Recently I was visiting with several law firms about potentially representing our company in future matters. Several of my questions to all of the applicants was regarding the handling of legal matters.

Now, admittedly, all firms were at some disadvantage, given my knowledge of legal technology and its value. I knew that I was naturally biased towards the benefits of technology, and particularly cloud computing. But I hadn’t realized how much distance the legal industry has to cover in order to catch other industries. (Note: for my interviewing, I was speaking with mid-sized firms (10 – 30 lawyers), although we use the services of some bigger (50+ lawyers) firms.)

The questions.

There wasn’t a real shock that most mid-sized law firms aren’t technologically savvy when it comes to front-end — client facing — or back-end — firm facing — technology.

First, I wanted to know how lawyers communicated case progress with their clients. Now that I’m on the client side — and even though I’m a lawyer, so I’m a bit more lenient — it’s quite frustrating when a firm only communicates case progress at their time or desire. From my perspective as a client, that communication seems to happen only when the firm feels the need to “bill hours.” Naturally, I dread the cost of each email, letter, or phone call.

So here’s a tip for all firms everywhere: take time — non-billable — to catch your client up on his or her case (even if your “client” is only your client because of the insurance company.) Our company retains a fairly significant share of the case (our “self insured retention” or deductible), so I generally get a little better “touch” on the cases we’re involved with. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes our insurance counsel still doesn’t get around to updating me, except for billable materials. That’s not fair to your client — and yes, I realize your time is important — who’s more concerned with the end result — which is why productivity should be measured by result not by the input; and also see this great Twitter thread from Joshua Lenon on that issue — not with the methods and means of how you got there. Trust me when I tell you this: If the client feels they’re on a positive to a positive end result, the client will pay for the methods and means of getting there.

Second, my goal was to determine how “tech savvy” the firm’s leaders are. My questions weren’t anything as notoriously difficult as this tech assessment, but I’d hoped to glean some insight into their efficient practices.

All that glitters…

Nowadays, most firms proclaim “mobility” and “paperlessness” as they champion their prowess. But the biggest, most eye-opening fact for me is the number of firms that still don’t use any type of legal practice management software.

This isn’t a new issue in the legal industry, but it’s still significant when considering how well attorneys manage their law practices, especially in the competitive legal market.

Legal practice management is built on the concept of practice and management. Being able to create meaningful connections and establish linkable relationships with clients, cases (matters), documents, dates, and other people, is a fundamental aspect of a well-run law firm. Throw in the elements of client communications, and you’ve bolstered your success immensely.

But law practice management software isn’t simply about management. A fundamental component is the organizational part of the management process. You can have “management” and still obtain disorganization.

For instance, one of the firms I spoke with boasted about their complex Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that handled all of firm’s docketing. The firm assigned an admin assistant whose primary responsibility was updating and organizing their “docket.” The partner explained how they kept detailed notes in other Microsoft products (e.g. Outlook) regarding clients and calendars, and they also maintained a detailed list of case documents associated with each matters, stored within the Windows folder.

I was unimpressed. Not only did I feel that their “management” system was highly overrated, I wondered how much of their “case admin fee” went to paying that assistant to perform a time consuming task.

Fortunately, this firm (and no, they were not selected) was an outcast. The other firms I interviewed used a combination of Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Windows, and a Microsoft Word inventory sheet to manage the data.

Practice management software is worth every penny

As a young lawyer, I was reluctant about using any sort of practice management software. The programs were in their infancy, so they lacked many of the more robust features. I believed that using digital folders in Windows, and calendaring and contacts through Office (or Google), would suffice. When I finally jumped to a practice management platform — I use Clio (and this post isn’t sponsored by them, though I wish they would) — I discovered many more advantages.

Advantage 1 — Cohesive connections

The first, and most productive advantage is the ability to easily create relationships between contacts, events, and matters. Once the matter gets built and the contacts are added, they’ll remain synced and linked together. This is especially useful when I want to find out whether I’ve ever had a relationship with my new potential client, Tom Jones. I can quickly discover the links and see the relationships for quick conflict checking.

Sure, if you’re a solo operation, you probably know (or at least recognize) many of your clients and contacts. But eventually (and hopefully), you’ll begin to build your “former clients” or “contacts” lists so much that you’ll have difficulties remember the who, what, where, and why details. Practice management software will keep those memories for you.

Advantage 2 — Keeping clients current

As I stated earlier, I have new insight into a client’s frustrations with poor communication. Most of the cloud-based practice management systems helps to eliminate that frustration by providing clients with direct portals for retrieving documents, sending and receiving messages, and seeing their progress. This is very insightful and helpful for me, as one of our firms does use their own system to manage.

Advantage 3 — Easy time and billing

Even though I don’t need to track time for my in-house projects, I do have some external litigation projects which involve timekeeping. Plus, I think timekeeping is a good practice to maintain, which will help you set values on future matters.

I appreciate being able to manage my time entries as I tackle projects, as opposed to post-project entries, which are shown to be less accurate.

Practice management software eases the burden of timekeeping, and helps improve the records. Most importantly, the software enables you to take time and turn it into money through an efficient billing process. If done correctly, your bills are easy-to-read, and they help clients appreciate your services. And that ultimately leads to client satisfaction — remember, being “in the know” about my cases eases my frustration.

Get with the program

Quite simply, if you haven’t invested in a law practice management system, you’re not investing in your clients. Sure, you can be “a techy,” using mobile phones, paperless processes, and cloud-based solutions, but when it comes managing your files and keeping clients appraised of their case’s progress, then practice management software helps fill that void.

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+.

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