When I was in law school, there were no courses available for managing your law firm’s technology. I don’t remember learning how to maintain a server hosting my client files and practice management software. No one ever taught us how to pick the software we would end up using. The only experience I got with practice management software in law school was using the software provided in our legal clinic. Once I struck out on my own, however, I had to quickly figure out how to manage my firm’s documents, billing, and communications to stay on top of everything.
Initially, I was overwhelmed with the options out there. As I saw it, there were three routes to go: web-based, on-premises server-based, or hosted server-based law firm management.
Web-Based Law Firm Management
A web-based practice management solution is one that you access from your web browser. Web-based practice management applications are relatively new, tend to be simple, lightweight, and favor ease-of-use over robust functionality. There is no software you need to install. Updates are taken care of automatically. All of the storage and processing happens on the provider’s computer systems. A good example of web-based software is Gmail; using Gmail, all of your emails and attachments are stored on Google’s servers. Google’s servers also host and run the email client software you use to read your emails. When it comes to legal practice management software, popular web-based options are Clio, MyCase, and Rocket Matter. These applications are great options for solos because there is little you need to set up. You can be up and running very quickly. Also, they are very inexpensive compared to other options out there. The main drawback of web-based law firm management software is that the software functionality is fairly limited compared to the more robust practice management applications that run on servers.
Beyond that, web-based practice management apps are not typically all-encompassing. They do practice management well, but your firm cannot run on these apps alone. They do not handle some things well, like email, document management, and accounting. That being said, web-based practice management software is often the best option for firms ranging from solos to three-person firms. There are real cost savings for firms with few users.
Server-Based Law Firm Management
In a server-based technology environment, all of the firm’s documents and software are stored on computer servers, either located on-site or hosted in the cloud and accessible remotely. Traditional and hosted practice management applications vary but often include functionality such as legal calendaring/docketing, accounting, billing, document management, document/form assembly, email management, and case management.
The main benefit of many traditional, server-based practice management applications is maturity. Many of these applications have been around for decades, and have had a long time to develop a rich feature set and cater to the many needs of an evolving law firm. Popular traditional practice management applications that can be hosted include PCLaw, ProLaw, and Time Matters.
When it comes to drawbacks, there are big differences between on-premises and hosted setups.
On-Premises Law Firm Management
The main drawback of on-premises practice management is that if you host the servers on-site, you need a skilled IT person to maintain them. If the hardware or software needs upgrading, you have to take care of it. And, sometimes with servers on-site you encounter situations when local disasters occur. For example, a few years ago when New York City got hit by Superstorm Sandy, many law firms’ offices flooded and destroyed their servers. In some cases, because the power went out at the office, firms were at a standstill and could not function.
So with these drawbacks, why would anyone want on-premises equipment? They might not. Instead, they might want to consider Hosted Law Firm Management.
Hosted Law Firm Management
Hosted practice management, also known as Private Cloud, is a hybrid of web-based and on-premises server-based law firm management, without any of the drawbacks. Hosted 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 is taking existing legal practice management software that’s meant to be installed on your local server and desktop computers and installing it to a cloud-based server, then accessing this software (along with the other components of your practice, such as documents and email) via a virtual desktop.
It’s the best of both worlds in that you have your firm’s technology in the cloud so you can access it from anywhere and not have to maintain it, while you get the robust software that typically can only be found installed on your servers.
The most appealing benefit for law firms is they do not have to deal with maintaining the equipment, software, or requiring on-site IT people. No need for you to replace expensive equipment or upgrade your software. And, all applications can be accessed remotely via any device, just like the web-based providers.
When Should You Move to a Private Cloud Solution?
Many law firms that make the move to hosted practice management from on-premises do so after a catastrophic event. These events cripple the firm from conducting regular business, representing clients, and accessing relevant files. The time and expense due to down servers ultimately forces the firm to reevaluate their technology. The common events include:
- Hard drives crash and have no backups.
- Servers are running incredibly slow and need to be upgraded, and the IT people quote the firm tens of thousands of dollars for equipment.
- Natural disasters or blackouts destroy the equipment or take it offline for an extended period of time.
- Required upgrades of software every year with server downtime for maintenance.
- Inaccessible or extremely expensive IT people when the firm needs help managing the servers.
Often firms using on-premises servers experience a catalyst event to trigger their move to a private cloud system, but this can be avoided. If a firm in starting up, or making the move from web-based practice management to a more robust server-based solution, consider investigating private cloud early on. Avoid making the expensive-but-short-term investment in on-site servers and software and take a more secure, long-term approach.
With all of these options for practice management out there, there are pros and cons to each. Web-based applications are flexible and simple, perfect for solos and small firms just starting out. Private cloud/hosted applications are great for growing firms that need something a bit more robust, and also don’t want to have to deal with maintaining equipment.