By Nerino Petro at 1 December, 2006, 1:11 pm
In my role as the Practice Management Advisor for the State Bar of Wisconsin's Practice 411 TM law office management assistance program, I am often asked by members the following question: if there was one thing that they could do to improve their operations and efficiency what would I recommend? My initial answer is always the same — to implement practice management software into their practice.
In this day and age of reliance on computers, the Internet, PDAs and other office technology, attorneys have been extremely slow in adopting practice management software. This software, when properly implemented, can have a significant and almost immediate impact on a law practice. Beyond improving the efficiency and operations of the office, practice management software can also assist in preventing several common malpractice claims which usually rank in the top 10 areas of allegations made against lawyers by clients. Lack of diligence, lack of communication with the client and conflict of interest (in its various iterations) are consistently in the top 10 classification categories of malpractice allegations. And yet, for all of the benefits that practice management software can provide, lawyers are still reluctant to embrace its use and adopt this technology. Many attorneys already use Outlook as a type of practice management solution and question why they should discontinue using Outlook, while other attorneys question the cost of the software.
Many attorneys are using Outlook as a basic practice management solution and don't understand what additional benefits practice management software can provide. Outlook, like other personal information managers available for the nonlegal market, focuses on individual contacts, individual calendar entries, notes and tasks. Practice management software on the other hand, works from a case or file — centric perspective: all information relating to a specified contact or file can easily be located in one place. While you can find calendar entries for specified client in Outlook, the search tools required to do this take time to use and can be confusing. Outlook is also not a true database which means that all information is stored in one massive file and can be difficult to search and is also subject to corruption and size limitations. Outlook's inability to act as a document management system allowing both internal and external generated documents to be attached directly to the file, as well as its inability to manage e-mails by matter and to group its other records together, makes Outlook a poor tool for the legal environment. While Outlook e-mail capabilities are superb, it is its other shortcomings that affect its suitability; however, recognizing this, most modern practice management software allows the continued use of Outlook as an e-mail client while providing the ability to link e-mail messages to the practice management software database.
Practice Management Software is no longer only for the “Big” firms. With pricing under $400.00 for the first user and significant discounts for additional users, price is no longer an argument for not using a practice management system. Modern practice management software such as Time Matters®, Practice Master® or Amicus® put critical information regarding an attorneys’ practice, including client and case information, information for other parties, events, email and to do items at their fingertips. Properly implemented, practice management software puts all of the information regarding a file at an attorneys’ disposal from their computer screen without the need for opening the paper file.
A recent video from Leap Legal of Australia which ran on YouTube for a brief time was a perfect example for how practice management software can benefit a practice. While it was done by an Australian practice management software company, it could easily be a scene from the US – just eliminate the accents.
The video showed an attorney covering for a colleague who was out of the office responding to a question from his colleague’s client. The client was inquiring as to a date and even with the file in front of him, the attorney couldn't provide the information: the information was not kept in the file but in the other attorney’s calendar which was unavailable. The attorney then found himself in a position of asking the client if he could call her back rather than providing the information that should be readily available. This short video pointed out, in a clear and concise manner, the weakness of not having a practice management system and how it could have benefited this attorney in trying to deal with the client.
With a properly deployed practice management software package, this attorney could have went to the matter file and easily found the date the client was calling about while he had the client on the phone; there would have been no need to call her back. He could have also rapidly located any other information the client may have requested regarding her file including documents, other dates, related parties and additional pertinent information.
Practice management software becomes the foundation of office operations by providing one central location to which an attorney or an attorney’s staff can turn to regarding most, if not all, issues relating to a clients representation. When used in conjunction with a scanner and the integrated document management systems found within the practice management software, the need to pull out the physical file is greatly diminished if not done away with altogether.
Even if an attorney discounts the improvements in operational efficiency from using practice management software, the ability to greatly reduce potential malpractice claims caused by statute of limitations dates, neglect as well as failure to identify conflicts of interest, is worth the cost of the software. Modern practice management software can not only calculate statute of limitation deadlines but can also place reminders on a calendar in advance of that deadline to act as reminders of the approaching due date. Taking advantage of the inherent filtering and search capabilities of the software, attorneys can check to see which files had no action taken within a designated time period such as the past 90 or 120 days. Using the conflict checking capabilities, an attorney can check not only the information stored directly within the practice management software but also outside records such as Outlook e-mails, the Internet and documents on the office computer systems. The benefits offered by these programs don't stop with these capabilities.
Integration with popular time and billing programs can cut down on the need for duplicate information entry and more accurate billing. Synchronization to PDAs and notebooks computers allows the lawyer to take his or her office on the road wherever they travel and then synchronize it with their office systems upon their return.
As with any piece of software, realistic expectations, adequate training and adoption of features other than in an "all at once" manner are key to the successful implementation and continued use in any office. If you aren't currently using practice management software it's time to take another look.