April 2018 • Volume 106 • Number 4 • Page 20
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5 Technologies That Can Transform Your Practice
Five key law practice technologies can reduce the time you spend on nonbillable management chores and lower your risk of malpractice and disciplinary trouble. Find out what they are and how to decide which are right for your firm.
Implementing the right technology can transform a law practice. And there's a good chance it isn't the shiny new tech object everyone is talking about.
"Often times with solo and smaller firms, and larger firms too, there is a feeling that a particular technology is required at your firm - where there's pressure or recommendations from consultants or colleagues that you should absolutely have a particular type of technology," says Jennifer Ramovs, director of practice management at Affinity Consulting. "And often we make decisions based on that pressure."
Instead, attorneys and law firms should assess their particular needs and chose tech tools that meet them, says Ramovs, who presented an ISBA-sponsored webinar titled "Beyond the Buy, Understanding the Why." She offers advice about five types of technologies to improve efficiency and client service: practice management software, document assembly, document management, unified communications, and time, billing, and accounting software. As she notes, legal-specific tech tools often do a better job of meeting lawyers' needs than generic or DIY alternatives. (See the sidebar on page 22 for links to Ramovs' webinar and info about each technology.)
Time, billing, and accounting - generic software usually falls short
Legal-specific software that efficiently and effectively handles time, billing, and accounting should be at the top of any law firm's list, Ramovs says. "If you're not billing and getting paid, you shouldn't be in business," she says. "And there is truly not, in my opinion, a greater obligation to our clients than the proper handling of their funds."
For all its power, generic accounting software like QuickBooks doesn't understand trust accounting, Ramovs says. "If you can run your landscaping business with QuickBooks, that's fantastic," she says. "But law firms have more sophisticated needs. We don't have customers and jobs, we have clients and matters and cases. It's just not the same."
But lawyers too often allow their accountants to dictate the software they use, even though legal-specific time, billing, and accounting software provides everything accountants could possibly need, Ramovs says. "Accountants like QuickBooks because they know it," she says. "We all like what we know. But we lawyers need to ask, 'What reports do we want?'. ...You can't make great business decisions about your law firm if you don't have reports that tell you where you've been."
The lack of built-in protections for trust account management can lead to disciplinary problems even for small amounts of money, Ramovs says. "QuickBooks is a great product, but it doesn't have a lot of rules," she says. "You can take money and move money from anywhere to anywhere. You could designate an account as a trust account and then move money [from it] to your operating account. QuickBooks will say, 'Thank you, have a nice day.'" If you try to do the same in a legal-specific program, she adds, "It will stop you and say, 'As far as I can tell, you haven't earned this yet.'"
QuickBooks and other generic programs have other limitations that if nothing else require lawyers to do workarounds, Ramovs notes. "Running a law practice often requires matter-specific billing - different rates for different matters - split billing, fee compensation rules," and the like, she says. "These are things that are not inherently built into QuickBooks" or other generic software like Word or Excel.
For example, a legal-specific program might reveal to attorneys that they have effectively diluted their hourly rate by 35 percent because they didn't bill for all potential hours. "It's hard to get that from a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet that you use to do your billing," Ramovs says. "We've been in firms where that's happened. We were part of their remedial training for getting their books in order."
Outlook is not practice management software
Too many attorneys and law firms delude themselves into thinking Outlook is practice management software, Ramovs says. "They think because they have a place for contacts and a place for their calendar, they have practice management. And they don't," she says.
Why not? For one thing, "Outlook is not organized by matter," Ramovs says. Practice management programs are "relational databases that link to the matter." Also, dedicated practice management software puts case information in one place that's accessible to multiple people, Ramovs says.
Unfortunately, many firms spend more time picking out their cell phone plan than choosing the software they'll use to run their business - and they don't include the right people when they make the decision, Ramovs says. "The managing partner is not the user," the receptionist or legal secretary is. "But [the decision-makers] don't include the receptionist or the legal secretary in figuring out what product they should use," she says.
"All too often, someone goes to a meeting and says, 'My buddy down the hall uses Clio [or whichever software package]; we're going to use Clio.' Well, why? What can it do for you? What pain point does it address? What reports do I need? What do I struggle with right now?"
Typically, firms need to address issues like where to find documents, where to find e-mails related to a case, or who talked to the client most recently, Ramovs says. "It's important to talk to your team and say, 'What would make your job easier?'" she says. "Then look at what features you need. Some features are sprinkles on the icing on the cake. They're cool, but they're not going to make your service to the client better." Pick a program that does the best job of meeting your particular needs, she says.
Be strategic about document assembly
Every firm could benefit from document assembly software, which at its most basic level creates templates you can use repeatedly and enables sophisticated global changes (e.g., a spouse's or heir's name) automatically throughout a given document. But lawyers need to make sure their often significant investment of time and money in a document assembly system produces a high enough return on investment.
"It's important, as firms talk about why they need document assembly, to interview everyone [at the firm] and ask what documents you do every day and what it makes sense to automate," Ramovs says.
