Practice Management Tools

Is Your Firm Ready To Adopt Practice Management Tools?

Law firms have been under increasing pressure to go both “paperless” and “mobile.”

With both courts and clients increasingly operating with electronic documents – sometimes exclusively – law firms are experiencing the pressure to become paperless.  And many of the same factors driving this paperless push are responsible for the squeeze into going mobile.  Namely, clients and attorneys alike relying increasingly on mobile devices.

Despite the ever rising inevitability of the need to shift to an electronic practice environment, many law firms have yet to make the transition, in part or in whole.

It’s not necessarily that lawyers object to the idea of this transition, but there may be a number of hurdles obstructing the path to paperlessness.  In fact, many attorneys recognize the need for this transition, but may not know where to begin; what’s more, many feel apprehension at the potential disruption that such a transition could present to their law practices.

Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to go paperless and mobile, and, with proper planning, to do so with minimal disturbance to your firm’s operations.

As for how to start, unless you are determined to reinvent the wheel by creating your own practice management system, your safest bet is to go with a preexisting practice management tool.  Such a tool offers (or, at least, should offer) everything your freshly mobile and paperless practice needs – for example, services like document management, time and billing, and calendaring.  

Although your practice management tool, once fully integrated with your law practice, will almost invariably save time, its initial adoption has the potential to create considerable disruption to your firm’s operations.

How can you effect this transition such that your practice barely notices the change?  With the proper planning, of course.  And offered below are tips to help create the best possible plan for your firm to make the change to a mobile and paperless firm environment.

Create a plan on organization

Because of the level of customization offered by most practice management tools, firms have more than a few options for organization on their chosen platform.  But they also must be cautious that this flexibility doesn’t lead to chaos.

You may scoff at such a notion, but imagine a scenario in which your firm’s case matters are simply dumped into the new system without any regard to how the files were organized within the previous system.  Important documents may not be where they are expected; some members of your firm may not have access to matters that they should; and important dates and deadlines may be absent from the firm’s calendar.

In other words, chaos.

Unfortunately, your firm cannot just take a break from its operations while the problems are resolved, bringing the added chaos of trying to fix the system while it may be in active use.

This situation and others like it are to be avoided at all costs, which brings us to the need to create an organizational plan prior to migrating your firm and its case matters.  

Doing so is surprisingly simple: Look at how your current case file organization system, and compare it to the customization options of the practice management platforms being considered.  Plan out how to best maintain your current structure in the new file system, and build your transition strategy around it.

Alternatively, the conversion to a practice management tool may be an excellent opportunity for your firm to adopt changes to the previous scheme that may have been previously considered but deemed too costly or time-consuming to implement.  In short, there may not be a better time than the shift to a new system to change what hasn’t been working well in your old system.

Regardless of whether you decide to modify your old system during the changeover though, you must nonetheless plan out the organization of your file system on the new platform before the actual transition begins.  Doing so requires relatively little time and effort, and yields exponentially more in return.

Organize your existing client matters

Although one could assume that most firms looking to move to a practice management platform already have an existing organization system in place for their client matters, the definition of “organization” in this sense can vary wildly.

If your firm is on the looser end of this definitional spectrum, you won’t find any judgments here.  However, if you want your move to the practice management tool to be as effective as possible, your firm needs to tighten up the orderliness of its existing system.

What this means will likely vary based on each individual firm.  In a more general sense, however, firms should have some minimum elements comprising their existing client matter management system:

  • Document and client file storage and organization;
  • Calendaring;
  • Client directory; and
  • Billing and funds management.

This list isn’t exhaustive, nor entirely descriptive on how each of these elements should operate most effectively in a particular law firm.  But you should have some idea if your law firm is currently operating with these elements, and if it is, then you’re likely ready for the transition.

Finally, on a more fundamental level, it’s important to ensure that all client matters are up-to-date and that all documents are accounted for when the transition begins.  It’s very easy for something important to slip through the cracks during this time of change, so it’s vital to use additional caution.

Appoint a dedicated individual or team

The vast majority of practice management vendors provide assistance (to varying degrees) to help get your firm up and running on the new platform.  Nevertheless, because of their lack of knowledge about the specific intricacies at your particular firm, these vendors can only take you so far – leaving your firm to carry the transition the rest of the way.

The solution is to select one person or a team (depending on the size of your firm) to work with the vendor’s support team to ensure the successful conversion to the new practice management platform.  

In most circumstances, this responsibility will entail a considerable amount of planning and effort, so the normal job responsibilities of the individual or team should lightened to accommodate this extra workload.  In addition, because of the specialized knowledge required for the transition, the individual or team should have sufficient experience with your firm’s existing client matter management system such that they will understand the minutiae of the whole process.  In short, the individual or team should know enough to prevent anything from slipping through the cracks while ensuring the smoothest transition possible.

Finally, this individual or team should be in regular communication with the firm’s leadership.  Both parties should be coordinating on timelines, updates, and any issues that arise, such that neither the leadership nor the transition individual/team is surprised or otherwise taken off-guard by actions or decisions made by the other.

Ensure everyone in your organization is trained

Although it should go without saying, it still bears worth stating that designating a dedicated individual or team for the transition is only the first step in bringing the people in your firm onboard with the new platform.  Everyone else in your firm must be trained on the new practice management tool.

This training serves multiple purposes.  The most obvious is to make certain that everyone knows how to use the new system in their specific roles within the firm.  Without proper guidance, user errors with the new platform will likely be rampant, which may result in potentially severe negative consequences.

But training serves another important role: to allay apprehension of the transition itself.  After all, it may be difficult for many individuals to completely shift to using a new system on a day-to-day basis in their work.  People often become so accustomed to what they already know that they can be fiercely resistant to change, even if that change is for the better.  

Training can be an opportunity not only to soften those fears through building familiarity with the new system, but also allowing the people in your firm to see the benefits of making the switch for themselves.

Fortunately, most practice management vendors offer support and training to help the people in your firm feel comfortable and confident using the new system.

And hopefully, these tips may be able to provide some confidence in coming to the decision to transition to a new practice management platform to begin with.

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