What to Know When Migrating from Yesterday’s Legal Software

Misbah Jalal Siddiqui

What to Know When Migrating from Yesterday’s Legal Software

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Practice management systems come in many different shapes and sizes. Some are very comprehensive software that include a full suite of features (billing, accounting, tasks, and more), while others focus on particular areas of the legal business, like billing or matter management, and sync with various tools to create a complete practice management solution. Law firms may choose one solution over another for a multitude of reasons, but the fact of the matter is that lawyers must have something in place to help manage their office. The good news is that just like technology in any other industry, there has been rapid growth when it comes to what is available to law firms. The problem is that the legal industry, in general, has an unfortunate reputation of being slow to adopt new technologies. This, more often than not, can be to the detriment of lawyers. Take, for example, the vast numbers of lawyers that entrust the management of their firm to outdated, unsupported, or ill-fitting software. While their software was most likely a great solution when first implemented, the legacy software of yesterday was not designed to meet the needs of modern, mobile law firms. A well-known example of this, which we will be utilizing to illustrate our case, is popular desktop legal practice management software, PCLaw.

PCLaw, a comprehensive, all-in-one practice management solution, is one of the most commonly used applications in law offices for a good reason. However, its mobility can be limited and many lawyers who were content with the program’s functionality a decade ago are now finding that it does not fit their current needs. This is only one example of one practice management solution that is signaling a shift occurring in the legal industry.

Lawyers are beginning to recognize that a change is needed and that it’s up to them to take proactive steps to modernize their practices. In order to keep up with the demand of society, lawyers should be auditing the technology they use to manage their practice and evaluate if their current technology will allow them to be competitive in their market, more productive in their office, and more adaptable to the expectations of their clients — allowing lawyers to always be connected and work wherever and whenever they’re needed. If the answer to any of these questions is “No,” it may be time for the firm to consider transitioning to a new practice management solution. Because PCLaw is a well-known system, we will use it as an example throughout this paper, but whether your firm is using PCLaw or any other practice management system, here are a few points worth considering before making the practice management system switch.

What’s Driving The Change Away From Yesterday’s Software?

PCLaw, as many law firms can attest to, has been around for many years. It was started by a privately-owned company and eventually sold to LexisNexis, where it continues to be maintained. It is a popular billing and accounting program for law firms, with a large user base in the United States and Canada. For many lawyers in Canada, not only is PCLaw a popular tool, but it has been their only option when it comes to a software solution that can handle their very industry-specific billing and accounting requirements.

PCLaw’s core strength is its combined legal billing and accounting solution, including the handling of soft costs, hard costs, taxes, and fee allocation. It also offers practice management capabilities like calendar and document management, but it’s practice management capabilities are not as robust as many law firms require. For those that want stronger practice management capabilities, LexisNexis has encouraged users to integrate the software with other solutions like Time Matters, or Amicus Attorney Software. This usually requires the firm to either have IT resources on staff or hire a consultant to manage the integration, but in the end, it provides a complete system of tools to run the law practice.

In an attempt to stay relevant and competitive with emerging technologies, a new version of PCLaw is released annually along with numerous bug fixes throughout the year. Current users on a paid support plan receive the new version at no additional charge, along with support from LexisNexis. Users that are not on a support plan and who would like to upgrade their software can pay a premium, called a reinstatement fee, to rejoin the annual maintenance plan as well as receive the most recent version. Otherwise, if a user is not on a paid support plan, new versions and support are not available from LexisNexis. There is, however, a group of well-qualified, independent certified consultants that are available to help throughout North America. These paid consultants help customers with setup, training, customized reporting, support, and other PCLaw related needs when required.

While law firms are clamoring for updates to their programs, they are most often searching for new features that will allow them to become more agile in how they operate and software delivery that will grow with the firm and the changes to the legal business landscape. Unfortunately, the new versions of PCLaw have been heavily focused on updating the back-end of PCLaw to SQL and fixing critical known issues, without taking into consideration the addition of many new features. These updates, while critical to the overall survival of the platform have left many of the end-users demanding more of the software they depend on so greatly to manage their firm.

