Demystifying Modern Practice Management
Capturing market share in today’s competitive landscape means you need more than great legal work. Without the proper tools to support your efforts, your firm can quickly fall behind others who are taking advantage of modern practice management to improve communications, create efficiencies, and streamline workflows. Choosing the right tools to support how you run your practice plays a significant part in not just improving your law firm’s processes, but also in your client satisfaction and overall success.
Billing, accounting, client management and communication, calendaring, document organization – all of these pieces affect your practice directly, so choosing the right solutions for your firm to handle these elements is critical.
Why Firms Need Modern Practice Management
Changes in technology and the creation of software meant to benefit small and medium-sized businesses has led to large scale benefits for businesses for years, but the lack of legal-specific solutions meant lawyers couldn’t reap the benefits in the same way other companies could. In recent years, however, the number of programs made to address the unique needs of lawyers has been on the rise, giving many firms the opportunity to improve their practice and operations.
The adoption of e-filing federally and in numerous states has also pushed more law firms toward the use of modern technology in order to digitize their documents. Given the amount of work involved with turning paperwork into digital data, many firms are taking it a step further to commit to a paperless law office. As one of the biggest hurdles is already addressed, the switch to paperless has become less daunting.
Choosing what type of technology to use can seem overwhelming, especially when there a thousand other tasks that need to be completed in order to keep a successful law office up and running. Adding in the process that goes along with choosing a provider, from research to comparison to trials, and then implementing the decision, can seem nearly impossible. Many vendors recognize the lack of available time for lawyers and have made it easier than ever to compare and test products. Having a basic understanding of the types of technology will also cut down on the time spent researching tools that don’t make sense for your firm.
From AI to e-discovery to e-filing, law firms are turning to technology to solve their most pressing needs and meet the requirements of the courts and bar associations. The American Bar Association has even issued a change to Model Rule 1.1 to let lawyers know they are expected not only to be competent in their representation but also in how technology may impact that representation. To provide the absolute best possible service and representation to your clients, you should focus on choosing the right tools to support your efforts.
Types of Practice Management Technology
There are only so many hours in the day. For lawyers to make the most of them, turning to technology is the surest way to capture back important time that can be turned into billable hours. From the office to the courtroom, the technology you use to manage your practice affects what capabilities you can offer, how much time it takes to complete tasks, and the image you present to colleagues, clients, and judges.
To best choose the option that’s right for you and your firm, it’s important to understand the different types of technology and how their benefits and challenges can impact your practice.
On-premises technology is the most traditional form of practice management, where programs are installed on devices and data is stored on an in-house server. Your firm’s data, servers, and everything involved in the IT environment is all kept at the physical office location.
This type of practice management is typically handled by an internal IT department, where each user of a particular software requires a license.
The large majority of on-premises technology has been around for years and many users are familiar with the technology and how to use it. This means there’s less you need to learn in order to use it in your practice and if you haven’t moved to the cloud, it’s likely your firm is already implementing this type of practice management.
The ability to stick with what you know means there is a certain level of comfort attached to on-premises technology, and it also eliminates the time spent learning a new tool.
While on-site technology worked for law firms for quite some time, it’s not without its issues.
Lack of mobility
Housing all your programs and data internally means the information is generally only accessible from the office. In a world where clients expect constant communication and lawyers need to be able to work while on the go, this presents certain limitations to how productive one can be outside of the office.
The large majority of programs that are meant to be run through on-site technology are Windows-based, leaving certain devices and operating systems incompatible with their software. The wide spectrum of available devices on the market makes it difficult to consider implementing a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy where employees use their own devices for company business. It also means the firm is restricted to what hardware it can purchase to support its operations.
Putting together an internal server is no easy task and requires a significant amount of IT expertise. You’ll either need an in-house expert or to retain an IT vendor to handle the process. The costs associated with setup quickly add up when you take into account hardware, servers, software, power usage, the physical space needed for all the equipment, and retaining an IT expert.
Once the server and internal programs are set up on each device, the process to add on a new user can be cumbersome. For every person that is added the same steps of installing software, activating and mapping it to the data source has to be completed.
