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Master of None: The Myth of All-in-One Software

Craig Bayer

Slick marketing has led attorneys to believe one software can run their entire practice. That is a myth; best-of-breed software is essential for firms' success. Guest writer Craig Bayer discusses.

Can we stop pretending that all-in-one software is an option for lawyers?

Please wait for it…

"Jack of All Trades, Master of None".

Lawyers are not the only ones that need to face this reality.

Therefore, you must identify what software you need to run your practice and carefully choose what to buy.

There are three main areas of Practice Management Software:

  • Back Office: accounting, billing, trust, time entry, expense tracking
  • Document Management Software (DMS): managing emails and documents related to a matter
  • Front Office: calendaring, contacts, to-do's all linked to a matter

A large part of my business helps groups of lawyers leave big firms to form their own practices. They understand the point I am about to make: No firm over 50 attorneys uses firm-wide, all-in-one practice management software.

Firms that are this size and larger use legal-specific accounting software, legal-specific document management software, and Office 365.  

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, these legal-specific programs were too expensive for smaller firms. There was a significant competitive advantage to working in big law; you could afford all the high-tech stuff.

During this time, a group of "practice management software" companies formed to cater to these smaller law firms. They usually started doing one thing, like case management, document management, or accounting.

These companies began building links (integrations) so law firms could have an integrated accounting and document management system. For a time, this model was sustainable because a user license for these products was relatively inexpensive. Firms would buy several of these products and then link them together.

However, after a series of software acquisitions, the cost of these products increased and it was hard to maintain links on unreliable office hardware.

With the advent of Software as a Service or SaaS, these issues have disappeared.

You pay a monthly cost per user for SAAS-based software. If the software is $50 a user a month, the solo attorney pays $50, and the 100-user law firm pays $5000 a month. It's scalable and economical.  

Since the products are in the Cloud, there is no expensive hardware for the solo attorney to purchase; their cost is only $50 a month.

The old, on-premise software was linked together. These links often failed because of old hardware, electrical glitches, and unpatched software. Now that integrations run in the Cloud, they have become extremely reliable.   

After Hurricane Katrina wrecked the Gulf of Mexico Coast, I had to deal with many firms that needed to rebuild their practices from scratch. With limited resources, I had to prioritize what they needed to purchase. Here is the list that has stood the test of time:    

Back Office

  • Accounting - You need to track profits and losses and be able to do a tax return. If you don't have this, you can't have a business.
  • Time and Expenses - If you are billing hourly, you need to record those entries, and if you are not, you still need to be able to track client expenses.
  • Trust - You need to have something that understands the rules of a trust (IOLTA) account and helps you avoid committing malpractice.
  • Billing - You need to be able to create bills. If you are a personal injury attorney, you need to create settlement statements. These bills should look professional and not like a generic invoice that QuickBooks makes.
  • Reporting - If you settle a case for $20,000, how much does the client get minus expenses and attorney fees? If you have an associate attorney working that gets 40% of cases that originate, but only 20% for cases the firm originated. Are you able to run reports that accurately tells you this information?

Back Office is the most critical piece of software you purchase. You can forgo everything else and still have a successful practice if you get this part right.

Legal back office software is challenging to create. You have to understand different states\law societies' rules and build something for hourly billers and contingency basis. Since this software is difficult to develop, only a handful of cloud-based legal back-office software is available. Demo everything and make sure your bookkeeping and billing staff are on board. Don't buy something that looks pretty but also takes two weeks to get your bills out.    

Your CPA wants you to use QuickBooks because it's easier if all their clients use it. QuickBooks is not a good option for most law firms over two people.  Buy something that works for your firm, not your CPA's practice.  

Document and Email Management (DMS)

Many firms use a folder structure on a server or with generic cloud storage services like Dropbox, SugarSync, One Drive, or Google Drive. They crave the convenience of accessing their data easily while outside of the office and being able to do so from any device. These work for about 1-3 users, but once a firm grows, they become more problematic.    