The slow-paced innovation of PCLaw has been revealed most in the mobility of the application. For the everyday user, PCLaw does not lend itself to being an agile, mobile tool, as it is desktop software. LexisNexis has added a mobility component in recent years, and “hosted cloud” solutions through a third-party may be available, but these solutions can be limited and some may find it difficult to use, manage, and maintain. In today’s fast-paced, mobile world, PCLaw doesn’t give lawyers the anywhere, anytime access they need to best serve their clients and remain competitive with other firms who can operate on the go.

It’s important to keep in mind that PCLaw is not the only legal software that is presenting its users with these issues. This is a widespread problem that is plaguing many of the law practices that are still utilizing legacy desktop practice management tools. It is these common issues that have allowed the emergence of cloud-based solutions to be so great in recent years across the legal industry and what has led many lawyers to start looking for new, alternative solutions.

What To Consider When Leaving PCLaw (or Any Other Solution)

If your firm is considering moving away from PCLaw, or any other legal software, the first thing to do is analyze what functions of your current software you are using and what functions would you like to be using that you currently cannot.

Performing an analysis like this will help you generate a list of needs and wants for a new solution. The last thing any firm wants to do is rush to implement a new system and find out that it doesn’t satisfy their needs. So, pull your whole team together and make sure you consider everything, from every department, before rushing to decide on a new solution.

There are many things to consider when comparing legal practice management systems. This short checklist serves as a basic guide for firms looking to find a new solution to manage the many different aspects of running a firm:

Modules needed

What are the different areas our firm needs to manage? It could be different based on the size or practice area focus of your firm. Here are some standard areas to consider:

  • Billing
  • Accounting
  • Practice Management
  • Trust Accounting
  • Electronic Billing
  • Reporting

Cloud-based vs Desktop Software

  • How many members of your firm need to be able to access the system?
  • Are employees at your practice working remotely or on the go?
  • Does the solution need to be scalable for a growing firm?
  • Who will manage your IT support and data storage?

How often do you plan on updating your software version? Implementing a desktop solution may mean losing productive hours each time you need to manually update your desktop software. Where updates to cloud-based programs usually happen automatically with minimal interruption to the firm.

These are all questions you need to ask yourself before deciding whether your firm can run efficiently with a desktop-based system or whether you require a cloud-based product.

All-in-One vs Separate Programs vs Integrated Solutions

Legal billing and accounting are required to be in lockstep with one another, as well as other areas of your business. The legal industry takes three very different approaches to this problem. Some applications can handle both billing and accounting, while others are dedicated programs that manage either your firm’s legal billing OR accounting. There are a few questions to consider when utilizing separate systems:

  • Do you want to monitor and manage this manually, or would you prefer systems that are integrated with each other and communicate back and forth?
  • Who will be in charge of double-checking the data in each system if they are separate?
  • Is every system you’ll be using legal-specific (i.e. designed to keep you compliant)?
  • How much is the extra monthly cost associated with purchasing separate programs?

Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Data Migration

Once you have narrowed your selection of possible practice management solutions down to a few viable options and tested the remaining solutions in your office, another factor to consider is how you will move all of your data from your current system(s) into your new software. Unless you are a new firm with no contacts, matters, and transactions, the data migration process is a large part of what you need to look at before you make a move. Even a new firm most likely has contacts in Outlook or Gmail that should be brought into the new practice management system.

It will also be important to understand the potential cost associated with data migration. Many providers will charge firms a migration fee that can amount to several thousand dollars — either direct fees from the provider or associated fees from a migration consultant.

One way data can be migrated is through manual rekeying from the old system to the new, but this is slow, usually expensive, and likely to cause errors. Plus, your firm will most likely still have related information (invoices, account balances, etc.) from other systems to tie in and reconnect to each matter.

