Legal Software: The Definitive Buyer’s Guide
The rapid growth and adoption of legal software highlights the value law firms get out of such systems & solutions. The question now is not whether you need to buy a legal software, but which one to buy?
However, finding the right legal software often leaves users confused as there are so many different options. Users can choose from different deployment options such as Cloud, On Premise, Web Applications and Mobile Applications. The list of features is also very varied with some systems offering Document Management, Workflow, Email and Accounts as a single package, whereas others use add-ins and third party integrations to fulfill this.
On closer inspection, users will also see that every system performs each of these core features differently. If we take document management as an example then we can see that some systems allow users to create documents by mail merging from database fields. Some allow preview of these documents while others allow documents to be automated by workflow engines. A few also allow documents to be held as templates and billed according to time and or units. Some of the more advanced systems even allow document bundling and producing multiple documents. The list goes on. Thankfully, we have made your task easier.
This guide is to help you know the nitty-gritties of buying the right legal software for your firm.
Why your law firm needs one? Or two or even three.
- Law firms are known to use a combination of software such as Microsoft Word and Outlook, Case and Matter Management Software, Billing and Finance Software as separate packages. This WILL result in duplication of effort and time.
- The right choice in software will Increase efficiency and accuracy.
- It will also reduce risk and increase compliancy.
- As a result, Firms will improve their profits, service level and control.
It is surprising that so many lawyers still only use a paper filing system to organize and conduct their cases. Others use a simple document writer such as Microsoft Word along with local folders to allow them to type letters and store them on their hard drive. Technology has rebooted the way lawyers work. Can today’s lawyers afford not to use software? Can law firms continue to run on paper?
The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Legal Software
Know everything about legal software before you make a decision. In this guide we will be covering the most important aspects of legal software and solutions.
Introduction to Legal Software
Legal Systems have now become a must for the professionals of the legal industry. Lawyers can no longer continue to be cost or time effective without having a structured legal system in place.
There are huge benefits of investing in good legal software, Case Management System, Practice Management System etc. Not only do they allow lawyers to be productive, they allow for improving document accuracy and swift production of correspondence, court documents and statement of costs through automated means.
These factors ultimately allow firms to provide enhanced client care, but also manage and control risk. Firms can demonstrate stringent compliance as well as reducing common mistakes such as missed key dates and losing cases or matters due untested methods of being otherwise organised.
The decision making process of choosing the right software will require in-depth research and knowledge of your firm’s requirements. Most vendors offer demonstrations, however, we believe that you should try before you buy.
The right software has to strike a balance with both managers and the daily users – the fee earners. Firms should consider whether they are seeking simply a Document Management, Case or Matter Management System or a complete Practice Management System.
Furthermore, systems can also provide a whole range of Finance and Billing features with Business Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence allowing managers to interrogate Management Information in real time. Some legal software can provide all of the above in one place. If you are a new start up, you should consider fully integrated software which is simple to use so that you can concentrate on your clientele rather than various pieces of software required for running your firm.
Here at Legal Software Adviser we have compiled a list of factors to consider when deciding which Legal Software you wish to invest and deploy across your firm.
Matter Management Functionality
The main function that users should put to test when considering a Legal Software is the Document Management capabilities as users would spend most of their time working with this. In effect, this is the production department of your firm which will record and bill time and attendance on matters.
Note that Case, Matter and Practice Management are used interchangeably with each vendor prescribing their own definition of what this actually means or contains. As a result, Legal Software providers can greatly vary on this core function.
Do not be surprised by some software providers who have barely touched on this core function and basically lost the plot by not giving core functions such as a dashboard showing the amounts billed by month or the amount outstanding by Fee earner.
Our simple tip is to choose the software that is easy to use day in day out and at the same time provides all of the basic functions required to run your cases. What is also a nice bonus is where there are ready to use template letters, court documents and pre-installed screens making the software usable as soon as it is installed.
For the tech savvy users or firms with in-house IT department the right system could be those that are customizable or can be further developed. These web applications could also allow API’s and Web Services to work in conjunction with other software or data that is specific to the firm.
Deployment Options of your Legal Software
Traditionally, Case Management and Matter Management Systems have been On-Premise Installations. This is your typical standard installation where software is installed on the firm’s computer or local server. The software is usually a desktop based application developed in WPF or WCF.