A DMS allows you to do the following:

  • Prevent misfiled documents (which equals "lost" in most cases)
  • Archive inadvertently deleted documents
  • Monitor who accesses documents and restrict access by user or category of users, client or matter (ethical wall), or doctype
  • Automatically notify users of the arrival of a new document, if it's relevant to a matter they're working on
  • Quickly save emails related to a client-matter
  • Manage different versions of documents (version control)
  • Give clients/outside and opposing counsel access to specific documents while keeping an ethical wall around the rest of them
  • Be able to find that motion that you drafted last July within 5 seconds
  • Prevent an outside party from stealing all your documents like what happened in the Panama Papers

Do you need document management software? Yes. You start to outgrow your folder system and need something more substantial quickly. You also need something that helps you organize your emails, and OneDrive does not do that.  

Like back office software, there are relatively few cloud-based, legal document management software, like NetDocuments. It should be easy for your firm to demo all of them and find out what they like.  

Front Office

The traditional idea for front-end software was that you would electronically open a file and see every:

  • Contact related to that matter like judge, opposing counsel, witnesses, insurance adjustors
  • Calendar events related to that matter and the ability to make some rules-based calendar like generation RX dates based on the date of accident
  • To-do's related to matters
  • Phone call communications and phone messages
  • Documents and emails related to that matter
  • Notes
  • Time entries

A couple of years ago, we audited all the law firms where we had installed front office software. 90% of them were using it solely for time tracking, billing, and calendaring. Since those three tasks can be accomplished with Office 365 and back-office software, it begs the question: why did they need front office software?

Maybe the better question is: if you purchased front office software, would anyone use it?  DMS forces compliance by its very nature, so everyone must use it. If you don't send out bills and manage your accounting, you go out of business, so everyone ends up using the back-office software. If you don't log a phone call in your practice management system, no one makes a big fuss.

How to Proceed

I have seen too many firms attempt to replace their old on-premise back-office software with a cloud-based all-in-one package and then fall on their faces. If you have an old legacy back office software (PCLaw), replace it with a new cloud-based back office software (Soluno). If you have an old legacy DMS (Worldox),replace it with a new cloud-based DMS (NetDocuments).  

Once you have addressed your back office and DMS needs, your firm can decide if you need any other software.

To help you determine which software to look out for, we have put together a couple of questions that you should ask any legal software provider you are considering:  

Did the software start cloud-based or on-premise?

Products born in a cloud-based environment tend to work better than on-premise software that has been translated to the cloud.

How do I access the software?

Is remote desktop needed, or can it be viewed in a browser? If you cannot access the program via a web browser and you need something like remote desktop or published apps; it's not a cloud-based product and you should avoid it.

Is your smallest customer using the same product as your largest customer?

The answer should be yes.

What was the original purpose of the software?

No product being as an all-in-one package. Usually, it starts as front-office software and then adds on DMS and back-office functions. If it began as front-office and added accounting, its strength is likely still front-office. If you are looking for a front-office system, this is ok. It's not ok if you are looking for a back-office or document management solution.

Does your software integrate?

What if you have a package you like from a different vendor? If necessary, you want the ability to combine different products to create a customized, best-of-breed solution that delivers all the features you need.

How do I get my data out if/when I decided to leave the product?

It's important to know the exit procedure for any software you start using. Who has ownership over your data? Will you have to pay any money to get a copy of your data?  Will the data be in a readable format, or will I need to hire a developer to decipher it?

Craig Bayer

Craig Bayer leads the award-winning team at Optiable.com, where he focuses on helping law and financial service firms in the Louisiana Area reduce costs, save time, and increase output through the use of world-class document management software. Craig frequently speaks to bar associations and is sought after because he not only has deep knowledge of law-related technologies but can also explain it in a straight-forward manner. Craig's advice is always based on what's best for the client, even if it winds up being a solution he doesn't provide.In addition to Soluno, Craig is also certified support for several other practice management products.

About Soluno

Soluno is user-friendly, cloud-based billing, accounting and time tracking software made for law firms of all sizes.
Confidently manage your firm’s business all in one place; with matter management, time/expense entry, billing, accounting, trust banking, and reporting that’s accessible from anywhere. Soluno empowers law firms to be more efficient and profitable than ever; combining the advanced features and customizable workflows of on-premise software with the freedom, security, and convenience of a cloud solution.

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