Originally, the title to this post was, Google Apps Will Replace Your Law Practice Management Software. Admittedly, the idea was to link-bait readers, because I’d add a “not really” caveat at the end.
The true inspiration for this post comes from Sara’s comment on my discussion about the new Track Changes Add-on in Google Docs:
Do you think Google Apps for Business could ever be used instead of law practice management software? I’m a new solo looking into what services I need and am debating whether a law practice management system is worth the cost.
That’s a great question, especially in light of the improvements to Google Apps and the suite of MS Office-like counterparts, and basically my answer is, maybe, but probably not. Although I would add this caveat: Google Apps might work as a case management system.
However, the question’s a little too broad, or I’m a little too shy of being clairvoyant, since anything’s possible given enough time. And given the semi-urgent nature of her statement, I’m assuming Sara’s thinking sooner, rather than in the next decade.
What is law practice management software?
First, before delving into the feasibility of Google Apps for Work as practice management software, we should probably seek a cursory understanding of the world of legal practice management programs. More importantly, we should understand why legal practice management software is probably necessary component to your law practice.
Practice management software is not calendaring and contacts
Most of the “practice” management solutions are actually case management systems; they’re designed to manage limited information about particular cases. For our purposes, I’m going to conflate the subtle differences, so practice and case mean the same thing.
Generally, there are two different forms of law practice management solutions: cloud or local. There are 5 or so “power house” cloud providers — Clio, MyCase, and RocketMatter — and a similar number of locally installed solutions — PracticeMaster, Amicus Attorney, and Time Matters, for examples. The ABA has a fairly comprehensive comparison chart with local and cloud providers. LegalTypist put together a report titled, The Sorry State of Legal Practice Management Software. Both reports give a fairly good review of the software that’s available. A Google search will probably uncover thirty dozen more reviews.
The biggest advantage to using a practice management system is that the software works to organize all of your law firm information into meaningful, contextual relationships. The practice management software assigns each client a number, then organizes all pertinent information by practice type, connecting clients to content. Most systems also allow you to create and manage documents, perform timekeeping and billing, and of course, set calendar appointments, and track contacts (these are case management programs). The more robust systems (usually local-based) allow you to perform additional office management functions, such as accounting and bookkeeping (these are true practice management programs).
The system characterizes, categorizes, and organizes the information according to clients, contacts, dates, and particular events. This organization gives the user fingertip access to various tidbits of case information.
But practice management software sounds like Google Apps
Most attorneys too easily assume that Outlook or Gmail can perform the same functions of organizing and arranging. But practice management software enables the user to do so much more than locate a contact, docket a hearing, share a calendar, or send a bill. When used correctly, law practice software helps to contextualize all of the information related to a particular client.
For example, you’re a personal injury attorney representing a client injured in a car accident. You’ve drafted emails, letters, and phone calls back and forth to the insurance company, and even sent them dozens of pages of medical records hoping to settle the matter pre-filing. Of course, you’ve dealt with 3 different adjusters on the matter, so you’re getting confused. You also have various schedules of events, descriptions of the accident, the client’s injuries, and you’re trying to make sure you actually make a profit on this matter, rather than busting your butt to break even.
The “curmudgeon method” of case management is to shove all of that information into a manila folder, place all the folders in one, two, or three red roper files, and shove everything in a legal box.
Digital attorneys skip the manila and red roper, opting to organize everything into tidy folders on a network or in their cloud storage space — you probably even expand things to include an “organized” method for naming and tracking files or documents. If you’re really advanced, you even have a great spreadsheet that lists your clients, the date you opened the file, the type of case, and other tidbits of useful information.
Curmudgeons, you accomplish the same stuff with indexes, “case summary” lists, and dozens and dozens of “organized” sticky notes. Either way, it’s the perfect system. And it works (at least until the stick note goes missing).
And here’s why Google Apps doesn’t quite cut it
Both “systems” are essentially practice management systems, but they’re missing one essential element: the contextual relationship. Sure, you could argue that having folders creates the context for everything, and with Google’s powerful search feature, it’s easy to find stuff when you have to.
The problem is, our practices don’t think in neatly organized folders. They’re dynamic, and most client cases look more like a complex, spiderweb-like mind map than just a simple array of scanned documents. We have clients, witnesses, pertinent fact, irrelevant facts, contacts, comments, conversations, research, and every other element of a single case. Plus, add in the 100+ online and offline conversations we might have, and you’ve suddenly created a logistical nightmare.
Google Apps, despite the connectedness with Gmail, Calendar, and Drive, simply can’t contextualize all of the information adequately. Yes, it’s easy for one or two matters at a time, but what happens when you have 50 in your firm? Or when the contact from 2 years ago begins blending with the current list of contacts? And who wants to scroll through 1000+ contacts on their phone, anyway?
Furthermore, Google App doesn’t allow you to do things like document automation (assembly) or associate a particular PDF document with a particular client matter. Admittedly, with some of the new Docs Add-ons, document automation might be easier. And if you don’t know what document automation is, check out this post.
I can manage everything . . .
Practice management systems are about management. They’re designed to compartmentalize the information. Admittedly, you could use Google Apps’ suite of software to arrange information.