In recent years we have seen many of these installations to offer Cloud Deployment. Cloud-based Solutions have no local installation; the software is accessed via remote connections. The application is usually hosted by the vendor who takes the responsibility of security, maintenance and backup.
The latest option is Web Applications which can be accessed directly via a web browser. This option gives a whole new user experience, those similar to online banking and can seamlessly integrate to mobile applications.
Now user has a choice between the two. We have summarized the main features for you to consider:
|On-Premises Installation||Cloud-Based Solutions||Web Application|
|Installation time from hours to months||Rapid installation||Rapid installation|
|Hardware costs from simple to large servers||Some software installation may be required||No software or hardware required|
|Large initial outlay and in many cases monthly costs as well||Usually a small installation payment and a monthly subscription fee||Usually no installation cost and a monthly subscription fee|
|Seldom new versions||More regular new versions||More regular feature updates|
|Upgrade costs||Some upgrade costs||No upgrade costs|
|Customisations are expensive||Customisations can be affordable||Customisations can be fast and affordable|
|Difficult to integrate to other software||Difficult to integrate to other software||Choice of integration tools via APIs and Web Services|
|Added responsibility of maintenance and backup||Vendor takes all responsibility||Vendor takes all responsibility|
Web Applications can also offer other deployment and platform benefits. These are the software-as-a-service (SaaS) and Bring your Own Device (BYOD) options.
There is also the option of Multi-Platform; this is where the user can simultaneously or concurrently use the Web and Mobiles Applications. We are seeing a great advancement in the development of mobile applications such as iOS, Android and Samsung Tizan due to the consumer’s rapid uptake in smart phones. No doubt, this will continue into the future.
In recent years we have seen the evolvement of non-relational or NoSQL DBMS such as MongoDB, DocumentDB and RavenDB to name a few. NoSQL does not follow the traditional tables and key pair value methods of SQL Databases, are Schema-less and are deigned to be ran on clusters. Thus, providing a more meaningful structure to document management. The options within NoSQL are Key Value/Tuple Store Databases, Document Databases, Column Family Stores and Graph Databases. As the legal system is ultimately imitating the traditional client file, NoSQL systems can be a better fit in many instances.
Performance can mean different things to different users. Speed is a key performance indicator and we would list this as one of the most important, simply for the reason that there are no reasons why systems should lag nowadays.
In fact, this would mean that there are issues in either performance testing, debugging or non-optimized coding techniques used in the system. Speed is also important because it affects the flow of users who may be under pressure to get things done fast. The last thing users need is the additional stress of a slow system and even worse systems that hang and need to be rebooted.
Legal Software should be stable and robust because downtime would result in loss of revenue. Not forgetting the fact that “time is money” cannot be more emphasized in a law firm.
Another very important performance indicator is that of scalability. Applications may work well with small amounts of data, however, as the volume of data and users grow many are unable to cope.
Our tip is to try before you buy and ensure that the demo data you are working with is significant and that the testing is carried out in your own environment with many users using the system simultaneously.
If such tests are restricted or denied, then it is wise not to move on and find a system that will meet these conditions. There is no real reason why a vendor cannot allow you to test their software the way you want in order to satisfy any concerns you have. After all this is the warehouse in which you will store your firm’s valuable stock (matters) for years to come.
Integration, communication and compatibility should be as standard in today’s world of Information Technology. Legal software should seamlessly integrate with common software such as pdf, Microsoft Word and online storage systems.
Integration has some major benefits such as less duplication of entering data, syncing with other programs, ready share information you need to and allowing you to work with live data.
A seamless integrated system can make life easier for you and your firm. The best scenario is where your system has not only integrated the different modules and apps but also where a clear and concise User Journey can be followed.
In these cases you would be able to manage all your requirements from a single system. This would result in easier management of your work, greater efficiency and quality of work produced, less stress and even reduction in the cost of system maintenance. Thereby helping you save on other software and subscription fees.
Reporting & Data Analysis
System data that is readily accessible can be used for many beneficial tasks such as producing live reports on KPI, comparing staff productivity, comparing periods; past v present, present v projected, analysing financials in real time such as work in progress (WIP) and cash flow.
Unfortunately, most Legal software and Case Management Systems are not fully equipped to deal with data effectively. The current view is that CRM systems are designed for this. Our view is that Legal Software should function as your CRM, ERP, Financial and Business tool.
Although many systems claim to have these in place, our findings have shown that most systems do not go into enough depth on these aspects. On the other hand, some systems include so much irrelevant features and reports that are static, making it nearly impossible to find the correct information that you are seeking.
