Law firms are swimming possibilities when it comes to tools for managing everything from calendaring to security and all manner of documents. Technolawyer.com's list of the top billing programs has more than a dozen entries, and the American Bar Association's sampling of popular practice-management products for sole practitioners and small firms lists 13.
So how do lawyers choose? They don't. More than half of the attorneys queried for the 2013 ABA Technology Survey said they default to Microsoft Outlook to organize their law practice.
"Outlook is an incredibly powerful tool. But, boy, you can do better," says Michael P. Downey, chair of the ABA's Law Practice Division. "There's software out there that can do great things, like create bills and automate files." In fact, most firms no longer need to wrestle with paper files at all, he says.
Nearly two-thirds of lawyers told the ABA they organize emails that they've sent or received by dragging them into folders. If they want to share messages with colleagues at their firm, they either use the Bcc function to send them a copy or move email into a shared folder. That is, they keep using Outlook to do all these things manually, when document-management programs could automate those steps.
Both Amicus Attorney and Worldox, for example, let attorneys automatically share emails with everyone working on a given matter. Then the programs store the correspondence and any attachments in the appropriate folder. With the click of a mouse, the programs let attorneys see all the emails anyone at the firm has sent related to the case - no Bccs required. Similarly, both programs allow easy full-text searches of all case documents stored by the firm.
"The traditional model was that people would buy QuickBooks and Timeslips and three or four other products and try to maintain them separately," says consultant Norman Calderon of Greentree Solutions in El Segundo. "But what happened, inevitably, was stuff got mixed up and misentered, and didn't match."
Once firms see the practice-management light, the hard part is figuring out which products to purchase. Among the most important criteria, says tech consultant Bill Baker of Baker & Cadence Solutions in Hollister, should be how well tools work together.
"As a software tech consultant in this market, I preach integration," says Baker. It's crucial for case-management software to play well with the document-management service and the billing software, he says.
Internet-based practice-management tools also are easy and affordable to maintain, says Greentree's Calderon. "If you've got your own server, in a bit - maybe five, six, seven years - you're going to have to spend $6,000 to $10,000 to upgrade," Calderon says. "You're going to have to get a new server, new software, new licenses, and pay an IT guy. When you get into the cloud, you don't have to worry about that. You pay your monthly $200 or $300, and that's it."
The big names in cloud-based practice management typically charge $40 to $60 per attorney per month, and their users can access information from smartphones or tablets anywhere. Clio, one of the oldest and most popular platforms in the field, offers a host of tools, including standard features such as time tracking. It automatically files documents attached to client emails, exports accounting ledgers to programs like QuickBooks, and creates "client portals" that give clients access to specific documents. Other popular programs, like Rocket Matter and MyCase, offer similar features.
Paolo Broggi of San Francisco's 2b1 Inc., which consults with law firms about IT, cautions that mobile versions of many online practice-management tools (software that's "in the cloud") don't yet rival their keyboard-and-mouse-tethered brethren. "People want to be mobile and have access to their information from any device," says Broggi says. "Right now, the mobile capabilities are limited. You can't do everything you can do at the office. Most of them cannot do document assembly. And if they can, it's very cumbersome."
"Some of the implementations are just awful," adds Baker.
But increasing demand will lead to continuing improvements in cloud-based products, according to numerous consultants. About 54 percent of firms the ABA surveyed in 2013 stored some data online, compared with 40 percent in 2011, and 91 percent of lawyers say they use their smartphones for law-related tasks. The trend is clear.
The California State Bar adopted a "reasonable care" standard in 2013 for storing sensitive data in the cloud: California attorneys must take "reasonable precautions" to protect information. Just what that means remains unclear. But John Heckman, a legal tech consultant in Connecticut, thinks security concerns about the cloud are overblown. That's, in part, because data is at risk everywhere: Offices can be broken into, briefcases left behind in taxis, etc., he notes.
"I think the security issues that everybody has with the cloud are basically false issues," says Heckman. "Most of the cloud apps are more secure and have better backup than a typical law firm office."
Downey at the ABA Law Practice Division says lawyers can feel more confident if they're very picky about what data they upload to the cloud. "I want law firms to make distinctions, to say: 'This is information we should put in the cloud, and this is information we should not.' " He also advises that firms handle their most sensitive files the old-fashioned way: Keep them offline.
For firms that are especially concerned about security, consultant Cal-deron recommends a secure "extranet," an interoffice network that only authorized outsiders can use.
Dollars and Cents
If you're still not convinced that the practice-management tools are right for you, consider this: Time-tracking tools have improved dramatically in recent years and now automatically prompt attorneys to input hours for a variety of tasks. A program such as PracticeMaster automatically asks how long each email takes to write, then adds that time to the appropriate client's tab. At the end of the workday, Amicus Attorney can show you a list of tasks you completed - phone calls, emails, document drafting - and note which ones you didn't bill for, prompting you to enter the time before you head home. And programs such as Bill4Time now offer mobile time keeping, encouraging attorneys to bill for calls made away from the office, or research done on the fly.
With new tools to handle so many aspects of practice management, the minutes and hours that attorneys once spent combing their in-boxes for old emails, rooting through file cabinets, or recreating time sheets can become money in the bank.
David Ferry writes from San Francisco about the law, social issues, technology, and other oddities.