Hosted vs. Web-based Legal Practice Management

A recurring theme with the many law firms is confusion around what “cloud-based” really means, and what their options are when they’re looking to ditch their servers and move their practice to the cloud. The world of cloud computing is admittedly full of buzzwords with overlapping meanings. For law firms, this creates misunderstandings that lead to frustration in selecting a cloud solution, or missing great opportunities to leverage the cloud altogether.

All too often, firms feel they must choose between the mobility and ease-of-entry of a web-based app and the functionality and robustness of a traditional, premise-based practice management application, sacrificing one or the other. They don’t.

Not Just Semantics

We’re not looking to pick apart terminology just for sport. In this post, we’ll clearly define “hosted practice management,” “web-based practice management,” the differences (it’s apples and oranges, really), the good, the bad, and who is best suited for which.

Cloud-based and Web-based are not the same thing

First: Let’s quickly clarify some fuzzy terminology. Cloud-based and web-based are not synonymous. Cloud-based is a very broad description, and generally just means hosted on another company’s infrastructure. There are a number of applications or implementations of cloud computing, one of which is a web-based application. While web-based applications are the most commonly understood uses of cloud computing, it’s certainly not the only one, and not the only implementation of cloud computing that can create advantage for a law firm.

Web-based Practice Management

A web-based practice management application is one that you access from a web browser. Unlike traditional desktop software, there is no software to install. The software publisher periodically provides updates and new features that don’t require installation. All of the storage and processing happens on the provider’s computer systems. Web-based practice management applications are relatively new, tend to be simple, lightweight, and favor ease-of-use over robust functionality.

Popular Applications

Popular web-based legal practice management applications and their respective publishers include:

These web-based applications are all different, but share many common features. Most include legal billing, calendaring, client management, and to some degree offer case/matter management.

The Good

  • Quick to get started. Being-web based, you can usually sign up for and begin using a web-based practice management solution almost immediately.
  • Simple. As web apps are still in their infancy, they tend to be lightweight and simple to use. (To some this comes at the cost of being too simplistic.)
  • Inexpensive. Many web-based applications cost less than $100/user/month, making them attractive to law firms with limited budgets.

The Bad

  • Too simplistic. For many law firms (especially those acclimated to traditional, more mature practice management applications) web-based practice management apps are too simplistic, or too “watered-down.” Attorneys that have spent years with a traditional case management solution at another firm and move on to start their own practice, like the idea of a web-based, easy-entry case management solution, only to find that most of the web-based applications have only one-third the functionality of the software they’ve come to know and depend on.
  • Only part of your practice. While practice/case management software may be the heart of your practice, it’s still only a portion of it. Your firm’s documents, email, and other ancillary software applications make up the epicenter of your firm’s operations. Web-based practice management apps are just that–and nothing more, leaving your documents, email, and other desktop-based software on-premise or to be managed by another system.

When Web-Based Practice Management is a Good Fit

In our years of experience working with firms large and small, we find that the firms that truly like and stay with web-based legal practice management apps are solos and very small practices. Specifically, for the purpose of this post, we’ll define “very small” as one to three total employees, including attorneys and support staff.

When you’re starting a firm your needs are more likely to be simple: a customer database, simple case management, and simple billing (and you’re more likely to be starting with a limited budget). This makes web-based case management attractive. Firms of four or more total employees are much more likely to find that web-based applications simply do too little, and robust features including form assembly, full-fledged billing and accounting, docketing, and more are a necessity.

Hosted Practice Management

Hosted Practice Management, the lesser-known but powerful implementation of cloud-based legal practice management, is simply the hosting of desktop/premise-based legal practice management software with a cloud-hosting provider rather than your own on-premise server.

In other words, Hosted Practice Management takes legal practice management software that’s meant to be installed on a local server and desktop computers and installs it to a cloud-based server. Accessing the software (along with the other components of your practice, such as documents and email) is accomplished via a virtual desktop.

Popular Applications

The benefit of many traditional, desktop/server based practice management applications is maturity. Many of these applications have been developed over decades, and developed rich feature sets that cater to the many needs of an evolving law firm. Popular traditional practice management applications that can be hosted include:

These applications vary but often include functionality such as billing, accounting, legal calendaring/docketing, document management, document/form assembly, email management, and case management.

The Good

  • Rich feature set. With no development limitations, and having decades of product enhancement experience, hosted practice management applications offer a rich set of features and functionality.
  • Choice and variety. Some products specialize in a particular practice area such as personal injury or family law, while others are more billing-centric, and still others are all-inclusive with respect to front-office and back-office operations and their customization capabilities.
  • Your entire practice in the cloud. A good hosting solution includes not only your practice management software, but also your entire practice, including cloud storage for files and documents, email service, and hosting for other applications…all accessible from a single unified virtual desktop.

The Bad

  • Not all clouds are created equal. Not all hosting providers are up to the task of hosting your chosen practice management application and supporting your firm. Legal cloud computing is a very specialized segment and it is easy to fall into the trap of choosing a high-risk provider.

When Hosted Practice Management is a Good Fit

In our experience working with hundreds of law firms and thousands of lawyers, we find that law firms of four or more total employees have a much better, more centralized, and more tailored cloud experience when they implement a hosted practice management solution. At this size and larger, growing and managing a successful law practice tends to be less about saving a few dollars each month, and more about efficiency, streamlining process, and scalability. Having a single platform for all software, documents, and email is invaluable to firms of four or more employees. Being able to access all aspects of your law practice, not just case management, is critical as a firm grows and evolves.

Choosing the Best Provider

The caveat to hosted practice management as the ideal solution is: you must find a knowledgeable, battle-tested provider. As cloud computing matures, many companies are taking a crack at providing cloud services. This includes IT service providers, software publishers, and generalist hosting companies. When evaluating hosted legal practice management providers, we recommend the following criteria:

  • Providing cloud services is the company’s primary focus. Unfortunately, many companies not in the business of cloud hosting (including software companies and local IT service providers) see the business case (and the dollars) in cloud computing, and quickly create an offering to capitalize financially. Ideally, a cloud provider should have a minimum of three years providing cloud services.
  • Committed to legal. Many hosting and cloud service providers offer cloud servers, virtual desktops, and application hosting. Some of them list legal as a vertical focus. The truth is, legal technology is a specialized field, and the only way to be truly a legal tech/legal cloud expert is to serve that industry completely and exclusively. If the provider you’re evaluating lists legal as one of several verticals, we advise you to keep searching.
  • Bar Association Recognized. Many cloud service providers are upstarts or new side ventures for existing companies. The cloud service provider your firm entrusts its data to should be recognized by the ABA, multiple state bar associations, and generally be well regarded in both the legal and technical communities.

In Closing

The key take-away here: a web-based practice management application, while a good fit for very small firms, is not necessarily the best way to leverage the benefits of cloud computing for your firm. If you need or have become accustomed to the rich features or nuanced functionality of a traditional practice management system, consider hosted practice management as a means to put your entire law office in the cloud.

Dennis Dimka, CEO of Uptime Legal, founded Uptime in 2005. With a background in Information Technology, Dennis has worked in the IT sector for over 15 years in both technical and leadership roles.

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