The future of Reporting and Data Analysis should be live, concise and accurate data at your fingertips. We would like to see vendors improve on these areas by introducing AI (artificial Intelligence) and BI (business Intelligence).
There can also be Data Compliance requirements for you to check that this is being adhered to according to your location. For example, UK firms are required to follow the ICO guidelines on where their Data is housed within the EEA.
This is an area which is much talked about, especially in the legal industry. The reason for this is that System Security is a critical compliance requirement for law firms who are handing client and third party confidential data. Also, there is the business continuity aspect in unfortunate cases where data is stolen, lost or corrupted.
As this is quite often an area that is complex, or in many cases made complex, firms quite often make costly decisions. We recommend that where your software is accessed via the internet then at least the SSL certificates should be in place. The URL of the website should be https rather than a http. Also the transmission of any data should be encrypted using at least the AES or RSA Encryption technique.
Cloud vs. On-Premises is another major debate with pros and cons for both sides of the argument. Without going into too much detail on this as there are ample articles on the internet, we would point out that the right set up needs to be deployed in whichever path you choose.
On premise set gives you full control of your data but puts the onus on yourself to maintain the data. A simple slip can result in Data corruption or Data loss which can have business critical implications. Cloud deployment on the other hand lays the responsibility with the vendor who usually will have measures in place. We suggest reputable vendors are used and their facilities are fully checked before you make the decision of the Cloud option.
Licensing and Install Costs
There are a number of pricing options on the market without any uniformity by legal software vendors.
This makes it a time consuming job to compare pricing. There are many vendors that only provide bespoke quotes so their pricing information is not readily available.
Appointments have to be arranged in order to obtain the ‘price’. Some legal software vendors restrict software demos unless credit card details are provided beforehand. Our advice is to research such software thoroughly.
Be aware of pitfalls here, especially when you are having to bear large install costs and commit to lengthy contracts. Other questions that need to asked are third party licensing fees and cloud deployment costs.
Vendors in some cases have built on a third party platform such as Microsoft Dynamics CRM/Dynamics AX, SAP, Oracle or other bespoke or open source CRM/ERP systems. These will then attract further costs and can restrict vendors to deliver with their framework.
Firm Size and Multi Branch
Legal software and Case or Matter Management Systems can be beneficial for all firm sizes from the single user to hundreds and thousands of users.
The important points to consider are;
- Scalability: the ability to upsize and downsize.
- Flexibility: are you boxed in to work the way your system dictates?
- Performance: does the system perform effectively with small and large amounts of data?
- Speed: do not settle for a legal software that is slow, there is no need to. Given that you have an adequate processor on your PC, then a well-built system should not lag in speed when performing general tasks.
- Support: ensure that the service level is good and that support staff are knowledgeable in the process flow of the system.
The ability to have multiple branches and department is a great feature as it allows firms to sync their work with colleagues working from different locations. For those firms with a single branch, it still can be a desirable feature as it would mean that you would not have to change your legal software if the event that you open another branch.
Emails and Calendars with the Legal Framework
We have seen that there are different levels of email and calendaring modules, from bespoke modules where users can send and receive emails from their legal software and organize their calendars to systems that integrate to common known software such as Gmail and Outlook.
As we use these features very often, users are advised to give importance to this feature as it will enable you to be a lot more efficient as there will not be a need to use external systems to perform these tasks. A great benefit of having a built-in email program within the system is that users can tag emails to matters saving the need to search two different programs.
Task Management and System Notifications
Task Management allows users to break down their work into smaller pieces and work on them effectively. Many systems have successfully integrated their workflow and documents to generating tasks. There are many benefits of having Task Management, such as the ability to manage your own work, assign and reassign tasks to users.
Notifications are also a very useful task as it generally takes away the burden of having to remember events. It can also be integrated to workflow and tasks so that the notification is triggered on the back of an event.
Systems with built-in Business Intelligence are also able to escalate tasks and notifications where required so that critical tasks and dates are not missed. There are also a number of choices in delivering notification such as email and on-screen notifications.
Billing and Finance
There are two important points to consider here.
Billing is different to Finance in that this module enables users to maximize their billable time by displaying the time and by prompting where work can be done.
An interactive billing module can greatly assist when preparing interim and final bills and ensure that all time is accurately recorded. An effective billing system can result in maximizing the profits or fees charged and justified on matters.
