Computer Counselor - March 1998
Bridging the Gap with Practice Information Managers
Solos and small firms can now afford case management-type software
by Daryl Teshima
Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Law Office Computing, a bimonthly legal technology magazine. He can be reached on the Internet at email@example.com.
A new breed of legal software can dramatically improve a law firm's bottom line and overall efficiency. Practice information managers combine many of the best attributes of case management packages and personal information managers, bringing digital organization to the law office for affordable prices.
The advantages of case management packages have been obvious for years. What practitioner would not want a program that organizes every piece of information surrounding every case and matter that the firm is handling? Properly implemented, a case management system acts as a project planner, conflict checker, scheduler, document manager, address book, and timekeeper.
Unfortunately, many case management packages appear to have been designed for large legal firms or departments with bottomless technology budgets. Past models often required expensive customization and a staff dedicated to keeping the whole package running. For sole practitioners and small firms with limited technology budgets, case management software has been a tough sell.
The only alternative for smaller firms has been personal information managers, which have the functions of a Rolodex, calendar, and scheduler. These programs work like a computerized datebook, making them intuitively easy to use. Better yet, the price is right, typically under $100. Three popular ones-CorelCentral, Lotus Organizer, and Microsoft Outlook-are included in the price of an office suite.
Although many personal information managers are affordable and easy to use, they do not have the features specific to law practice that are found in case management packages. In addition, the majority of personal information managers are designed for individual use, not for a modern law firm trying to juggle cases, attorneys, and clients.
Unable to justify the expense needed to implement a traditional case management program and unsatisfied with the nonlegal feature set of personal information managers, many law firms fell into a technology gap. In response to this problem, a new category of legal software has slowly emerged-the practice information manager. This software group combines the intuitive datebook interface of a personal information manager with the case-organizing capabilities of case management packages. More important, the starting cost of these products is under $1,000, making them affordable for many more law firms.
Selecting the right practice information manager for your firm not only requires knowledge of your firm's computing capabilities but also a careful analysis of your office's current case-proc-essing procedures. The latter is especially critical because some products work better in certain environments. In addition, a case-processing analysis will help you determine which program features will truly benefit your firm.
Even after performing a case-processing analysis, do not decide what to buy without consulting others. Have the program's future users create a wish list of the features they want to see. Next, prepare a list of the software that matches your firm's desired features.
The Internet is a great place to start, as many practice information managers have Web sites filled with product information and demos. Besides the Net, peers in other law firms are a great source of information. Since selecting and implementing a practice information manager will require a great deal of time and no paltry expense on your firm's part, always request a demo or evaluation copy of the software. In addition, ask each vendor for references, or better yet, arrange to visit a comparable law firm where the program has been successfully implemented. Every ounce of homework can save a pound of headaches later.
Another important step is to establish procedures for evaluating the software. One good approach is to form a focus group consisting of staff and attorneys that represent a technological cross section of your firm. Do not choose only individuals who are adept with computers. You need your focus group to be a reflection of your firm in general, so that the group may highlight a program's strengths and weaknesses.
Comparing different practice information managers can be quite difficult, especially since each program has a different approach to organizing a law firm's caseload. Firms may show due diligence, however, by comparing practice information managers in the following 10 areas.
First, make sure your law firm's computers can run the practice information management program. Minimum hardware requirements do not represent what is actually required for practical use. If possible, ask for either a trial period or a money-back guarantee so that you may verify that the product does work on your firm's computers. Another basic question to ask is what operating system is needed to run the program. If your firm is still using DOS, then your options are reduced to Abacus Law and Case Master III. If your firm uses a version of Windows, determine if the program is a 16-bit version (Windows 3.1x) or a 32-bit version (Windows 95/98, NT). Remember, the life span of DOS and 16-bit programs is limited in the sense that operating systems slated to be sold two or three years from now most likely will not be able to run DOS or 16-bit programs. Hardware prices continue to go down, so a decision to implement a new practice information manager program may be timed to coincide with a hardware upgrade.
Second, networking gives practice information managers the ability to centralize case and client information. These programs should, unlike paper case files, not only allow more than one person to work on a matter at the same time but also to access the most up-to-date case and contact information. Make sure that the program can perform group scheduling (or link to a program that can perform that function) and allow you to view someone else's calendar. Such centralization implies, of course, an adequate server and network.
Third, one of the most important features is a program's ability to calendar and schedule events. Make sure the program will perform tasks found in most personal information managers, such as keeping track of personal appointments and monitoring to-do lists. Another important calendaring feature (especially for litigators) is an application's ability to calendar dates based on local and state court rules. Many programs allow you to set parameters for calendaring due dates. For example, when you receive a set of interrogatories, the program may automatically set a due date 30 days after service. Verify that a practice information manager's calendaring rules can be further customized to suit your needs, for example to adhere to local Southern California court practice.
Fourth is contact management. Examine each program for its ability to manage information about clients, attorneys, experts, and anyone else encountered in the firm's law practice. The programs vary in their ability to handle contact information, with some packages offering fields only for name, address, and phone number. Other packages (such as Amicus Attorney and Time Matters) have customizable contact features that rival powerful personal information managers. Your firm may not need that level of detail, however.
Fifth, see if the program checks for conflicts, which is a feature that malpractice carriers will love. Having a practice information manager perform conflict checking is usually a huge improvement over the way most firms now check for conflicts, which is simply to determine if a party is listed on a client-matter list generated by an accounting package. This method often misses related parties (opposing counsel, former attorneys, subsidiaries, etc.) that a practice information manager most likely can catch.
Sixth, do not ignore the interface. Although you should not judge a program only by its interface, a program cannot be expected to gain firmwide acceptance if it is not easy to use. An appealing and intuitive interface can go a long way toward accomplishing this goal.
Seventh is linking. Centralizing law firm data is one important feature, but linking that information to other applications is another. Make sure that the software programs used in your office can link to the data stored in the practice information manager, such as time-and-billing packages and document assembly systems. Often the program's manufacturer can, for a price, customize its product to export data into your other applications.
Eighth, scrutinize the reports that the program generates. All the information captured by a practice information manager will not do a law firm any good unless it can present the data in a meaningful manner. In addition, determine how easy it is to customize reports for your firm's particular needs.
Ninth is price. When shopping for practice information managers, pay close attention not only to the initial purchase price and cost per user but also to what you will pay for ongoing support and upgrades. If possible, buy with a money-back guarantee or an evaluation period so that you may realistically test the program under normal conditions.
Tenth, evaluate the stability and longevity of the company that makes the practice information manager that you are interested in buying. How long has the program been on the market? How many law firms use the program? Answers to such questions will tell you something about the reliability of the program.
Before bringing the entire firm online, install the software and test it for reliability using your focus group. Right or wrong, people form opinions based on their first impression. A test implementation will give you the opportunity to discover and resolve many of the bugs. Make sure you also have troubleshooting help and technical support in place from day one. Ask your vendor for special support when you implement the new system.
Finally, work with your vendor to develop training classes and materials for your firm. In addition, provide complete written documentation to all users. The better the program instructions, the less technical support you will need. To further efficient program use, encourage the formation of user groups in which attorneys and staff can help one another solve nagging problems.