Ongoing, costly maintenance
The risks associated with not staying on top of updates and maintenance to the hardware, programs, and the server can cause long-lasting damage to a firm. Lack of proper program updates leaves the firm exposed to potential malware and hacking, a considerable concern given the increased levels of law firm targeting for these attacks. The server also requires similar updates and routine checks to make sure everything is in working order, which is a critical task if this is where all of the data for your firm is housed.
Regular backups are also a requirement with on-site servers, and law firms need to consistently check to make sure these backups are being completed properly. In the event of data corruption or loss of data occurs, it would be a bad time for a firm to find out their backup was only copying over part of the files needed or that it was being completed in an unusable format. If your firm lacks the expertise to oversee these backups, it can mean significant exposure for data loss.
With on-premises software, an initial license is purchased and then installed. Any additional upgrades to a more recent version would require another payment and installation. Although all firms like to keep their budget as low as possible, not updating software means falling behind the competition.
Lack of modern functionality
Outdated software is the exact opposite of modern functionality and leaves firms trailing behind others who are adopting newer, more effective solutions. Because of the decreasing usage of on-premises solutions and the nature of the industry, this type of software lacks the innovation seen in other spaces. As a result, features that may be available first in cloud-based products can take a while to be released to on-premises software.
Also known as desktop-as-a-service (DaaS), hosted cloud services typically involve a third-party company hosting a virtual environment for you. These virtual desktops allow you to log in from your computer, but rather than accessing the system from your office you’ll be logging into one that’s hosted offsite. Once logged in, it will look and feel exactly like you had logged into a regular computer.
For someone who likes the on-premises tools and software, they’re using but wants to be able to access them from a location other than the office, going the hosted cloud route is an option.
With a third party managing your hosted cloud, this often means you’ll get around the clock service. While internally managing your data can mean it’s often one of many different tasks that fall on the responsibilities list, data management is the third-party vendor’s sole responsibility. Servicing their clients and ensuring all data is being stored and managed properly while staying on top of the necessary updates and maintenance is all part of their job, taking it off of the firm’s shoulders.
Firms also no longer have to concern themselves with in-house data backups and can leave that to the hosted cloud provider as well, freeing up time for other work.
Lack of device freedom
Mobility is a benefit of hosted cloud services, but there are restrictions as to what devices can be used. All of these systems require an access utility to be installed, which means you’re limited to Windows-based systems.
The hosted cloud provider is responsible for maintaining your virtual environment and everything that comes along with it, including anti-virus software and checks, backups and system upgrades. However, all of this work comes at a cost.
Any on-premises tools that you use, such as the actual computers or laptops, would still need to be updated and maintained internally. This means not all IT tasks associated with the system would be eliminated.
Same tools, same experience
Hosted cloud services would still leave you with the same software that you’re currently using. If there’s something you don’t like about it or are experiencing consistent issues and frustrations, none of that will be resolved by switching to a hosted cloud option. The functionality of all of your programs will remain exactly as they are now.
Given the magnitude of work involved with managing an entire environment, hosted cloud services are typically quite costly. Depending on budget and needs, this can drastically increase the amount being currently spent.
The hybrid cloud is a less common option that has qualities of both on-premises and cloud tools, where software is still installed on each device but the data is stored in the cloud. For example, you would still use Outlook but your email is now stored with Office 365 or all of your backups are now made to the cloud rather than your onsite server. This isn’t an all or nothing approach but instead allows users to have part of their system on-premises without releasing everything to the cloud.
Often pitched as a way to ease into using the cloud, this option offers the ability to access data outside of the office eliminating the need for internally handling backups.
Lack of device freedom
Even though you can access your data on the go, you’ll still need to install software on your device in order to get it. Similar to the hosted cloud option, issues with Windows compatibility still exist and limit what programs and devices you’ll be able to use.
Anything that remains on-premises will still require maintenance and updates, which will likely require additional IT support from an outside vendor or internal staff with IT expertise.
Native cloud is by far the most common form of the cloud. Completely web-based, you can log in from anywhere without needing to install any software, exactly like you can with email or other web-based platforms like LinkedIn or Facebook.
