Cloud-Based Practice Management: A Comparative Review [UPDATED]

Cloud-based practice management is the future of law practice, especially for small firms or solo lawyers. The fact is, practice management software helps lawyers manage their lives, provide competent representation, and control all aspects of their law practices. Many lawyers try to manage their practices with a combination of calendaring, file folders on a server, or even as an Excel spreadsheet. But as I’ve pointed out, practice management and case management systems add much more value, and help minimize conflicts or other issues.

My practice and my decision to go to the cloud

When I graduated law school in 2008 and began practicing, I knew that I wanted to become a solo practitioner. I also knew that I needed (and wanted) to implement technology, especially mobile tech. I investigated all of the cloud-based (only Clio was available) and traditional software case management options. I eventually settled on PracticeMaster by Tabs3.

practicemaster logo

Price (PracticeMaster cost less over time than Clio) and the lack of powerful smartphones heavily influenced my decision. I’m very happy with PracticeMaster, and spent more money adding on all of Tabs3’s extension modules (at a price of almost $1700). I even added a beefed up “file server” to handle increased traffic and file storage (another $750).

And that’s about the time I started regretting my decision, especially as more cloud providers began entering the market with less costly options. Additionally, Tabs3 didn’t offer a cloud-based solution unless I wanted to spend an additional $1,500 and purchase a server (or use a hosted one), another $1,500. Cloud systems are very important if you want to become a mobile lawyer.

At that point I began to question whether Tabs3 was the best solution for my small practice. What’s more, Tabs3’s products have a supersized (aka very steep) learning curve, which can be frustrating, to say the least. Sometimes I spent more time learning to use the program than actually practicing law.

Methodology and testing

Obviously, if the cloud product were to replace my software system, the product had to perform better and offer more options than my current product. However, the problem I’ve found when testing any replacement is that there aren’t enough quality comparative reviews (here’s one option) of any system, and nobody has time to fully test and review each product. With motivation to move my systems, and an understanding of what I want, I thought I’d take an extended tour of the major case management systems.

My methodology is simple: beat my current system. To make that work, I set up some criteria:

  1. How is mobile and browser access?
  2. How easy is setting up new clients, matters, and contacts in the system?
  3. How well does the system handle document creation, templates, and management?
  4. How is the system’s billing utilities?
  5. How is the system’s accounting features? This includes trust accounting, accounts payable, and general ledger capabilities.
  6. What is the cost? How does that cost compare to my current traditional software based system?

I contacted each of the major cloud providers who gave me unrestricted access to their systems. In some cases, I also received an extended trial beyond the provider’s normal period. If this happened, I’ve indicated this in my review. None of the providers had any input into my decisions (although I asked each if they’d like to advertise in conjunction with the post) or influenced these posts in any way.

I also asked the providers for input to particular questions or even some marketing materials. I’ve tried to indicate instances where the provider responded, or where the information is more marketing than objective. Their input, if any, was only to improve the quality of the post, rather than the outcome of my test.

As best as I could, I tested each system at the same time as the others. That means I used an actual client’s file (several in fact) on each system, and then simultaneously performed each task on each program. Very time consuming, but ultimately a great way to compare each system. I tested the systems for at least 30 days, most often 45 days.

Finally, there are a number of providers who offer different levels of cloud case or practice management. Therefore, in this series, I limited the number of test products to the big names in cloud practice management: Clio, MyCase, Rocket Matter, and Firm Manager. (I tried to get a look at Thomson Reuters’ Firm Central, but I never got a call from the representative. That solidified my decision not to use a Thomson Reuters product.)

I favored these companies based on my previews during ABA Techshow, and some of the hype I’ve seen in trade magazines or on sites like Lawyerist. These are also the providers I’m seriously considering as replacement programs for my firm. Additionally, I favored cloud providers whose products included an Android mobile app.