Those tend to be documents the firm produces in large numbers and in which very little changes from client to client, Ramovs says. For example, "it might not make sense to automate settlement agreements if you only do two of them a year," she says. "You probably wouldn't get as big of a return on investment."
In deciding whether and where you need document assembly, Ramovs suggests asking yourself a few questions. "Do you do them often? Do you do them over and over? Are they the same set of terms? Could you answer an interview, and in three seconds have your document? Would it change the job of your support team? Could it help you increase productivity and profitability? Could you keep from needing to hire a support person, if you are solo and just starting out? All of these things are considerations."
There are alternatives to bringing in a consultant to help you automate your entire suite of documents, which can be costly and labor-intensive. "Some practice management programs have a component of document assembly in them," Ramovs says. "You might be able to use technology you already own."
Another alternative is a product like ISBA's IllinoisBarDocs, which offers automated estate-planning and other forms at a low fixed cost and saves you the trouble and expense of developing them yourself.
Ramovs cautions against relying on the "find and replace" functionality in Word as a seat-of-the-pants document assembly method. Simply using the last will or marital settlement agreement as the basis for the next one can lead to embarrassing little errors - or troublesome big ones, she says.
"We might forget to change something [that was in the original document] - maybe a name, or a provision," she says. "But what's worse is that we might forget to put in something that was taken out, and that can be malpractice."
And you don't want your clients to arrive for a signing "and see the wrong initials at the bottom of page three," Ramovs says. They'll know you based their document on the last one you did, "and it makes them wonder whether it was worth the $1,500 they paid you when you couldn't even replace the initials on six pages properly."
Your DIY document management system might not be good enough
Law firms are sitting on a gold mine of data developed as they create and gather documents on behalf of clients - if only they can get to it, Ramovs says. "We've learned that 80 percent of a firm's knowledge is non-structured data," she says. "There's a wealth of information stored in documents, and without a true, powerful document management system, you forget you have it.
"We need access to this 'knowledge store,' if you will," Ramovs says. "A lot of firms share a structure where they have a server storing every document, every Word file, every Excel spreadsheet in each client's file. And there are times when that non-official document management system is enough."
Ramovs does not necessarily recommend purchasing a sophisticated proprietary document management system if the DIY one truly does work for an attorney or law firm. But lawyers should take a hard look at whether it works as well as they think.
A real document management system forces users to follow the protocol, she says. Without one, "you can save files wherever you want. You can squirrel something on the C drive where somebody can't find it if you're sick. People can create their own structures."
Not so with dedicated document management software. "[It] jumps in and says, 'Tell me the client, the matter, the document type'" and makes sure it goes where it belongs, Ramovs says.
Official document management systems are also easily searchable by keyword, date, matter, and other variables, Ramovs says. "It gives us an opportunity to stop reinventing the wheel, particularly if we've got one or two people who've always operated on their own little island," she says.
This can help you quickly find documents very similar to the one you're currently drafting, Ramovs says. "If you just want to search some keywords you know showed up in a document so you can find it quickly, that's very hard to do if you're not using a document management system, or at least a powerful search engine on your network." You can readily access everything, "whether it's a spreadsheet, a Word document, PowerPoint, or pictures from the accident, medical records, email, you name it."
Use unified communications so messages don't fall through the cracks
Attorneys and firms should think about the various ways in which they allow clients to communicate with them, then consider whether they might improve their ability to respond in a timely manner by putting everything in one place, Ramovs says. Firms might serve their clients better and reduce malpractice risk if they move to unified communications systems in which texts, e-mails, voicemails, and other messages can be viewed and replied to from what functions as a single inbox.
"It's about recognizing your core communications methods and seeing where you can combine them, so you have fewer places where tasks get organized, and fewer places you have to respond. Lawyers and legal professionals spend a lot of time looking for things," and this lets you reclaim some of that time.
"Keeping communications in one place also minimizes the chances for malpractice," she says.
Technology tailored to your needs
With all of these technologies, attorneys and law firms need to think about what they struggle with and what could help them provide better client service - in other words, what are the right tools for them based on their particular needs, Ramovs says.
"Look at what you're using every day, but stop and take an inventory of what you're struggling with," she says. Then do your homework by visiting PracticeHQ and getting hands-on demos. "Think about the [CLE events and tradeshows] you go to, and all the vendors in the area." Do they have a product that might fit your need? If so, "take the steps to diligently learn about your options, and which one of those options best meets your goals."
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.
PracticeHQ, the ISBA's practice management and technology portal, has more information about each of the five technologies featured in this article.
Time, billing, and accounting: visit https://www.isba.org/practicehq/manage/timebillingaccounting.
Practice management: visit https://www.isba.org/practicehq/manage/practicemanagement.
Document assembly/document management: visit https://www.isba.org/practicehq/manage/documents, and learn more about the IllinoisBarDocs document assembly system at https://www.isba.org/illinoisbardocs.
Unified communications: find about more about VoIP and other technologies at https://www.isba.org/practicehq/manage/technology.
Access Jennifer Ramovs' online CLE presentation, Technology for Your Practice: Beyond the Buy - Understanding the Why, at http://bit.ly/2FHLmLJ.