Finance should be compliant in accordance to the regulatory body and the jurisprudence. An effective Financial Accounting System should allow users to report on financial transactions and analysis these with ease, drill down to base data, assist in comparing multi branches, multi departments and even individual staff performance. The superior legal software will have a well-integrated Billing and Finance module that will give you control of all financial aspects from KPI’s to micro level indicators.
Automation and Intelligent Reporting
Reporting has come a long way in recent years, largely due to the growth the ability to handle large amounts of data in real time. Users as a result demand only relevant contents and reports. They want live data and want reports to be generated quickly. Many Legal Software have lagged behind in adapting to the technological advances in reporting and still produce basic reports.
Other have been able to really integrate reporting so that data can be drilled down, viewed in different ways such as tables and graphs and even produce reports that are in sync with the system so that when the data changes, the reports are refreshed to consistently give live data.
Reports can also be automated so that they run at specific times or as a result of a certain event. Users then can choose whom the report(s) should be distributed to and by which methods; email or notifications.
We strongly recommend considering Legal Software that have strong built in reporting features. Some Legal Software on the market claim to provide drillable data reporting only to refer you to third party applications such as Qlik View which attract a further monthly fee, installation costs and possible development charges.
Dashboards can assist users in navigating through the system.
The better dashboards should be functional where users can quickly access different parts of the system, see relevant data such as KPI’s and notifications.
Many systems still are producing pretty dashboards that are not very functional.
The purpose of the dashboard should be to show a visual synopsis for the user, so typically, senior management may want KPI’s and company relevant data and charts displayed, middle management, may want to compare their subordinate performance and fee earners, may want to see matter specific data.
The ability to gain access to other systems and also to be able to give access to other parties is known as a portal.
We have already seen many portals, including government portals allowing seamless access to software. Examples are land registry portals and MOJ Portal.
For those of you practicing Personal Injury in the UK, the MOJ portal integration is a great feature and there are a few Legal Software that provide this.
Likewise, many software has outbound portals where access, limited and unrestricted can be given. The most common portal is the client portal, but also there are software that have developed portal allowing Involved Parties to connect.
Workflows, AI & BI
Workflows are becoming increasingly common as a built in module in many Matter and Case Management systems. However, we have seen that there is a large discrepancy between what functions workflows are meant to do.
A workflow should exist to make work more streamlined and not to make the system more complicated for the user. A well-constructed workflow engine can have great benefits for the users and firms.
Business Intelligence (BI) can also be well integrated to workflows, making them dynamic and real time. This information then can be communicated via the dashboard or in-built screen notifications. BI can also provide great financial benefits by analyzing bills and giving recommendations, assisting in the managing of cash flow and used effectively in budgeting and forecasting.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is used in legal software is still in its infancy. We are beginning to see AI such as speech recognition and natural language processing being integrated to some legal software.
Compliance was never seen as a software feature until recently.
As we all have to deal with more and more compliance requirements from our regulatory bodies, it makes sense to have a system that caters for built in intelligence to assist users and their staff being compliant.
Compliance is generally of two types; professional, where the lawyer is required to adhere to their regulatory bodies code of practice and financial where the accounting policies need to be met. Compliance is useful for firms of all sizes.
Large firms can use this to ensure that staff are working to company policies and practices and small firms can monitor their own compliance requirements by building in the necessary requirements.
We must however remember that compliance is ultimately the responsibility of the officers of the firm and therefore the responsibility should not be left entirely to the system.
There are many support options available from email only to 24/7 telephone support. Support is an important service and will greatly differ from vendor to vendor.
It is advisable to enter into a SLA (Service Level Agreement) which will outline the essential points such as downtime, disaster recovery etc.
As most users are not Technology Experts, the best option is to have telephone support, where you can ask direct questions to the support staff.
A new system for many users can be a daunting experience with so many new features to get used to. Training is therefore advisable prior to installation so that users can get to work straight away.
On-site training, where the vendor sends a staff to your premises or where an out of office class is attended is usually expensive. Also we need to question the effectiveness of such courses as quite often they are too much to digest in a day or two. Training material that is readily available may be a more suitable option for many.
There are also other ways that users can benefit from training at their convenient time such as video tutorial, training manuals and a separate practice or demo company where users can perform tasks and see the outcome. Practice companies can be very useful for learning certain aspects such as company set up and accounts postings.