A definition of practice management software

Before embarking on the reviews, I’d like to give you a low-down on my definition of practice management software. I’ve discussed this before, so I’m going to refer you to this post. But it’s still important to know and understand the difference between case management and practice management software.

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.

In this comparison, I’m looking for a practice management program, not just a way to handle and organize cases. This is one of the chief factors in my list of considerations.

The problem with cloud

One of the nice points of cloud systems is their universal availability. However, because these systems follow a “one-size must fit all” kind of model, the systems tend to have very limited customizable features. This is certainly an advantage of the traditional systems, where software often lets the user add more customized fields. The ability to personalize my current systems is one feature that I love about PracticeMaster.

Next, a lot of people will have difficulty with bringing their current cases to the cloud. My current list of “active” cases is well over 100, although some are merely “active” in the sense they’re waiting on someone else’s actions. Unfortunately, Tabs3 restricts its users’ information into a proprietary format, making exporting the data very difficult. All of the cloud systems handle files in comma separated value (.CSV) format, so fortunately I could export my matter and contact information, and then “massage” the data into the right form. Ultimately, I opted to select only a few choice clients whose matters weren’t too complex (in terms of moving documents and information) and any new clients I retained during the trial. Each of the providers helped me with getting the information into the correct format.

Common functionality and problems

The biggest issue I discovered in my testing was related to accounting. Although most of the programs have built-in billing functions, they all lacked “back end” features like tracking accounts payable, accounts receivable, and journaling. You’ll need to rely heavily on third-party accounting software, which also leads to bookkeeping and tracking problems. You may even need to perform some double-entry to ensure that all of your bills and income are properly recorded.

Similarly, since each provider custom codes its own web platform, you’ll see a lot of “cookie cutter” screens with almost no ability to customize fields. If your cases depend on custom features or fields, you’ll likely need to figure out some alternate methods of entering or tracking the information. I found that matter notes tended to be the easiest to deal with. I eventually settled on a running note to track a client’s medical bills (personal injury) or payments (debt collection) as they came in. This isn’t a perfect method, but I couldn’t find any other solution.

Update: One of the comments below asks about email tracking and saving. PracticeMaster has Outlook integration for saving email messages. The connectivity is nice, but you have to use Outlook for all of your emails. MyCase and Clio each utilize a “send an email to your program, program” to help track email messages. You simply send (usually as a BCC) a message to your system, which then files the message in the appropriate case. This has good and bad implications. First, it’s easy to save and send a message to the program. However, you must remember to include the email address (not an easy task) with the message. Similarly, you’ll have to forward any messages you receive to your account.

Overall, you’ll probably discover that each system functions subtly similar to its competitors, so the goal is finding the system that meets your needs.

UPDATE (10/10/14): Additional questions

I’ve received several follow-up questions regarding my evaluations, which I think many people will benefit from. Here they are, with some answers:

Which system did you select?

Based on the functionality, I opted for MyCase. I explain some reasoning in the write-up.

What do you think about the licensing fees and rates the desktop program companies charge?

Generally, over time you’ll spend less with desktop solutions than you will with cloud-based solutions. Although the desktop programs generally cost more upfront, your overall costs are usually less in the long run. Similarly, even though you have fixed hardware costs, you can usually recoup expenses faster (perhaps in 1-3 years) with desktop solutions than with cloud-based systems. Ultimately, cost can’t be your overall consideration. The best quote I’ve seen regarding the cost consideration is this: “So, in exchange for let’s say $100 month (Clio + an accounting solution), you get a slew of benefits. That’s value. Plus, it doesn’t appear that the study took client satisfaction into account — that’s added value.” Yes it is.

I will continue to update this small section as more questions (or problems) emerge.

What about document assembly? That has been a weakness of online systems, at least until recently. I understand some of the online vendors have developed more capability in the last year or so. I would expect that more document assembly vendors will try to tie their data in with online systems, within the next year or so.

For the most part, Rocket Matter, Clio, and MyCase run decent document assembly programs. Unfortunately, the capacity of the assembly features is still lacking when compared to desktop-based systems.

