The terms “legal practice management” and “legal case management” get thrown around a lot, and sometimes they’re used interchangeably. But here’s the thing—they’re actually two different software systems.
So, what’s the difference? And how do you decide which one is the right fit for your law firm?
Legal case management
Legal case management does what it sounds like—it helps lawyers stay organized with their cases. It’s designed to support law firms in tracking and managing important tasks associated with various matters.
Key features of case management software include:
- Contact information and communications for clients, witnesses, and more
- A central location for organizing and accessing matter-related information
- Some case management systems also offer calendaring to help law firms stay on top of the many legal deadlines
Legal case management is a highly specialized software system that supports lawyers in staying organized with their cases.
Legal practice management
A legal practice management system has the same features as a case management system but it also supports running your law firm as a business. It lets you see and manage data and other processes that support your law firm’s financial health, team workflows, and relationships with clients.
Key features of practice management software include:
- The features mentioned in case management software (above), including centralized organization for matters, calendaring, and contacts
- The ability to create internal workflows for your team
- Legal billing and accounting
- Business analytics tools
- Document management
- Client relationship management
- Automation of certain tasks to create efficiencies
Practice management systems are designed to offer the organizational support lawyers need for managing their cases as well as the business support they need to function as successful law offices.
Choosing the right management system for your law firm
When it comes to choosing a software system for your law firm, there are a number of things to consider. Since both case management and practice management software systems offer matter-related legal support, we’ll focus on the differences between the two.
There’s no doubt about it; clients are the lifeblood of a law firm. Without their business, repeat business, and referrals, law firms wouldn’t be able to keep the lights on or pay their staff’s salaries.
Case management offers some client support, but it’s more focused on keeping track of clients’ information and communications. On the other hand, practice management systems go a step beyond case management systems in that they aim to address the whole client experience.
From a streamlined client intake process that lets clients fill out forms from the convenience of their homes to online payment options that allow them to pay invoices on the spot, practice management systems support a positive client experience.
Additionally, some practice management systems offer legal-specific merchant features that allow law firms to accept credit cards without risking trust accounting violations.
Understanding your finances
Another key difference between case management and practice management systems is that practice management systems are designed to allow lawyers to run their law firms as businesses.
A practice management system sets you up to easily review and analyze your financial data. For instance, you can see key metrics like realization rates or the percentage of bills that are being paid.
Practice management systems offer legal billing and accounting. These features significantly reduce double data entry when paired on a single platform. Likewise, because your billing and accounting features can “speak” to each other, the system can also conduct previously time-consuming tasks for you, such as three-way reconciliation.
They can also help you reduce the risk of having a client not pay a bill. For example, the system can monitor works-in-progress (WIPs) for you.
Not only can you set the system up to notify you when a retainer balance falls below a certain threshold, but it can also send an automated notice to the client, asking them to replenish the low balance. This practice is known as keeping evergreen retainers.
Creating efficiencies in running your law office
In addition to the opportunities for streamlined financial processes mentioned above, practice management systems create efficiencies that case management systems do not.
Right from the start of a lawyer’s workday, practice management systems come with built-in time trackers that help ensure billable hours wind up on an invoice—and don’t slip through the cracks. Of course, you also have the opportunity to use features such as importing credit card statements to make sure reimbursements for hard costs have made it onto the client bill, too.
When it comes time to create and send out those bills, practice management systems offer bulk billing. Although you’ll still want to review bills, this means that you can both draft them and send them out in just a few clicks, saving your team hours.
With time, you can build up the system’s capacity for automated document creation specific to your law firm. Once you’ve built the templates, the system can import client information from your online intake forms.
Finally, a practice management system also lets you build workflows—creating a standardized way of doing each task and helping your team make sure deadlines are met, even if everyone is working remotely.
Finding the right fit
Because law firms are also businesses, the flexibility of a practice management system is often the better fit. Part of practice management systems’ strengths is they support your whole firm, not just particular pieces of it.
A practice management system is built on the premise that having a strong law firm isn’t just about successfully representing a client in a matter. It’s also about having that client be appreciative enough of the experience that they recommend you to other clients.
While each firm has its own particular needs, don’t assume that just because practice management systems can do more means they’re more expensive than case management systems—the two tend to be competitively priced.
Instead, focus on the particular needs of your firm. For instance, no matter the size of your law firm, having automated features can save valuable time, but these features can have a particularly big impact on solo, small, and medium-sized firms.
Likewise, consider how your team works.
- Is everyone in the office all day?
- Do you have a hybrid or remote work environment?
- Do you do work on the go?
If you answered yes to the last two questions, you may want to use a native cloud practice management system, particularly one with a mobile app so that you can continue track time and manage workflows whether you’re at the office or the courthouse.
Ultimately, a good practice management system will offer flexibility, support growth, and fit your firm’s specific needs.