Mobility & device freedom
Today’s modern lawyer needs to be able to access their data anywhere, anytime and the native cloud offers a way to do just that. With no restrictions as to device or location, you can view your data from any Mac, PC, tablet, or phone. The large majority of these tools also offer mobile apps as well, designed to make it easy to access what you need with the click of a button.
Virtual cloud tools usually follow a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, which means any and all updates are included in the service. With no action needed on your end or additional costs for updates or upgrades, every user is always getting the latest model and version.
Virtual cloud services are known for their constant innovation and addition of new features, making it a good option for firms looking to get stay up to date and get the benefits of the latest technology.
No hardware dependence
You don’t need to rely on any specific hardware in order for the virtual cloud to work. If your computer crashes, you can simply use another device with no issue. As a result, many offices are now looking to go server-less and take advantage of the native cloud option.
Most virtual cloud services don’t offer an on-premises alternative, so there’s no fall-back option if the entire team isn’t on board with moving to the cloud.
Modern Feel & Function
For firms who want to stay competitive, the right tools can offer the edge over other lawyers. Modern practice management tools offer a host of benefits that dated options can’t compete with including:
If you want tools with the latest features and an easy to use, modern interface, you should look for options that release frequent updates automatically. When these updates depend on user interaction to be applied, they can often fall several versions behind, especially given the busy schedules of lawyers. By applying updates automatically, you can rest assured you’ll have the latest in security and functionality every time you use the tool.
Native cloud tools are known for their automatic updates, with releases taking place to the entire user base at once.
Integrations between the tools you use can create efficiencies, eliminating the need for double data entry or to cross-check the information in multiple programs. Modern practice management programs were built to be able to sync with a variety of commonly used tools like Google calendar, Dropbox, and Office 365 to allow users to develop a more custom setup.
As you look into what integrations are available, it’s important to note that not all of them are created equally. Some integrations are designed to only push data from one system to the other and not to receive it, which can create limitations. As you research and implement integrations, you’ll want to check to see exactly how they operate to make the most of them.
Improved Client Experience
Modern tools don’t just improve your internal workflow and processes – they also provide value to your clients as well. For example, online credit card payments not only boost cash flow for your firm, but it also makes it easier for clients to enter their payment and increases overall satisfaction. Information sharing through a client portal is another example, reducing the amount of time spent on client calls and emails while providing communication and transparency to the client.
When competing against other firms, being able to provide better service through technology is essential.
Between rising client demands, increased requirements due to e-filing and other mandates and the general daily workload, the to-do list for running a practice is seemingly endless. To be able to compete against other firms and succeed in today’s world, lawyers have to take advantage of technology in order to make clients happy and leave time to focus on true legal work and billable hours. As you look to modernize your firm, it’s important to think about how the various tools you use work together.
As you’ve likely learned by now, the tools you choose and use will directly affect your firms’ routine workflows. You want to select options that are going to make those workflows more efficient, not less. To be able to do that, you need to know exactly what functions are needed, what types of tools to use for each of those functions and how they should communicate effectively, whether through integrations or all-in-one solutions.
Not every tool has the same capabilities, so research those thoroughly before making any decisions. Some options only include the core function, while others rely on integrations to work. There are even some programs that are designed to only specialize in one key function, making it difficult to tie into other systems. Even though it can be a highly efficient tool, the amount of time spent manually inputting data in another system can offset the value it provides.
Law firms have some very specific workflows other industries aren’t concerned about, especially those related to compliance and trust accounting. To maintain compliance and also ensure you’re completing tasks accurately, choosing tools meant for general use may not be enough. Those created specifically to address the unique needs of the legal industry are designed with workflows to support items such as individual client ledgers and preventing overdrafts.
Modern Practice Management for Law Firms
Now that you have a better understanding of what’s involved with modern practice management, consider using this information as a guideline for how to improve your firm and set it up for success. Today’s practice management tools are designed to be utilized by users of all technical skill levels, so no matter what your technical background is you’ll be able to take advantage of all the benefits associated with them. For all the areas you oversee to run your practice, from accounting to client interaction to case management, modern practice management tools were created to make your life easier and give you more time to focus on the billable tasks.
With the information from this guide, take some time to research and choose the right tools for your practice in order to transform your firm, streamline operations, and simplify countless tasks.