Finding the right practice management program for you

Now that you’ve seen all of the caveats, I know you’re anxious to get looking at my opinions of each practice management system. I’m releasing all of the reviews simultaneously, rather than individually, so here you go (click the image to link to the post):

Clio

Clio

Firm Manager

LexisNexis Firm Manager

MyCase

MyCase

Rocket Matter

RocketMatter

 

7 Responses to Cloud-Based Practice Management: A Comparative Review [UPDATED]

  1. Fantastic breakdown. QQ: If you’re looking for email tracking as well, do any of these handle that? I remember working at my last firm and importing by hand individual emails into Daylite (it was a Mac shop…let’s leave it there). Been using Streak in Gmail, but was looking at something that was more robust and inclusive with other features.

  2. Excellent efforts and write-up. I learned so much about our competitors just from this review.
    As I have informed the author, a consistent observation made is lack of accounting related functions in these chosen practice management products. Consider including CosmoLex software which should meet many of these requirements such as check printing, bank reconciliations, fully integrated trust accounting, income & expense statements, etc.

    Rick Kabra, CEO | CosmoLex

  3. What about document assembly? That has been a weakness of online systems, at least until recently. I understand some of the online vendors have developed more capability in the last year or so. I would expect that more document assembly vendors will try to tie their data in with online systems, within the next year or so.

  4. Document assembly is difficult with cloud-based systems because the client (your local desktop) and the server (the magic box on the internet) need to have some sort of two-way communication that is secure. Without this, the document cannot be saved back to the online system in a logical (linked, organized, secure) way.

    No one except MerusCase has this quite right. MyCase chose to place a minimal word processor directly in the system. That’s great, until you want to work with anything sophisticated, like a document that includes an envelope, custom or varying (e.g., branch offices) letterhead, or (ahem) pleading paper. Clio and Rocket integrate with DropBox, which is fine as long as you don’t mind manually mapping word processing files to cases later.

    At Merus, we chose to ingrate with Microsoft Word in a direct way, so that Word itself has a “Save to Cloud” button that magically places the document back into it’s corresponding case. It’s got a patent pending. We also automatically generate PDF versions of everything, system-wide.

    By the by, how is PracticeMaster a cloud solution? We recently migrated a sizable firm (100+ users with several branch offices) from Tabs3 that had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on big servers running remote desktop. The value of the cloud to them was a no-brainer — the windows terminal server licenses alone covered the cost of MerusCase, let alone the cost of the PracticeMaster (server based) product.

    Johnny Fuery, CEO, Merus Inc.

    • Document assembly is difficult with cloud-based systems because the client (your local desktop) and the server (the magic box on the internet) need to have some sort of two-way communication that is secure. Without this, the document cannot be saved back to the online system in a logical (linked, organized, secure) way.

      No one except MerusCase has this quite right. MyCase chose to place a minimal word processor directly in the system. That’s great, until you want to work with anything sophisticated, like a document that includes an envelope, custom or varying (e.g., branch offices) letterhead, or (ahem) pleading paper. Clio and Rocket integrate with DropBox, which is fine as long as you don’t mind manually mapping word processing files to cases later.

      I’m not sure that I fully agree. I think Clio and MyCase each have great document assembly solutions, the major problem is the coding for the templates is so limited. PracticeMaster really does an ideal job of extending the possible codes. I also didn’t see any problems with mapping through to Dropbox (though I prefered the Google Drive integration), and didn’t need to manually map any files.

      How is PracticeMaster a cloud solution?

      I don’t think PracticeMaster is a cloud solution. It’s a desktop-based program. A firm could use a VPN to create a remote link, or in theory, run the program from a “cloud” (hosted) Windows server. Tabs3 does offer a “cloud” program, which is basically a server setup to offer remote systems.

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Jeff Taylor

I’m just an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life. I’m also an attorney and I blog about Android for lawyers. You can follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Google+.