For instance, you can create filters to organize your emails by client, and then use the search function to find exactly what you’re looking for. Contact can have comments that would trigger information. You can also Calendar events, and probably figure some meaningful way to tag the information there for a future search. And similarly, you can organize your Drive folders to give you the best of both worlds.
The problem is, although we have interrelated information, none of it is in one single place. Thus, if the insurance adjuster wanted to know about your client’s injuries, instead of clicking on an “injuries” tab, you’d need to search the client folders, emails, or contact comments (heaven forbid you’re keeping a social security number in there, too) for the specific information.
But Google Apps is also about apps!
One of the beauties of Google Apps is the abundant Apps Marketplace attached to every Google Apps account. The Apps are similar to Google’s recently introduced assortment of Add-ons for Docs and Sheets, which plug-in to your Apps account to operate like software extensions. Although there are a lot of great Apps, there aren’t too many that would actually work as practice management replacements, at least in the short-term.
Unfortunately, there are too many apps created for businesses (particularly sales) and not so much for lawyers. There are also dozens of CRM modules that might work, but I think you’d need to tinker around too much for them to be worthwhile — of course, we could see some available options in the future. But why bother when you already have well-developed, legal specific systems in place?
So why have Apps at all?
Little to no viable access to a decent legal practice management App doesn’t mean we need to abandon Google Apps altogether. I use a locally installed practice management system designed for small firms (it’s BigLaw capable, too). We also use Google Apps for our email, calendaring, and data storage (though we keep confidential information on a local shared network computer).
Our practice management system handles client files, calendaring between 2 attorneys and staff, and back office work such as billing and accounting. Recent updates to the program also give us greater control over how we store related documents, and assemble documents from templates (rather than using Find and Replace). Our system puts relevant client information at our fingertips, and best of all, we can sync that information to our Google Apps accounts with Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook.
And theoretically, though I’m not quite brave enough, I could move my locally stored client data to my Drive folder (especially with the price drop), so I could access client files — at least the documents and other information — from anywhere I have the internet. I might try this with a few
particularly demanding consenting clients, simply to give them access to their files.
Practice management costs so much
I think most attorneys flinch at the price of practice management software, which usually doesn’t include the install time and learning curve. Some systems, depending on the number of users, could end up costing well into 4 or 5 figures — my system cost me about $3,000. Thus, with significant price barriers, many firms (especially solos and small firms) opt out of practice management software to save money. And that’s why, at $50 per user/year, Google Apps is very tempting.
But you don’t have to be disheartened by the cost, especially if you work smartly and examine all of your options. Most of the cloud-based systems costs about $50 per attorney and $35 for staff. Taken over 12 months, most cloud systems will cost $600 — yes, I calculated that amount using CALCU. Not too bad of an investment. Obviously, since you own the software, local systems will cost less over time, but usually require monthly or yearly “maintenance” agreements.
In reality, as you use your system, you’ll find there’s a significant, unrealized costs savings by simply having all of the information related to the case in one place.
Learning to use your system is the biggest value
Practice management software companies should really pay me to go around preaching the beauty of management software — although I’m writing this post for free . . .
When I started using my software, I was a bit underwhelmed. Actually, I was in full-blown buyer’s remorse. The learning curve was like climbing Yosemite’s El Capitain, with your teeth. Impossible, at best. I horribly regretted shelling out a significant — $600 [cough, cough] — amount of money from my fledgling practice.
I couldn’t get the software to do anything I wanted it to do, and really believed I could perform functions much faster with Windows Explorer and a few keywords.
My problem wasn’t the software, per se, but rather the fact that I
like a typical man didn’t take the opportunity to actually learn about the system. Trial and error is fine, but if your actual livelihood depends on not having to solve complex computer related issues before you can make money, it’s best you get yourself going down the right tract from the start. When I buried myself in trying to understand how each piece fit, I gained a better understanding and appreciation for the system as a whole. I also started to appreciate the actual value a practice management system added to my legal work. Oh, and my clients liked the fact I could give them decent updates as well.
Too many lawyers get frustrated because their systems “don’t work too well” — I hear the same response from lawyers using Android. My usual question is, “what don’t you like about it?” And 9 of 10 times, the lawyer says, “I don’t understand it.” That’s a chief indication to me that the attorney hasn’t taken the time (or been taught) how to use his/her system. Then, because you don’t understand or appreciate the system, you revert back to what’s comfortable. We all hate change, anyway.
If you’ll spend time — you’ll lose some productivity time — learning how to use your system, I guarantee you’ll appreciate its options more. Will the software be the perfect answer? No, of course not. But Word has its numerous frustrations and you still use that. So why shouldn’t your law practice management software be the same?
See why I think the practice management software companies should pay me to preach? I just sold you on “getting back to using that system.”
Invest in a good solution
So Sara, as you ponder the financial outlay of Google Apps versus a practice management solution, remember to tread carefully and diligently. Invest in a solution that will help you build your law practice, take care of clients, and maintain your own sanity. Google Apps is a powerful system, but by itself can’t perform what your law firm needs.