasonable to expect a provider to step through multiple demonstrations with you. We typically see firms complete three of four demonstrations of the system they elect to proceed with.
Stay focused on what you are looking to achieve in changing systems. Where you can, identify the things you will measure to determine if changing systems was successful. These measures can help to keep you focused on your objectives and will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.
To assist law firms NextLegal publishes a free online comparison guide www.nextlegal.com.au/newpms.