When considering the data you will need to migrate, the first thing you should do is make a list of what data you have and where it currently lives. Here’s a checklist to get you started:

▢ Matter information including key dates and intake information

Need to Migrate? Yes ☐ No ☐ Current Location: ______________________________

▢ Contact information for clients, other parties and contacts

Need to Migrate? Yes ☐ No ☐ Current Location: ______________________________

▢ Documents

Need to Migrate? Yes ☐ No ☐ Current Location: ______________________________

▢ Emails

Need to Migrate? Yes ☐ No ☐ Current Location: ______________________________

▢ Calendar

Need to Migrate? Yes ☐ No ☐ Current Location: ______________________________

▢ Financials

▢ Business Accounts

Need to Migrate? Yes ☐ No ☐ Current Location: ______________________________

▢ Trust Accounts

Need to Migrate? Yes ☐ No ☐ Current Location: ______________________________

Not only is importing the data important but also the relationships between the data sets. You don’t suddenly want a calendar filled with appointments not tied to contacts or matters, invoices that are not tied back to matters, or contacts disconnected from their cases. This could cause an administrative nightmare!

Considerations Beyond The Basics

Naming conventions can come into play as well. Make sure that the way you name different matters and other elements of your casework meets the guidelines of the new system you are migrating your data to. If you have matter names that might be 30 characters long, and the new system only allows 15, you could have a problem on your hands. If you are using automatic client matter numbers and the new system uses sequential numbering, you will have to adjust or eliminate the system from consideration.

In addition to field sizes and types of information, it is also important to look at characters used. Some firms use symbols in naming or describing cases like “< 20G” as part of the name. If these characters won’t be recognized by the new system you need to decide if it is easier to make changes in your existing data prior to export or to clean up the exported data before importing.

For financial conversions, look at the date of your planned conversion from the old system to new and how much data you need to bring in. Your life (and the daily flow of your business) can be made easier by scheduling the data migration for the end of a regular billing period or the start of a fiscal year. This is also a good time to review your chart of accounts, including account names and the numbering system. Changing systems creates a perfect opportunity to revise your chart of accounts to better fit your needs.

For billing, check whether you will be able to bring in all transactions or just balances for trust and AR. If you will continue to have access to your old system or can save reports, then just being able to carry the balances may be sufficient. However, especially when considering trust accounts, if you will not have access to the past data, you need to have a plan in place for how you will handle an audit.

Once again, migrating your data provides an excellent opportunity to start off clean inside a new system. This can be particularly beneficial to your billing processes. Look at unbilled time and expenses, especially if you are a firm that doesn’t bill your clients regularly each month. You should also review the firm’s uncollected and/or unbilled advanced client costs. If you haven’t been reconciling this data regularly, now is the time to clean it up and get in the habit of reconciling it on a regular basis going forward.

Migrating To A New System Is A Job For The Entire Firm

When you migrate, make sure all the appropriate parties review the data and sign off before any data is copied or removed. You don’t want to find out 6 months later that something is wrong or missing because the further past the migration date you go, the more difficult it will become to recover or remember the data. Make sure all members of your firm check calendars, matters, contacts and related records for completeness and to make sure appropriate relationships between data pieces are still in place. Your billing staff should check the WIP, AR and trust balances. Your accounting staff needs to check the trial balance and bank and credit card accounts. Additionally, make sure that your first month in the new system is reconciled correctly. Failing to do this will put you behind the 8-ball when reconciling all future months.

Finally, it’s important to work with the provider of your new software. Understand what their onboarding process includes, what data can and cannot be migrated to their system, and how much support they can give you during the migration and implementation. Very rarely is any migration of data “automatic.” Work will be required from all parties to move all of your data correctly but when working with any reputable provider, the entire process and expectations should be outlined simply for your law firm. While it can be tempting to rush through this process and complete migration as soon as possible, it’s important to keep in mind that without proper migration of your data, you will only be prolonging the struggles of your practice, no matter what the new system’s capabilities are.

Is It Time To Make A Change?

If it seems like your law firm’s current practice management system is outdated or keeping your firm from being productive, changing your firm’s software can no doubt be a game-changer. Technology is improving at a rapid pace and you should take advantage of it when it makes sense. But, as is the case with anything worthwhile, it often does not come easy! Don’t take the process of upgrading your firm lightly and understand that it requires analysis, planning, and careful review — it should not be a rushed process. However, this should also not be used as an excuse by your law firm to put off updating your office. Only by embracing change and demanding the most out of the legal software in use at your practice, can you hope to stand out and remain competitive in the fast-paced, modern legal world of tomorrow.

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